BIOBLITZ: NATURAL HISTORY COLLECTIONS REVIEW 4

It’s taken me an inexcusable amount of time to get back to my blog and finish the Bioblitz series. I realise no one was waiting with bated breath to read about it, especially since it has all been shared in other places but I’m glad to finally be able to sit down and get it done.

I’ve already written about and shown pictures of the bird/reptile/mammalentomology/mollusc/marine invertebrate and rocks & mineral/fossil Bioblitzes. The only ones which are left are the birds’ egg, botany and fish ones which I’ll cover in this post before finally putting the Bioblitz project at the Horniman to bed (from my perspective at least).

Be sure to check out the next Horniman after hours event on the 27th February: Taxidermy Late.

FISHES

Ollie Crimmen, a veritable museum celebrity, from the Natural History Museum was our expert reviewer for the fish collection. Ollie has worked in the fish section at the NHM for over 40 years and is a Senior Curator there. To find out more about his work and to hear some of his fantastic tales (e.g. his childhood visits to the NHM and working with Damien Hirst) head over to the NHM’s website.

Most of our time was spent in the fluid container looking through hundreds of fluid preserved specimens. When we carried out some of the earlier Bioblitzes in 2013 we were in the fluid container whilst it was snowing. I wore woolly fingerless gloves over my Nitrile ones! With the fish we were in there during the very warm summer and it was like a cooker. These are just some of the wonderful conditions you can expect when embarking on your museum career. It’s worth it, though.

Once the wet material had been reviewed, we moved into the store to look through the taxidermy fish cases and the dry and osteological material. Luckily the fish collection is fairly modest so it only took a couple of (exhausting) days to get through it all. Here are the pictures from the review.

Hard at work in the fluid container.

Hard at work in the fluid container.

Some beauty can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Such as the fluid container ceiling.

Some beauty can be found in the unlikeliest of places. Such as the fluid container ceiling.

Lining the jars up ready for Ollie to cast his eye over them.

Lining the jars up ready for Ollie to cast his eye over them.

There wasn't a lot of space in the container but at least it smelled good. Not.

There wasn’t a lot of space in the container but at least it smelled good. Not.

More wonderful specimens to be reviewed.

More wonderful specimens to be reviewed.

You really never tire of jar after jar of fishes.

You really never tire of jar after jar of fishes.

It was lovely to see more and more jars get labelled up.

It was lovely to see more and more jars get labelled up.

Toothy, much?

Toothy, much?

This isn't a fish of course but it was peeking cutely at me so I had no choice but to shoot it.

This isn’t a fish of course but it was peeking cutely at me so I had no choice but to shoot it.

Oh look...a jar of fish. Ollie getting stuck in.

We moved inside (where it was even hotter) to look at the dry material and cases.

We moved inside (where it was even hotter) to look at the dry material and cases.

Jaws.

Jaws.

Looking through Paolo Viscardi's lovely bones.

Looking through Paolo Viscardi’s lovely bones.

Jo pretending to be a fish hook.

Jo pretending to be a fish hook.

Ollie face to face with a puffer fish.

Ollie face to face with a puffer fish.

Where's the rest of him?

Where’s the rest of him?

Thank you, Ollie!

Thank you, Ollie!

BIRDS’ EGGS

I looked forward to the birds’ eggs Bioblitz for a long time. I’m a big fan of eggs: from enjoying a poached one to being fascinated by the shapes and colours of wild eggs; their structural integrity and chemical make up; their legal status and the occasional controversy surrounding museums and their eggy displays.

Douglas Russell is Senior Curator of Birds’ Eggs and Nests at the Natural History Museum, Tring. He is responsible for 300,000 clutches of eggs! Recently he researched the Emperor Penguin eggs collected on the British Antarctic ‘Terra Nova’ Expedition in 1910. With his help, we set about reviewing the Horniman’s eggs.

A lot of the material in the collection is made up of “shoebox” collections. These are amateur collections and were usually assembled by boys and men when it was fashionable and respectable to do so. Times have now changed and collecting wild birds’ eggs is illegal. So stop it. Even owning them is illegal unless you can prove they were collected before 1954. Find out more here. Museums, whose collections help us understand how birds respond to their environment and how we can inform future conservation work, are exempt from this rule.

