The Herbert, Coventry

Although I am mainly dealing with documentation tasks since my traineeship got extended, I still have some time here and there to visit other places and carry on learning about methods outside of my institution. Through my work on a website bringing together the natural science collections across the West Midlands, I have been speaking to people from all over the region. One of them, Ali Wells (Keeper of Collections – Social History & Natural History), kindly invited me to The Herbert in Coventry to see the natural history stores and the collections they house.

The Herbert, Coventry.

I went along (on what happened to be my birthday) and enjoyed gaining insight into another natural history store. You can find out a little bit more about the collections in here and see some lovely images on their Flickr.

When I arrived, Ali introduced me to two students from the Leicester course, James Scarborough and Gemma Tongue, who have just started an eight week placement at the museum. We had a cuppa whilst Ali provided a background of the museum and the collections. It was fascinating because the museum is fairly young (relative to most of the other museums I’ve visited or worked at), having opened in 1960, which has skewed the collections in some ways.

We also discussed the sector in general since James and Gemma are coming to the end of their Museum Studies Course and are thinking about their options afterwards. Having been offered a job myself recently, as well as the gradual increase in museum jobs across the country, I hope they don’t see the situation as being too desperate. I gave them advice that I have picked up over the course of my traineeship; I’m sure they’ll be fine.

Ali then took me on a tour of the natural history collection at The Herbert. It’s not huge but still has around 185,000 objects (many times more than Hereford, for example). As usual it’s easier to show you than tell you; have a look at the images below to get a glimpse behind-the-scenes of The Herbert.

The natural history store. Roller racking is used to maximise the storage space available.

A drawer of eggs that the Leicester students are working through and documenting. The Herbert’s egg collection numbers at least 10,000. They believe this may be the 9th biggest egg collection in the UK.

The back of a swan, wings outstretched.

Some beautiful pieces of bismuth (chiefly trivalent metallic element that is chemically like arsenic and antimony and that is used in alloys and pharmaceuticals).

Some Ichthyosaur material. People who claim that specimens are always kept behind closed doors fail to realise that as much as possible is used in many ways. The gaps here are left by specimens on display in the galleries.

Some HM Revenue and Customs material. A previous curator had an excellent relationship with customs and built up a fantastic collection of illegal material. This is used to educate people and raise their awareness of the trade of illegal biological material.

A kangaroo purse. Who would actually want that!?

My favourite bird, the Peregrine Falcon.

An elephant skull (well, half of it). I’ve always found large skulls evocative and it seems others do also. Ali has been asked to display this skull quite a few times and although it’s great to use the collection, it must be with a sinking feeling one goes into the store with the intention of lifting this beast out.

Part of the mollusc collection ready to be put back into storage.

Some more gorgeous eggs. Spot the Capercaillie’s eggy!

Part of the nest collection. I find the nests in the small plastic tubs very appealing (as opposed to loose nests or big bulky boxes).

A spotted flycatcher mounted in flight. It’s a beautiful object but because of the low light I had to use a high ISO when shooting it, hence the gritty (arty?) shot.

Gorgeous boxes housing some of the mollusc collection. They are just like the ones I conserved in Ludlow. I love the little metal trinket boxes. Lush.

Gorgeous: Ornithoptera priamus poseidon, a widespread species of birdwing butterfly.

Another stunning butterfly specimen.

I ♥ red foxes. This particularly sweet one is a handling specimen and is used to engage with individuals with mental health issues among other things. Foxes are magical, even when stuffed.

Some old filing cabinets make an ad hoc storage unit for some of Elliott’s geology collection. Spot the Ludlow specimen!

After Ali showed me around the stores she took me to the galleries. Ali specifically wanted to show me the permanent natural history gallery, Elements (opened in 2008). It uses heat, light, sound and more to engage visitors with the natural world. I had a great time walking around it listening, touching and seeing all sorts. The What’s in Store gallery is another great idea. It stores/displays a range of natural history items, including taxidermy, skeletal material and the Spicer fish cases, as well as other collection types. It’s a great way for the public to glimpse behind-the-scenes methods and techniques in person without having to go on a tour or get in touch with curators.

A wall of butterflies in the Elements gallery.

One of the natural history sections of the What’s in Store gallery.

Another example of specimens in the What’s in Store gallery. As the label reads: flies.

I would like to thank Ali very much for inviting me and being able to spend the time taking me round the stores and some of the galleries. It’s always great to see how other museums do things (or to somewhat confirm that we might not be going mad). I have mixed emotions about Coventry itself (this was my first visit) but whatever you think of the city, The Herbert is a gem and should not be missed.

7 thoughts on “The Herbert, Coventry

  1. I agree that’s a great way to keep out pests, but we’re actually looking to remove those nests from the tubs. They came with the collection and therefore are full of acid that could damage the nests.
    We’re looking a putting them in low acid boxes, nested (haha!) in acid free tissue sausages, with tyvec over as an easy way of picking them up. We can them seal the box in a ziplock bag if we’re happy the climate inside would be suiable for the nests.

    • I did wonder about the plastic; they looked more like hummous pots than conservation grade storage. At least they seem fairly usable (some of the methods used by the public and then retained temporarily out of necessity) are not only potentially damaging but frankly hard to work with.

      It’s true: there’s never an easy or faultless way to do anything in museums. You just have to compromise in a way that will hopefully detriment the specimens in as little way as possible.

      “Full of acid” made me laugh; the image in my head is very anti-conservation! As for your nest pun…tut, tut : )

  2. After spending 3 years in Coventry I think its safe to say its a place where people tend not to come for the architecture, but despite all the modernist 1960’s stuff its a friendly city, and I remember the Herbert in the late 90’s before the latest round of refurbishments and it used to be an old stuffy place, that nobody but those especially interested in a particular exhibition would visit. Now it looks to be a light, natural and interesting place to visit…..and a welcoming addition to Museums and Galleries across the Midlands

    • Thanks for your comment. The walk to The Herbert from the station wasn’t very inspiring but turning the corner and looking at the museum with the cathedral nearby was much nicer. It’s a lovely space as you say and Coventry is very lucky indeed to have such a museum.

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