Not Just Old Birds in Cases

This article is reposted from the Stories from the Museum Floor blog by the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum

Not Just old Birds in Cases – The Value of Natural History Collections

The most recent exhibition ‘Extinction or Survival?’ at Manchester Museum has brought many interesting ideas and suggestions from a wide group of visitors about how we can change our future. Several comments have mentioned animals kept in museums and collections, for example, “Stop killing animals to put in a museum” or “help all the animals by collecting DNA … and … not get stuffed like … in museums”. These comments have inspired me to write about the importance of natural history collections, especially the value of bird collections.

deana 2Comment card left at the ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition at Manchester Museum, 2017.

Whether collecting birds for science is still necessary remains a hotly debated topic. However, the value of scientific collections cannot be questioned. Research or reference collections are still making crucial contributions in documenting biodiversity in time and space, and understanding species’ ecology and evolution, vital for conservation strategies. Furthermore, collections and museum have an important role in preserving and caring for past and present natural heritage and providing educational opportunities.

CAN COLLECTING BIRDS FOR SCIENCE BE A THREAT TO NATURAL POPULATIONS?

Among the most significant causes of bird mortality in the UK are window strikes, for example against houses and buildings, and capture by domestic cats. The British Trust for Ornithology estimates that up to 33 million birds are killed by windows each year. The Mammal Society estimates that 55 million birds are caught by cats annually. By contrast, all bird collections in museums represent only a tiny fraction of the above numbers. But even cats do not cause decline in natural populations, in fact, the most significant threat to bird species worldwide is habitat loss.

BIRD COLLECTION BEHIND THE SCENES

Manchester Museum holds around 15,000 study skins, or bird specimens, from 3,000 different species, they were mostly collected between 1850 to 1950. All study skins are kept in labelled drawers in cabinets, organised in taxonomic order. If you want to know where the Manchester Museum’s birds come from, see here.

deana 3Drawers of study skins at Manchester Museum. (Photo: Ian McKerchar – see Further reading)

Study skins are different from taxidermy. Taxidermy preserves an animal in a lifelike position by stuffing and mounting the body for display in galleries and exhibitions. On the other hand, a study skin preserves the animal in a simple, un-lifelike position (in birds, resting on their backs), but useful for research. All the information associated with the specimen is kept on a label attached to the study skin.

diana 4Taxidermy of Pouter Pigeon (domesticated variety of Columba livia) and Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Living Worlds, Manchester Museum.

FullSizeRender (1)Study skin of the extinct Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius) in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

WHY SCIENTIFIC COLLECTIONS ARE IMPORTANT

Natural history specimens provide useful information for disciplines such as taxonomy, anatomy, morphology and ecology, among many others. The information associated with each specimen, for example, date and location, also provide important information about distribution, diet, breeding, geographical variation and much more. Darwin’s theory of evolution would not have been conceived without collections.

dian 4Warbler Finch (Certhidea olivacea) study skin from Charles Darwin’s trip to the Galapagos Islands, Ecuador, held at Manchester Museum. (Photo: Manchester Museum, University of Manchester)

Many study skin labels can be found around the museum galleries.

diana 8aLabel of a male Passenger Pigeon (Ectopistes migratorius), now extinct, collected in Toronto, Canada in April 1875 by I. Morley. ‘Extinction or Survival?’ exhibition.

dian 5Label of the extinct Carolina Parakeet (Conuropsis carolinensis), collected in Enterprise, Florida, United States in February 1875 by I. Morley. Nature’s Library gallery.

HOW BIRD COLLECTIONS ARE STILL USED TODAY – FOUR EXAMPLES

1. Illustrations

Bird books have always been a useful tool, not only for ornithologists, but also for birdwatchers. To identify species, illustrations can describe patterns, colours, shapes, sizes and other characteristics better than photographs. Many illustrators and painters have been using bird study skins for this purpose since the early 19th century.

Johannes Gerardus Keulemans was a Dutch bird illustrator, working in England in the 19th century. His illustration of Great Northern Diver can be appreciated in Nature’s Library next to the bird specimen that inspired it. The specimen is part of Henry Dresser’s bird collection, held at the Manchester Museum since 1899.

