Behind The Heads: Natural History, Empire and The Abel Chapman Collection. Part 1.

Written by Dan Gordon, Keeper of Biology, The Great North Museum: Hancock.

In the museum’s basement is a room filled with heads. Row after row of them stare out from metal racks, glassy eyed and bristling with every kind of horn and antler. Visitors to this room are sometimes awestruck at the breadth of species on display. The Kudu, its head crowned by spiralling horns like giant corkscrews. A tiny Klipspringer with horns like shiny black thorns. The huge Eland, its vast head armed with massive horns like tank shells. A parliament of Africa’s fantastic beasts, all in this small storeroom. These are hunting trophies from the Abel Chapman collection. When he died in 1929 they were taken down from the walls of his Northumberland home, and gifted to the museum.


Figure 1. A rack of game trophies from the Chapman collection in the Great North Museum resource centre (Copyright Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums.

In light of the current conversation about museums and colonialism, and the insightful work of Lowe and Das on the subject of Natural History collections in this context, I thought I’d try to learn more about the history of the great North Museum’s African collections, and my attention was caught on the horns of Chapman’s trophies. The more I’ve learned about their story, the more I’ve come to feel that trophy heads, some of the most recognisable Natural History objects, are great examples of the way that colonialism has both helped to shape naturalism, museum collections and even our ideas about wildlife conservation.

The story of our collection begins in 1851 when Abel Chapman was born into a wealthy Sunderland brewing family. Educated at the elite Rugby School, he joined the family firm as a young man and embarked on a successful business career. Chapman was intelligent and adventurous, making expeditions to places like Canada, Scandinavia and the Arctic. In detailed notebooks filled with deft pencil sketches he documented the things he heard, saw and shot, and used these to write a whole series of books. He built a reputation as a ‘hunter naturalist’ passionate about combining field sports with game preservation, and as well as amassing a horde of trophies, he became an influential figure in the emerging field of wildlife conservation.

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Chill Out: A Cautionary Note On The Use Of Aqueous Treatments On Taxidermy

Written by Lu Allington-Jones, Senior Conservator at the Natural History Museum, London.

Whilst trying (not very successfully) to find a “cure” for fat burn (Figure 1), I made an unwelcome discovery: sometimes the shrinkage temperature of deteriorated skin is actually lower than room temperature. This means that the skin will irreversibly shrink as soon as any water-based treatments are applied.

Figure 1. Fat burn can cause skin to rip and specimens fall apart

Shrinkage temperature (Ts) is commonly used in leather conservation to determine the level of deterioration, and the effectiveness of treatments. Ts is the temperature at which 2 corian fibres immersed in water show simultaneous and continuous shrinkage activity. It shows the level of deterioration because it indicates destabilisation of collagen fibres. Ts of fresh skin is 65oC and in deteriorated leather this can be reduced to 30oC (Florian, 2006). Ts is measured by immersing samples of leather (or skin) in water and gradually increasing temperature until shrinkage activity is observed under a microscope (Larsen et al. 1996; Vest & Larsen, 1999). Continue reading

Top 10 Blogs of 2020

Written by Jennifer Gallichan, NatSCA Blog Editor; Curator (Vertebrates/Mollusca), National Museum Cardiff.

2020 – what a year! Well done on getting through it, and a heartfelt thanks from me for all of the fantastic blog contributions this year. We saw a marked increase in online engagement when the first lockdown hit, with more of you reading and engaging with our blog page than in any other year. I have very much enjoyed reading all of the articles, and I hope you have too.

To reflect on the year, here are your Top Ten most read NatSCA blog articles from 2020. Covid obviously features, as well as a strong focus on discussions surrounding decolonising collections. I am also pleased to see that there is a healthy dose of solid natural history conservation practice this year. I know I have taken great solace from the fact that no matter what was happening in the world, time seemed to stand still the minute I entered the stores. I hope that focusing on the practicalities of caring and conserving our collections has been a healthy and hopefully reassuring distraction from the craziness surrounding us all.

10. Frequently Asked Questions about Taxidermy

Written by Ella Berry amateur taxidermist & MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University. Attempting to deal with some of those tricky taxidermy questions.

Photo of the taxidermy Gannet (Morus bassanus) waiting patiently(!) to go on display before the event. Photo by author.

9. Museums Beyond Covid

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth. Exploring how our museum spaces and experiences might be very different in the future.

Beautiful taxidermy work of lions attacking a buffalo. I patiently waited 15 minutes until the case was clear of visitors for this photo. Photo by Jan Freedman.

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Trials From The Riverbank: Conserving a Taxidermy Otter

Written by Jen Gossman, MSc first year Conservation Practice student at Cardiff University.

Otter mount © Jen Gossman

I received a mounted taxidermy otter in still life pose without a base from the Tenby museum, Wales where it had been in long term storage wrapped in Tyvek. On initial examination it showed some skin shrinkage and was covered in a thick layer of dirt, grease and dust.

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Frequently Asked Questions in Taxidermy

Written by Ella Berry (also available here), amateur taxidermist & MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University. An extended version of this blog was published here on 12 March 2020.

In March of this year I helped out on the Conservation stand at an evening event as part of my role as Volunteer Intern at National Museum Cardiff. It was a fun event, with a turnout of 852 curious visitors. Art conservators and natural history conservators collaborated to show how natural history specimens could inform and create imagery and art.

Photo of me (left) talking to guests at the National Museum Cardiff ‘After Dark’ event alongside Vertebrate Curator Jennifer Gallichan (centre) and local artist Nichola Hope (right) drawing. Photo courtesy of Caitlin Jenkins.

Throughout the event both children and adults came up and asked a lot of questions about the objects, and I noticed some reoccurring queries, especially around the ethics of taxidermy. I have attempted to answer some of these here, so that if anyone else reading this faces the same conundrums, this article will set their mind at ease, or enable them to answer the questions confidently.

Is it ‘ethical’?

‘Ethical’ is a subjective term, therefore what is considered ethical varies between taxidermists. Whether the preservation of animal remains, without the inherently unobtainable consent of the animal, is in itself ethical is up to each individual to decide. ‘Ethical-taxidermy’ has become a more frequently used term generally referring to the animal not being killed specifically for the purpose of becoming a mount. However, this refers to a wide range of sources and can range from accidental deaths such as finding an animal dead or road kill, right through to by-products of culling, pet food supply animals and pest control salvages.

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