Bill Pettit Memorial Fund: Discovery Collections Project

The Bill Pettit Memorial Award was set up a few years ago by NatSCA to support projects including the conservation, access, and use of natural science collections. One of the recent projects we have been able to help with was the curation of some amazing specimens from the voyage of the Discovery. Hear more about the project from Tammy below.

David Gelsthorpe

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In early 2013 we set about organising the task to begin with the curation of the largest, most recent and least organised of the three collections – that of the ECOMAR collection. The start of the ECOMAR project coincided with commissioning of the new UK Royal Research Ship James Cook officially named by the Princess Royal on 6 February 2007. The first ECOMAR cruise departed from Southampton on 13 July 2007. The ECOMAR project was designed to investigate the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone area which lies approximately mid-way between Iceland and the Azores. Four super stations were defined (two north of the Charlie Gibbs Fracture Zone and two to the south), all had the same bottom depth (2500m) and were revisited during voyages by the R.R.S. James Cook and the R.R.S. Discovery during the years 2007–2010 to replicate sampling, time-series investigations and flux studies.

The Discovery Collections have no full-time curatorial post and we rely on the goodwill and interest of students and other volunteers (including scientific visitors and work experience volunteers) to help with cataloguing, labelling, respiriting, and general curatorial jobs. The samples, though incredibly valuable should be considered at risk. I look after the collections in as much that I manage the visitors to the collections, host students, and manage public enquiries, visits and displays of the specimens. I am also a taxonomist employed to conduct research, describing new species and studying the ecology of the deep-sea benthic fauna. I was employed for four years to work on the ECOMAR program to describe the ecology of the scavenging fauna of the area. I therefore had a particular interest in the curation of this collection.

We employed Amanda Serpell-Stevens, to work on this project, but we had funds for only 8 weeks of her time. Thus the project was reduced from cataloguing the three large collections to just one. When Amanda’s contract ended there was still much reshelving and reordering of the material to be carried out which was carried out on an ad hoc basis by myself, a retired member of staff, Mike Thurston, and Amanda who returned on a voluntary basis to continue work on the project.

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The project began by working shelf by shelf to curate and to catalogue (in paper record) what was held including location and size of each jar, and to change containers for those specimens that were in plastic containers or inappropriate sized jars. The preservative was also replaced in most of the jars and a new label produced for each specimen, as many were poorly labelled. This curation and cataloguing process took the majority of the 8 weeks, with just enough time remaining to enter the data into Excel.

With the availability of a digital catalogue the task of reorganising the lots into taxonomic order was greatly eased. This meant adjustment of shelf heights to incorporate the various sizes of tubs and jars (some of the lots are 20 litre tubs full of holothurian specimens of a single species), and removing all the specimens in turn, which were then replaced first by taxonomic order then by station order using Excel to sort the data. The spreadsheet was updated with the new locations of the specimens as we progressed. The final part of the process involved cross referencing the specimens with the newly published papers and updating the names where they had changed (on both the specimen labels and in the spreadsheet).

There were numerous new species described during the ECOMAR project, which meant further problems in allocating the correct new name to specimens in the collections variously named as e.g. Peniagone sp. nov ‘pink’. While holotypes have been registered in the NHM, London, the rest of the material needs updating to current knowledge, a process which is often neglected, despite it being referenced in the many new publications resulting from the project.

It is very satisfying to have the ECOMAR collection properly curated and to know that I can locate any specimen needed easily. In total we curated, relabelled and catalogued a total of 1300 lots comprised of 1148 smaller jars, 88 tubs (between 5 and 20 litres) and 64 loan specimens. We plan to publish a detailed analysis of this work for the NatSCA journal, including a list of available species, and will make the catalogue available online when time and funding allow. In the meantime interested parties can contact Tammy Horton (tammy.horton@noc.ac.uk) for a copy.

Dr Tammy Horton
Ocean Biogeochemistry and Ecosystems
National Oceanography Centre,
Waterfront Campus,
European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH
UK

Data-less Natural Science Specimens are Useless to Science. Aren’t they?