Study skin of the Great Northern Diver (Gavia immer) collected by Henry Dresser and the painting by J.G. Keulemans in Nature’s Library, Manchester Museum.

Guy Tudor and John Gwynne, artists and bird illustrators, produced beautiful colour plates, modelled on specimens in bird collections, for the guide to the Birds of Colombia and the guide to the Birds of South America. The drawings show different plumage according to age, sex, breeding status and subspecies.

Cover: The Birds of South America.

2. Describing new species from old specimens

After many years of remaining lost in drawers in museum collections, new bird species can come to light. Ornithologists revising and working with collections have described new species that were previously confused with similar species, often due to poor data on their labels. Many of them are now rare or possibly extinct. For example, Antioquia Brush Finch (Atlapetes blancae) was described by British ornithologist Thomas Donegan in 2007 from just three specimens in Colombian museums. It has not been seen in the wild since it was collected in 1971. It is currently classified as Critically Endangered (Possibly Extinct).

dian 9Comparison of Antioquia Brush Finch (Atlapetes blancae) with similar species from Colombia. (Figure: Bulletin of the British Ornithological Club, 2007 – see Further reading)

Who knows what may be in Manchester Museum waiting to be discovered?

3. Effect of climate change on bird distributions

Locality information on labels, that is, where the specimen was found, is vital for studies to predict changes in animal distributions due to climate change. These modern techniques make use of specimens that were collected long before computers or scientific climate models. A study in Colombia using different scenarios to predict the effects of climate change on globally threatened birds showed that in most cases species were projected to have smaller ranges while some others disappeared as a consequence of climate change. Museum collections were the main source of data for the models.

diana 10Map showing the predicted percent of species’ range loss in Colombia. (Figure: Regional Environmental Change, 2012 – see further reading)

4. Revealing secrets of evolution

There are still many questions to be answered about evolution. A project attempting to understand how and why bird species evolved and colonized different places on Earth used 3D scanners to analyse the size and shape of bird beaks from the Natural History Museum at Tring and Manchester Museum. The project is being run by the University of Sheffield with help from more than 1500 volunteers. More information on how to take part can be found here.

dian 113D scanning equipment for ‘Mark My Bird’ project. (Photo: markmybird.org)

In conclusion, stuffed birds on show at museums, and in the vast collections behind the scenes, are not just dead animals, they are museum specimens, with important associated information. A vital role of museums is to make sure this information can be used today to help us understand more about birds and to conserve wild populations within their natural habitats.

Written by Diana Arzuza Buelvas, Visitor Team Assistant at Manchester Museum

How to Store Taxidermy

We all know that discussing issues with other museum professionals within Subject Specialist Networks is an efficient way of disseminating information within the sector, but the following article provides a perspective from a generalist commercial storage company; a voice we don’t usually hear from.

Safestore, the UK’s largest self-storage provider, recently made a video series called ‘Stuff is Great‘ which focused on collectors and their individual passions. Among other client case studies, the series featured Suzette Field and her collection of taxidermy specimens. The following article, How to Store Taxidermy, was written by Safestore themselves and provides useful guidance on how to use these public facilities for storing such material.

This taxidermy collection featured in the Safestore project 'Stuff is Great'. © Safestore

This taxidermy collection featured in the Safestore project ‘Stuff is Great’. © Safestore

As any taxidermy enthusiast will know, a sizable collection can take years to build.  During that time your life and circumstances will change; you may welcome children into your life, move home, change job, all the while accumulating more pieces.  At some point you may be faced with the challenge of storing your taxidermy and with the right know-how it’s not as painful a process as it sounds!

Safestore recently stored a taxidermy collection and found it to be the safest environment for high value taxidermy.  Your attic or garage may seem like a cheaper alternative but both locations are affected by the changing climate throughout the year, putting undue stress on your collection.

