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Brilliant Bioblitz

Project Coordinator Russell sums up our Bioblitz Natural History Collection Review project as it comes to a close.

My role at the Horniman has now come to an end after 15 months, as the Bioblitz Collection Review Project is winding down. In just over a year, we managed to achieve what we set out to and more.

The reviews themselves have been completed. With the help of 15 specialist experts, we looked at 12 subject areas across natural science. In total, we looked at 250,000 specimens in one way or another and, out of those, we identified some wonderful star specimens, as well as some potential deaccessions.

  • Moulted lobster shell, Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

Over the next few months, the Natural History team will be celebrating some of the stars in different ways and planning the investigation of several areas of the collection identified by the experts as in need of research.

  • Mammals Bioblitz, Pat reviewing the fluid collection, Photo by Russell Dornan
    Pat reviewing the fluid collection, Photo by Russell Dornan

The review allows our curators to critically consider how the collections can be used in the future for the benefit of different types of people.

  • A stunning piece of bismuth., Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

For the next few months, you can see behind the scenes photographs and information from the project in an exhibition on the Balcony Gallery. It runs until 2 March 2014.

Bioblitz: Botany Reviewed

We have recently completed our final Bioblitz review. The last subject area to be looked at with visiting experts was the botany collection. We asked Dr Rob Huxley along from the NHM to look over our pressed plants and seaweeds to see if we had any specimens of particular significance.

Most of what he found will need further research but a few things of interest were highlighted. For example, Thomas Drummond’s moss collection from Scotland may be significant. We also came across some volumes of Braithwaite’s moss collections. 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, we also have some wonderful volumes which typify the Victorian obsession with ferns. The main benefit of the review was to highlight areas of the botany collection in need of further investigation.

This was the last review of the Natural History Bioblitz project. We'll soon be revealing some of the star specimens we discovered in the stores, so stand by to see something special.

Bioblitz: the video

After a year of Bioblitz, the project is soon coming to an end.

We have almost finished the reviews themselves - we have only one more to do! - and are now ready to begin sharing our findings with everyone.

Over the next couple of months, we’ll be celebrating some of our more exciting finds and discoveries.

In the meantime, we have made a short video about the process in action. Twelve expert reviewers, eleven different reviews, several staff and volunteers and 250,000 natural history specimens have been involved over the last year.

Watch the video to get an idea of how we went about looking at a quarter of a million specimens in one year.

 

Bioblitz Round Six: Birds' Eggs Reviewed

One of the last subject areas to be reviewed as part of the Bioblitz project - a review of our Natural History collection in short, concentrated bursts - was our birds' eggs collection. Douglas Russell visited us for half a day to look through our specimens and identify which material was more and less significant.

Douglas 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.

A large proportion of the material in our collection is made up of "shoebox" collections. These amateur collections were usually assembled by boys and men when it was fashionable and respectable to collect birds' eggs.

Times have changed, of course, and now collecting wild birds' eggs is illegal. Even owning them is illegal unless it can be proved that they were collected before 1954. Find out more here. This does not apply to museums whose collections help us understand how birds respond to their environment and how we can inform future conservation work.

Douglas was able to highlight some of the strengths of our material, such as a discrete collection lovingly amassed by a private collector. He also talked us through ways in which we could improve the storage, classification and use of the eggs.

The Disposal Debate

The Natural History Collections Bioblitz Review project is well underway and we’ve celebrated a few of the Star Specimens already. We’ll feature the significant specimens in more detail soon. The Bioblitz project isn’t all about Stars, though.

  • NH.92.71.1, These butterflies were part of a decorative collection. They came to us in this very faded condition; we have much more accurate specimens in the collection. Taking this and their lack of scientific data into account, this material is a potential candidate for deaccession., Photo by Russell Dornan
    These butterflies were part of a decorative collection. They came to us in this very faded condition; we have much more accurate specimens in the collection. Taking this and their lack of scientific data into account, this material is a potential candidate for deaccession., Photo by Russell Dornan

In addition to discovering exactly what we have and how we can prioritise use of the collection in the future, we are also considering disposal. As well as many exceptional specimens, each of our Bioblitz experts highlighted some that are less fantastic. Some specimens left us scratching our heads about what to use them for or why we have them at all.