Douglas talked through some of the strengths of the material (e.g. a discrete collection lovingly amassed by a private collector). We also discussed ways in which the Horniman could improve the storage, classification and use of the eggs. Here are photographs.

A shoebox collection of birds' eggs.

A shoebox collection of birds’ eggs.

Douglas looking through the eggy material.

Douglas looking through the eggy material.

Cotton wool is the bane of museum collections.

Cotton wool is the bane of museum collections.

So many little eggs. So little information and provenance.

So many little eggs. So little information and provenance.

Not just eggs; nests are also kept.

Not just eggs; nests are also kept.

Despite the vibrant pink cotton wool, this collection is well labelled and cared for and was put together with care.

Despite the vibrant pink cotton wool, this collection is well labelled and cared for and was put together with care.

Douglas inspecting some...eggs.

Douglas inspecting some…eggs.

An egg showing a neat drilled hole.

An egg showing a neat drilled hole.

Big. Egg. This isn't a real egg but a plaster cast of an aepyornis (elephant bird) egg.

Big. Egg. This isn’t a real egg but a plaster cast of an aepyornis (elephant bird)  egg.

BOTANY

The botany review was the final subject area to be reviewed for the Bioblitz project. Dr Rob Huxley from the NHM came to look over the pressed plants and seaweeds to see if there were any specimens of particular significance. Most of what he found requires further investigation but a few things of interest were highlighted. Thomas Drummond’s moss collection from Scotland may be significant. Some volumes of Braithwaite’s moss collections are also of potential interest. He supplied collections and books to many institutions during the Victorian era so, although not uncommon, they represent a part of botanical history.

In addition to finding some seaweed specimens which now may be extinct in the UK,  the Horniman also has some wonderful volumes which provide a glimpse into the Victorian obsession with ferns. The main benefit of the review was to highlight areas of the botany collection in need of further investigation. Some of the specimens mentioned here are shown below.

A pressed seaweed specimen.

A pressed seaweed specimen.

Beautifully preserved seaweeds.

Beautifully preserved seaweeds.

An example of the intricate arrangement of ferns throughout the book.

An example of the intricate arrangement of ferns throughout the book.

Closer look at some of the ferns.

Closer look at some of the ferns.

An example of mounted fern specimens.

An example of mounted fern specimens.

One of our stunning Ferns and Mosses volumes, with real plant material mounted directly onto the title page.

One of our stunning Ferns and Mosses volumes, with real plant material mounted directly onto the title page.

Another view of the title page.

Another view of the title page.

A classic herbarium sheet in one of our volumes.

A classic herbarium sheet in one of our volumes.

GOODBYE, BIOBLITZ

So that’s it. The wonderful Bioblitz project will be far reaching in terms of its outputs and the effects it will have on the collection in the future but in terms of my involvement, the Natural History Bioblitz Collections Review and I said goodbye at the end of last year. It was a great project and I feel very lucky to have worked on it. It was varied, layered and innovative and allowed me to split my time between collection and curatorial work, social media and blogging, as well as disseminating the method and results through presentations and discussions. I’m very thankful to the Horniman Museum and, in particular, Jo Hatton and Paolo Viscardi. It was a grand 15 months and although I am no longer working directly with taxidermy or natural history collections, I continue to have a personal interest in them and I won’t forget my wonderful time at one of my favourite museums.

Late last year, a selection of the photographs I took throughout the Bioblitz project were displayed in the Horniman. They are still there at the moment and will be coming down at the beginning of March. I recommend you visit to see them because they are featured alongside the wonderful Afterlife exhibition. In fact, on the 27th of February the next Horniman Late is centred around the theme Taxidermy and is going to be amazing. I urge you all to check it out because if you have any interest in taxidermy or natural history then this will be great.

To finish off this final look at Bioblitz, I think it makes sense to show the video of the Bioblitz as filmed by me and edited by MASH Cinema. This may give you an idea of the process we went through and how much work was involved. Thanks, Horniman! See you soon.

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