Follow these tips for storing your taxidermy safely…

  1. Use wooden crates.

Using a wooden crate for each taxidermy piece means you can affix the mounts to the inside of the crates.  This will keep the taxidermy from touching the inside of the crate and allow air to circulate the piece.  Cardboard isn’t sturdy enough for large taxidermy pieces and doesn’t offer the same protection.

  1. Keep the damp away.

Storage units are typically very dry but the climate can vary from time to time.  Add silica gel packets to each crate as they will absorb any moisture in the air and keep your taxidermy dry.

  1. Keep the pests away.

Moths and small bugs would love nothing more than nibbling away at your taxidermy pieces so using ‘no pest strips’ or moth killer strips will help to keep your crates critter free.

  1. Climate and humidity.

When looking for self storage units for your taxidermy, ensure your unit is somewhat climate controlled.  Units on the outer edge of the building may be more prone to temperature changes so ask for a unit that remains cool and dry throughout the year.

Taxidermy is expensive and some pieces are one of a kind, therefore it is imperative to ensure your items are safe and secure once in storage.  Look for self storage facilities with 24hr CCTV, restricted access, sole key holder policies and intruder alarms.

  1. Check!

It’s super important to check your taxidermy from time to time, especially if you’re storing for a number of months.  Make sure you replace the pest strips and silica packets and check for any signs of damage or stress.  It’s easier to rectify a problem sooner rather than later!

Ultimately taxidermy is for displaying and enjoying, however if you’re in need of an interim home for your collection you’re not short of options.  Keeping your pieces safe and in good condition is easy so long as each item is packed with due care and is stored somewhere out of harm’s reach.

By Tiffiny Franklin, Digital Outreach Executive, Safestore

NatSCA Digital Digest

Three-toed sloth (C) Horniman Museum and Gardens

Three-toed sloth (C) Horniman Museum and Gardens

The October NatSCA Digital Digest is here already, where does the time go?

What’s New to Read?

Dana Andrew recently went to Jamaica to track down the original location of some museum specimens, and has reported back to ICOM. She was funded by a WIRP international travel grant, and you can read about her blustery adventures, so far, here.

Eighty full years of mourning have now taken place for the Thylacine, since it was deliberately driven to extinction in 1936. Thylacine expert, Jack Ashby, makes sure it’s not forgotten and talks about how it feels to be in the area where it happened in a tribute blog here.
What’s New to See?

On the 19th October the Grant Museum of Zoology will bring you some sex, some creativity, and some trickery. A new exhibition looks at the colourful world of reproduction in nature.

Two days later, the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition opens at the Natural History Museum on the 21st October. Always a crowd pleaser, I’ve had some sneak peeks which prove this year will be no different.

And just one day after that, the Horniman Museum will also be ready to entertain with a new exhibition. This one, called Memorial: A Tribute to Taxidermy, exhibits historic Horniman Museum taxidermy specimens alongside Jazmine’s modern day interpretations. Elegant and beautiful, this exhibition is a must-see, and comes complete with a fascinating timelapse film of how she did it.
What to do with your Sawfish

If you have any sawfish rostrums in your collection, particularly if they have locality data, there is something important you really need to do! The Sawfish Conservation Society, the Shark Trust, and The Deep (aquarium) have begun a joint venture to research museum specimens and data with the aim to protect wild populations. If you can help, please get in touch with any of the aforementioned lovely people, and to thank you for your efforts, your institution will be acknowledged in any scientific papers that get published. Double win.

Sawfish rostra (Wikimedia Commons)

Sawfish rostra (Wikimedia Commons)

NatSCA Digital Digest

 

A mounted skeleton of a fruitbat leers at the camera

Welcome to the March edition of the Digital Digest! Without further ado…

News

Booking is open for the 2016 NatSCA Conference and AGM, ‘The Nature of Collections – How museums inspire our connection to the natural world‘, which will be held at the Derby Museum & Art Gallery and The Silk Mill on 21 – 22 April.