This is a common issue for museums. No matter how big the institution or how broad the collections policy, most have material which may be of more use elsewhere. Whether that’s with our Learning team, in another institution or, sometimes, if they’re a danger to the collections or other people, they need to be destroyed. There are a variety of objects to which this may apply: those that fall outside the museum’s collections policy; duplicates; underused items; those that are irreparably damaged or deteriorated; and items that pose a threat to health and safety.

In some museum circles, the mere whisper of “disposal” or “de-accession” is met with resistance. Although this is understandable and great care must be taken by the organisation to ensure nothing is disposed of irresponsibly, disposal is an integral part of responsible collections management when carried out in the correct manner and with careful consideration. The decision to dispose needs to be part of a collections management strategy and preferably as part of a collections review, such as our Bioblitz project.

Of course, the language doesn’t help. It is important to understand what museums mean when talking about disposal. The words used hint at “throwing stuff in the bin” but these are misleading. "De-accessioning" means to permanently remove an object from the museum’s collection. “Disposal” is simply one of the many forms this removal takes, including (from most to least desirable): free gift/transfer/sale to another accredited museum or public body; exchange of items between museums; return to donor; transfer/sale outside the public domain; recycling items and, ultimately, destruction.

Before disposing of an item from a collection, a museum must have clear and transparent reasons for doing so. In most cases it is done in an attempt to preserve the object, or because it will be of greater public benefit in its new home. This may improve the care for or access to it, allowing the public to enjoy it more fully elsewhere. Sometimes an object may pose a health and safety risk or be beyond repair, requiring it to be removed from the collection.  Incidental benefits of disposal may include freeing up resources to care for and use other parts of the collection more effectively.

The Museums Association have put together a Disposal Toolkit which discusses the ethical and legal context, how to manage and record the process and who to get involved in the decision making. We acknowledge the process isn’t a simple one and that some people will always be unsure of it. However, the Bioblitz Review Project has allowed us to tackle this head on in a positive and forward thinking manner and has already given some of our underused specimens renewed purpose.

Re-homing the Slow Loris

Another blog post from the Conservation Department today, as Conservator Charlotte lets us know how she went about re-homing one of the fluid-preserved specimens from the Natural History Collection.

Part of our work in Collections Conservation and Care is to preserve the museums fluid specimen collection. 

This slow loris needed a better home; its original jar was much too small for it. Our curator Paolo wanted the loris in a larger jar with its arms spread further out so that we could get a better view of its face.

The specimen had to be rehydrated in a solution of detergent and water - at a warm temperature - to allow me to manipulate its arms. The loris’s limbs were gently massaged while resting in this warmed solution and gradually its arms opened up.

The loris was then placed in a vacuum pump to remove air bubbles...

As the specimen was a small dense mammal I decided to re-fix it in formalin. Formalin is a chemical that reacts with the proteins in the body, 'cross-linking' them, which stops the specimens from decomposing.

I gently tied the loris to a glass backing plate so that it could be presented better in the jar and gradually 'stepped' the specimen up in alcohol. Fluid specimens are kept in a preserving solution of 80% alcohol in water but they have to be stepped up to this percentage. If the specimen goes from a weak solution of alcohol to a strong solution of alcohol its cells can swell and this damages the tissue.

We felt that the jar for the slow loris was too heavy to be transported with the specimen and the fluid inside, so we decided to complete the treatment at our museum store. Our loris was wrapped in polyfelt soaked in the high alcohol solution. For transportation a container was created using two photographers development trays sealed together with cling film. This container was then placed in a crate for added protection. The loris’s new glass jar was transported separately.

At the store we finally repositioned the slow loris in his new jar and topped it up with 80% IMS in water.

Our slow loris is now housed in a large ground glass jar in fresh alcohol. It has more space, fresh alcohol and it is much more visible – all in all, a much happier specimen!

Read more about the work of our Conservation team in our Conservation Case Studies.

Bioblitz Round Five: Fish Reviewed

We have reviewed the final vertebrate collection, the fish. Ollie Crimmen from the Natural History Museum helped us out. 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 the fish material is fluid preserved which meant we spent a day and a half in the fluid container with Ollie looking through a few hundred jars. As with all the previous reviews, Ollie was looking for fish specimens of significance in terms of their historic and scientific attributes. Rarities were also highlighted, as were those with particularly special public engagement potential. We labelled these up with our green Star labels.

We also looked at material at the other end of the scale: specimens which, for a variety of reasons, could be flagged as candidates for re-use (perhaps in an institution better placed to explore that specimen's story). We'll be talking about this in a later blog post.

