Bringing the Dead Back to Life, with Paolo Viscardi

Paolo at the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, Paris

Last week saw the first PubSci talk by NatSCA Chair Paolo Viscardi since we moved venues to the King’s Arms near London Bridge. The subject, Bringing the Dead to Life, is less a Frankenstein manual and more of a description of his role as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. He works with dead things every day and he does so for the public’s benefit, because these collections are yours: both yours as a national collective, and yours as an individual if you want to do something with them.1

A large part of the reason we have these amazing collections is due to massive amount of world exploration by wealthy industrialists, tradesmen, and philanthropists. Frederick John Horniman was a tea trader, and collected all sorts of things in his travels. The stuff he brought back captured the public imagination because it introduced them to international cultures they would otherwise have no idea about. We take global information for granted today because we all have access to internet resources in our pockets, so it is hard for us to grasp how unusual it must have been for people in 1948 to see frescoes from Ceylon temples for the first time.

One of the fun side effects of this close encounter with the unusual is that oftentimes people preparing the specimens from overseas were only going by descriptions, and were not at all familiar with the species they were working on. A great example of this is the iconic Horniman Walrus, who was overfilled until he was wrinkle-free – in the style of a seal. There is an exhibit at the Grant Museum of Zoology at the moment discussing this phenomenon and featuring a lovely Stubbs painting of a kangaroo that resembles a giant mouse. Knowing how meticulous Stubbs was about his animal anatomy, one has to believe that this is exactly how he understood them to look and is not in any way an accident of the proportions.

The topic of proportions and measurement brings me on to a study done by Paolo et al. in 2010, looking at the variation in measurements taken of a section of owl bone, so naturally the paper was titled How long is a piece of Strix. Comparative measurement is a fundamental part of species identification, so naturally one would assume a consensus of readings taken by professionals. The results were somewhat different: when working alone, the measurements were accurate. When working as part of a team, the measurements strayed, and the more people collaborating, the greater the disparity between measurements.

As a science communicator both at the museum and through his blog, Paolo has had the opportunity to work on some interesting projects: he has advised BBC television series such as our patron Ben Garrod‘s Secrets of Bones and he has been interviewed for The One Show to explain why cats get stuck up trees (they can’t rotate their ankles). This allowed Paolo to introduce the viewing audience to the Margay (Leopardus wiedii): a cat that can rotate its ankles. He has shared his love of osteology with 13-year-old fellow-blogger Jake McGowan-Lowe, which led to Jake publishing a book on the subject! To promote a recent Horniman exhibition on extreme animal adaptations, Paolo was subjected to the harshest elements in nature, which earned him the title ‘Extreme Curator’, and his very own Lego action figure.

Margay

Margay. By Clément Bardot (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Where next for Paolo’s science communication? You’ll have to ask him at the next PubSci with Professor Ian Barnes. If you’re a fan of pleistocene megafauna (and, let’s face it, who isn’t), I wouldn’t miss it.

Sam Barnett, NatSCA Blog Editor

1. Depending on what it is you want to do with them and how run-ragged the museum staff are.

Vikings: Life and Legend – a Review

This post will be accompanied by LEGO illustrations as we were not permitted to take photographs inside the exhibition.

Viking-Roskilde-6

When it comes to archaeology / anthropology exhibits I’m not the easiest audience to please. Unless the people in question had some serious interaction with the local wildlife I lose interest fast. Fortunately the Scandinavian people do not disappoint in this regard. As soon as you enter the first room you are greeted by a pair of walrus tusks, representing the primary source of Viking ivory, which they carved into all manner of things from game pieces and dice to religious objects and scabbard decorations. They traded ivory, pretty stones such as Jet, and furs – across Europe, the Middle East, and North America. There were some lovely black fox skins available for stroking. One can only imagine how quickly these will be reduced to a sticky mess. Their tools were often fashioned from animal parts too: the whale baculum (penis bone) was used as an axe handle.

We normally associate the Vikings as loud, war-obsessed drunks but their culture seems to have abhorred loud, idiotic behaviour. They did have a proud warrior tradition, in which it was noble to die in battle and shameful to die in bed. A child would be given an unsheathed sword from his father and told that his sole inheritance was whatever he could gain with this sword. Most of our English mediæval ancestors would have associated with the Vikings as raiders – even the word means “raider” or “pirate”.

They were by no means invincible: in Weybridge there were found some 30-35 Viking men, buried unceremoniously together. Carbon dating puts them near 1000 AD and it seems these men were the entire crew of a Viking raiding party that lost. Some of the bones are on display in the exhibition – including one hyper-arctic adapted chap with a very robust femur compared to his friends. According to written accounts of Vikings going to battle, they were often accompanied by ravens, which they referred to as the “wound-grouse” (fantastic name). The ravens got food in abundance from this arrangement but I wonder what was in it for the Vikings.

The centrepiece of the exhibit is of course the large longship Roskilde 6, according to some sources the largest Viking vessel of its kind. The norm seems to be 16 pairs of oars and shields, which is why I depicted this in my illustration, rather than almost double that, aka Roskilde 6. She’s an impressive ship. The Vikings made lightweight ships that could be carried over small obstacles, row into shallow water down to a metre deep, and can be reversed easily by simply rowing in the opposite direction, as the stern cut the water just as easily as the bow. It seems modern ships have made a commitment to going one way and turning is a much more difficult enterprise than it used to be. I have a question for any maritime engineering experts we may have reading this: what have we gained in sacrificing these benefits? I’m assuming there’s a trade-off there somewhere.

If I had criticisms, they would be the flow of traffic round the first room, and the use of microphones on the fire alarm which, in some areas, was barely comprehendable due to vocal distortion plus echo from the building acoustics. In conclusion, if you haven’t got yourself down to the British Museum and seen it yourself yet I would recommend it. It’s finishing on the 22nd of this month so do head down there sooner rather than later.