We have invited papers and posters looking at how museums have inspired and shaped the relationship of visitors and users of the collections to the natural world:

  • Projects between wildlife/environmental organisations/parks and museums.
  • The training & developing of naturalist skills using collections.
  • Artists projects connecting collections/gallery to outside spaces.
  • Looking at the relationship between natural history societies, their collections & museums.
  • Exhibition examples linking preserved specimens and our environment.

The Early Bird deadline is TODAY (Thursday 10 March), so get booking and save money!

If you’re not yet a NatSCA member, now is a great time to join – you can purchase membership and get the member’s conference rate for the same cost as a non-member ticket! See our membership page to join.

If you are a member, email the NatSCA Membership Secretary (membership@natsca.org) for your booking discount code.

Jobs

Geologist, Scarborough Museums Trust. A great opportunity for any rock and fossil enthusiasts! Application deadline: Friday 8 April.

Research and Data Coordinator in Science Policy (CITES), Kew. One of a selection of interesting posts currently on offer at Kew, the application deadline for this post is Wednesday 16 March.

Around the Web

A taxidermy warehouse in London was broken into on Tuesday this week, and 18 specimens were stolen. The Met police are appealing for information: http://news.met.police.uk/news/help-needed-to-trace-stolen-stuffed-animals-154850

DNA from museum specimens confirms a new species of forest thrush.

Why was the pink-headed duck’s head pink? Museum specimens reveal the secrets of this extinct species.

Taxidermy and the Country House: Information Needed!

birdpic

Today we would like to share a research request from historic taxidermy expert Pat Morris. Pat says:

I have been commissioned by the National Trust (NT) and English Heritage (EH) to write a book about ‘Taxidermy and the Country House’. I know about collections in houses managed by NT and EH, but finding out what’s where in privately owned mansions is proving difficult. I have been checking 19th century literature (county avifaunas particularly) for references to past collections, and I am trying to find out how many are still extant. I have also been asking around, which is what I’m doing now. If you know of any old collections of birds or hunting trophies in major country houses, I would be glad to know where, please. Many of the big houses, especially in East Anglia and in Shropshire, had substantial taxidermy collections that ended up in local museums, having been donated when no longer wanted at the Big House. If you know of any of these collections, who collected them and the house in which they were previously displayed, I would be grateful for your assistance.

If you have any information that could help in this matter, please contact Pat Morris at: pat.morris5@outlook.com

Understanding Museum Taxidermy: Construction, Care and Commissioning

Taxidermy, the art and science of preserving an animal by placing the skin around an artificial body, has always been an important part of natural history collections. During the Victorian era, explorers would bring large and exotic animals back from their long voyages: the mounted skins would be displayed, enthralling the Victorian public, who had never seen creatures such as gorillas and giraffes before. While we thankfully no longer hunt and kill animals for display in museums, taxidermy is still as important as ever for teaching about the natural world – probably more so now as more and more species are threatened with extinction. While there has been a resurgence in the popularity of taxidermy, it is still the case that the number of experts capable of producing and preserving taxidermy is dwindling (in the UK, at least). With this in mind NatSCA, in association with Lancashire Conservation Studios, ran a day of talks and hands-on sessions, entitled ‘Understanding Museum Taxidermy: Construction, Care and Commissioning’, on the 1st April.

The day was led by Lucie Graham, Natural History Conservator at Lancashire Museums. Lucie began by demonstrating how taxidermy can be prepared using a wide variety of different methods, with internal moulds being formed from wood wool, balsam carvings, plaster and more. Taxidermy is an art, and each artist has their own methods. Lucie then went on to discuss how taxidermy can fall into disrepair if not properly cared for or prepared in the first place. We were able to get a close look an assortment of suffering taxidermy from Lancashire Museums, and discuss how we might treat each one to allow it to be better used and conserved. We had an adorable fox cub on our table, which had suffered from some fading, surface dirt and some loose digits on one paw. A bit of a clean and some adhesive to fix the paws, and this little cub could be looking much better!

taxidermy day3

Next we went through to the conservation lab for some cleaning demonstrations, where many of us were amazed to find out that simple cosmetic sponges get thick dirt off taxidermy effortlessly! We were also shown how to preen and straighten the feathers of a taxidermy bird, using steam to ease the process.

