Abel Chapman’s time in southern Africa was only the first of many visits to the continent. His next trip, in 1904, was to a very different place – British East Africa. This was a colonial protectorate roughly equivalent to today’s Republic of Kenya. It had grown out of land leased by the British East Africa Company but was now firmly under British imperial control.
The Uganda railway, a huge feat of engineering, had been completed just three years before Chapman’s visit. This now allowed trains to travel the 800km (500 miles) between Mombasa on the east coast and the African Great Lakes. The British now had the means to extend their influence right across East Africa, disrupting the slave routes and simultaneously opening up the land to the missionaries, settlers, tourists and game hunters that were now pouring in. It was in this rapidly changing environment that Chapman strove to find the longed for wilderness that had eluded him in Transvaal, and test his skills as a sportsman, before that land too vanished under the settler’s plough.
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.
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.
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 →
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.
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.