Here we have Clare Brown, of the Leeds Museum, telling us about some devilishly exciting research:

Tasmanian Devil specimens in UK museums, with no data whatsoever, have been used in cutting edge research on devil facial tumour disease as part of the effort to save these incredible animals.
Data – when and where a specimen was collected – is vital to the usefulness of natural science collections. It is crucial for so many aspects of research that these collections are commonly used for: climate change work; biodiversity research; distribution mapping etc.
Specimens without data are usually much more problematic. At Leeds we have thousands of objects that don’t have any record of where they came from or when they were collected. The information has either been lost or never noted down in the first place. Even our scrappiest, most moth-eaten bits of taxidermy are elevated above the rest of the collection if they have associated data.
I was therefore delighted when Jeremy Austin at the University of Adelaide asked whether we had any Tasmanian Devil Sarcophilus harrisii material collected in the last 200 years. Crucially, he didn’t need an exact date or location – just a two century timespan. We’d been collecting since 1821.
Leeds, a large, rich, Victorian industrial city, spent most of the 19th century collecting scientific material from around the world. We had a ‘purveyor of Australian wildlife’ and acquired, amongst other things, two Devil mounts and a skeleton. The specimens were duly sampled and sent to Australia.

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The study, also using specimens from Oxford, looked at genetic diversity in a group of molecules in cell membrane proteins called the ‘major histocompatibility complex’. Low diversity in this complex has been linked to the emergence and spread of devil facial tumour disease. The team needed samples of historical and ancient Devil DNA to see how diverse the populations were before European settlement and after. The article, published in Biology Letters, can be read here.

This is a great example of how natural science specimens, whatever their ‘data status’, can contribute to scientific research at the forefront of species conservation.

New loose taxidermy storage at Canterbury Museums

The following is a review by Philip Hadland, of a storage project undertaken by the Canterbury Museums:

Introduction

Much of Canterbury Museums taxidermy collection is loose taxidermy and is stored in shelved cupboards without any additional physical protection from handling, movement, or insect pest damage. A pilot project was carried out in 2013/14 to develop a new storage system for this section of the taxidermy collection to improve its care and management.

 

Aims of the Project

  1. Improve storage conditions and long term care
  2. Improve the management of the collection
  3. Free up storage space

 

Evaluation of Potential Storage Methods

To get a feel for what might work in practice I sent an email to the NATSCA Mailing List asking for ideas on what works well and what works not so well. Based on the plentiful feedback I received, I evaluated the advantages and disadvantages of the methods suggested.

From this initial research it is clear that there is no single method that can satisfy the needs of the great variety of sizes and shapes of taxidermy that exist in museum collections. Some methods are of course better than others in satisfying similar aims but cost is also an issue.

It was decided that a method based on Really Useful boxes was the best solution. The main reasons were the amount of time needed to prepare each box was minimal, there were very good offers available to acquire the boxes cheaply at the time and the sizes available matched up very well to the storage cupboards.

 

Method

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Plastazote was first cut to fit the boxes. Then the bases of specimens were drawn around in pen with the specimen number written alongside and orientation to enable easy identification of what goes where. A list was also kept of the contents of each box.

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The foam was cut using a Stanley knife and affixed to the bottom of the box using masking tape.
The birds were then carefully slotted into place and the boxes were labelled and the location documentation was updated.

Before

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After

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Resource breakdown and cost

Really useful boxes x 10 £110
Approximate cost of Plastazote used £20
Fixings and adhesives £1
Mothballs £4
Total material cost £135
Curatorial time (including planning) £300
Volunteer time (for photography and documentation 10 hours
Total cost £435

 

Summary

127 items of taxidermy have been rehoused and are well supported in robust, waterproof and conservation standard materials that are easily moved without the birds toppling and they are transportable. This will limit damage to the collections through preventing unnecessary handling, toppling, and pest attack – increasing their long term care. Each specimen now has a specific box location linked to the database so that it can be found easily when required.

 

I’d like to thank my colleagues and the NatSCA community for their help with this project.

Is it ever acceptable for museums to lie?

Reblogged from the UCL Museums and Collections Blog

Is it ever acceptable for museums to lie?

By Jack Ashby, Grant Museum of Zoology

I ask this question to our Museum Studies Masters students every year, and last month put it to our new Bachelor of Arts and Sciences students. Despite the difference in the age, background and interests of these two groups, the reaction is the same – anger and horror. I am playing devil’s advocate in these debates, but my own opinion is yes, there are circumstances when everyone benefits from museums lying.

The lectures I discuss this in focus on object interpretation, and I use a tiger skull as a prop for discussing how to decide what information to include in labels. The choice of a tiger isn’t important – I just need something to use as an example I can attached real facts about natural history and conservation to, but I spend the two hours talking about tigers.

Lion (left) and tiger (right) skulls. Or is it the other way round? LDUCZ-Z1644 and LDUCZ-Z396

Lion (left) and tiger (right) skulls. Or is it the other way round? LDUCZ-Z1644 and LDUCZ-Z396

At the end of the lecture I reveal that the skull is in fact from a lion. Everything else I told them about tigers is true. Did it matter that I lied?

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