taxidermy day2

Finally were talks from a couple of the country’s leading taxidermists. James Dickinson discussed how museums can go about commissioning taxidermy. The Guild of Taxidermists can offer lists of accredited practitioners, ensuring that museums are able to make informed decisions and seek the services of the best person for the job. Jack Fishwick, judge at international taxidermy competitions, showed us a sample of his vast collection of bird photographs, which he uses for inspiration and feel for a bird’s shape and movement in life – vital for producing realistic taxidermy. The day finished with passionate discussion about the shrinking pool of skilled taxidermists – Jack and James warn that we may have no dedicated taxidermists left within the next two decades, which could be a disaster for museums wishing to expand and preserve their collections.

Glenn Roadley
Natural Science Curatorial Trainee

100 Years Aboard the Ark…

By Dr. Ebony Andrews
Calderdale Museums

Left: An 'escapee' taxidermied grey wolf on the fringe of the 'Living Planet' gallery, Great North Museum: Hancock (2010). © Image by the author; Right: 'Abel's Ark', Hancock Museum (c.2004). © Archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Great North Museum: Hancock.

Left: An ‘escapee’ taxidermied grey wolf on the fringe of the ‘Living Planet’ gallery, Great North Museum: Hancock (2010). © Image by the author; Right: ‘Abel’s Ark’, Hancock Museum (c.2004). © Archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Great North Museum: Hancock.

For the past four years I have been researching changes in the use, display and interpretation of taxidermy in three regional museums in the North of England. These museums are: Leeds City Museum, Museums Sheffield: Weston Park (more commonly known as ‘Weston Park Museum’), and the Great North Museum: Hancock, Newcastle, (previously the Hancock Museum). The culmination of this research is the completion of my PhD thesis, entitled: Interpreting Nature: Shifts in the Presentation and Display of Taxidermy in Contemporary Museums in Northern England (2013).

In the study, I mapped out some of the wider trends in changes to the display and interpretation of museum taxidermy spanning roughly the last century across all three of the case study museums, but with a particular emphasis on the more recent display histories (from 1950-2013).One of the primary aims of my research was to challenge the idea that the unpopularity of museum taxidermy displays at different points in history, but particularly following the rise of the conservation movement in the UK, was exclusively related to the ‘controversial’ materials of taxidermy’s construction (ie. the use of animal derivatives). Rather, I proposed that much of the perceived ‘problem’ with taxidermy, both public and institutional in the latter part of the twentieth century, could be attributed not only to what was being presented, but also to a significant degree, to how it was being presented. In other words, how and through what mechanisms, public museums were interpreting their taxidermy collections for their public audiences.

Left: The 'Bird Room', Hancock Museum (c.1966) © Archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Great North Museum: Hancock; Right: 'Bio-Wall' display (detail) featuring 'Sparkie' the budgerigar (centre bottom), from 'Living Planet', Great North Museum: Hancock (2011). © Image by the author.

Left: The ‘Bird Room’, Hancock Museum (c.1966) © Archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, Great North Museum: Hancock; Right: ‘Bio-Wall’ display (detail) featuring ‘Sparkie’ the budgerigar (centre bottom), from ‘Living Planet’, Great North Museum: Hancock (2011). © Image by the author.

In a period where museum taxidermy is once again being afforded a considerable amount of attention, my research investigates some of questions that are now being asked about recent shifts in the use of taxidermy in museums along with some of the issues now facing museums in regard to the presentation of historical collections. My thesis is available through White Rose eTheses Online, see: http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/6637/ or simply go to http://etheses.whiterose.ac.uk/ and search the database by author or publication title to gain access to the complete document. Access to this resource is free, and you are not required to register your details to use it. With full colour illustrations and an extensive bibliography, I hope my thesis may be of use to those interested in the history of the display and interpretation of taxidermy, the impact of shifting cultural and ethical positions on the popularity of taxidermy, and the fascinating politics of both past and present approaches to the display of taxidermy in regional museums.