Once the fluid material was reviewed, we moved inside to look at the dry specimens: fish cases, skeletal material and other odds and ends. Ollie worked his way through the relatively large number of globe and puffer fish and then had a look through the fish osteology (bone) collection.

Reviewing the rest of the fish collection only took a few hours, so in two days we managed to look at all of our fish material. That means now the vertebrates and invertebrates have all been reviewed, as have the geology collections. In fact, all that's left are the botany (plants) and oology (eggs) reviews to do.

Check out our Flickr page to see all the photos from the reviews so far and remember to follow us @HornimanReviews on Twitter for updates and more behind the scenes treats.

Bioblitz Rocks! Geoblitz: Round Two - Fossils Reviewed

The last of our geological collections were reviewed recently as part of our Bioblitz project.

We were visited by Matthew Parkes, the Assistant Keeper of Natural History at the National Museum of Ireland, where he looks after rocks, meteorites and minerals, as well as the extensive fossil collection. Matthew's present roles include being Editor of The Geological Curator journal for the Geological Curators' Group, and he also serves on the Collections Advisory Committee for the British Geological Survey.

With over 175,000 specimens to review over three days, we knew we had to be quick. Luckily we had done many Bioblitz reviews by this point and were able to hit the ground running. Matthew and Paolo, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman, looked through every one of the hundreds of drawers in the geology store.

As they went, Matthew highlighted any significant material, such as specimens collected by someone historically important, material with fantastic public engagement opportunties because of the stories associated with it, or specimens collected from protected areas.

The geology store rooms don't make it too easy to have a quick look at the collection but by being prepared and setting up a system of opening drawers, checking the contents, recording the results, labelling the specimens, etc. we were able to be more efficient and get through them.

Like with some of the previous reviews, a large part of the geology collection was to identify areas which warrant further research. Highlighting parts of the collection which may prove very important means we can prioritise our work in the future.

At the same time as the review, we had someone in to check the fossil collections for radioactive material. We also had our workshop technician pop in to help us loosen some stubborn drawers so that Matthew could have a look at every single specimen in the collection and leave no stone unturned.

That's the entire geology collection reviewed and the Bioblitzes are almost done. Next up: fish.

 

Bioblitz Rocks! Geoblitz: Minerals Reviewed

Last month Monica Price, our visiting mineral expert, spent a long day reviewing our mineral collections for the Bioblitz project.

  • Monica taking a closer look at one of our mineral specimens., Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

The bulk of the collection is made up of material collected by Arthur Wyatt (who also collected fossils). We have many of his original field notes and his collection generally has good data associated with it. As we hoped, Monica assigned Star status to the collection as a whole.

  • Monica and the team blitzing the mineral collection., Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

The rest of the mineral material was more varied and, like other areas of the natural history collections, contained a mix of qualities in terms of scientific and historic information. As she reviewed our mineral material, Monica regaled us with some interesting facts, such as specific minerals used in fireworks to provide the necessary colour.

Monica was particularly interested in our decorative stone slices and recommended they be researched further. This is one of her specialist areas. Monica also checked over some of our asbestos material with Paolo, the Deputy Keeper of Natural History, in order to mitigate any hazards associated with it.

  • A beautiful piece of chalcopyrite., Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

Now that the mineral collection has been reviewed and we have a much better overview of it, we can start working on curating it more effectively, making sure it gets the attention it deserves.

  • Monica checking for asbestos material., Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

Bioblitz Rocks! Geoblitz: Round One - Minerals

  • A stunning piece of bismuth., Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

Having reviewed most of the biological collections already during the Bioblitz, we have now started on the Geoblitz section of the project. Before we get to the very large palaeontology material, first the rocks and minerals have to be reviewed. Monica Price is our expert reviewer.

  • A beautiful jade specimen., Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

Monica has built up over 30 years of experience at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, managing the University’s internationally important collections of minerals, gemstones and meteorites.

  • Galena with its cubic crystals., Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

Monica is interested in all aspects of mineralogy and mineral curation, publishing on a number of topics. Her particular area of expertise is in the identification of historic decorative stone. Her website for the historic Corsi collection, funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, was launched in 2012 as a tool to aid identification of heritage polished stone.

  • Linarite specimen., Photo by Russell Dornan
    , Photo by Russell Dornan

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