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Stirring the hornet’s nest – are natural science collections even legal?

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I was wrapping up a particularly difficult male peacock with a helper a few weeks ago and we were discussing natural science collections. “Do you think one day they’ll just be made illegal?” she asked, straight-faced and sincere. I was miffed – this was someone saying to a natural science curator that really, it shouldn’t be allowed. I sighed and spent the rest of the wrapping session (porcupine was also tricky) explaining how wonderful – and legal – natural science collections are.

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Unlocking the vault: making the most of scientific collections

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Manchester 26-27th June. Kanaris lecture theatre, Manchester Museum

Science and natural history collections include objects, specimens, models and illustrations which  are a goldmine of useful information and inspiration. They are immensely popular with the public, but are often cared for by non-specialists who can perceive them as difficult to work with. There is a danger that these collections can be forgotten, underused and undervalued.

Join us for this one and a half day conference looking at the innovative ways in which collections are being used. Speakers from historic collections across Europe will be joining us to discuss best practise in the use of scientific and natural history collections. We will be exploring ways to connect people to collections for greatest impact.

We have an interesting programme of talks from expert speakers in three sessions: ‘Connecting collections and breaking isolation’, ‘Reaching out to new audiences’ and ‘New meanings through art, history and research’.

Dr. Tim Boon, Science Museum Group. Science Museum Group Research and the Interdisciplinary Culture of Collections’

Mark Carnall, Oxford University Museum of Natural History. ‘Not real, not worth it?’

Dr Caroline Cornish, Royal Holloway, University of London. ‘Useful or curious’? Reinventing Kew’s Museum of Economic Botany’

Jocelyn Dodd, University of Leicester.Encountering the Unexpected:  natural heritage collections & successful aging’

Prof. Dirk van Delft, Boerhaave Museum. ‘Real bones for teaching medicine

Dr. Martha Flemming, V&A Museum. Title TBC

Dr Petra Tjitske Kalshoven, The University of Manchester. ‘The manikin in taxidermy: modelling conceptions of nature’.

Henry McGhie, Manchester Museum. ‘Beyond ‘natural history’: museums for the 21st century’

Dr. Laurens de Rooy, Museum Vrolik, Medical and natural history collections as historical objects: a change of perspective?

Dr. Marjan Scharloo, Teylers Museum. Title TBC

Dr. Cornelia Weber, Coordination Centre for Scientific University Collections in Germany. ‘Back to the Roots: University Collections as Infrastructure for Research and Teaching

Prof. Yves Winkin, Musée des arts et métiers.  An amateur director, professional curators, and a desire for a cabinet of curiosities

The conference is part of the programming to support Object Lessons, our upcoming exhibition celebrating the scientific model and illustration collection of George Loudon. Each of these finely crafted objects was created for the purpose of understanding the natural world through education, demonstration and display. This exhibition combines Loudon’s collection with models from Manchester Museum and World Museum, Liverpool. The conference is generously supported by Wellcome. Book your place on mcrmuseum.eventbrite.com or call 0161 275 2648.

Object Lessons; Manchester Museum

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Most curators have those niggling objects at the back of their stores. Models and illustrations previously used for teaching or display in the dim and distant past, but kept for a rainy day. Not quite real objects and not the kind of thing you would necessarily want to accession.

Well, we’ve embraced these wonderful objects in our new exhibition: Object Lessons.

Brendel Models, George Loudon Collection Brendel Models, George Loudon Collection

Object Lessons celebrates the scientific model and illustration collection of George Loudon. Each of these finely crafted objects was created for the purpose of understanding the natural world through education, demonstration and display.

The object-rich exhibition will look at this incredible collection through themes such as Craftsmanship, the Teaching Museum and the Microscopic.

George’s collection will be displayed alongside stunning models from Manchester Museum and World Museum, Liverpool.

Here’s a selection of some of my favorites in the exhibition:

Octopus, Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka, Manchester Museum Octopus, Leopold…

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From Fashion Shows to Museum Trucks

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Getting creative in working towards our Heritage Lottery Fund action plan for the new Courtyard Development………

 

As part of our HLF Stage 2 submission for the Courtyard Project, Manchester Museum needs to produce an ‘Activity Plan’ – this is an essential document that sets out how we want to engage the public in 2020 and what we will do in the interim to make those activities a reality. This is a really exciting and creative period for us as an organisation – it’s a chance to take stock of what we do really well and to think about the kind of place we want to be in 3 years time – what do we want people to be able to do here? How might our communities, both local and further afield, shape these programmes and events? What kind of social impact might we make? These are big, exciting decisions and it’s fascinating to start to embrace change.

At the heart of this work is our…

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Gifts from Neptune

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For several years we have taken the students on the Mallorca field-course to the strand-line along the Bay of Pollensa and the dune system near C’an Picafort. Both of these stretches of beach tend to collect odd, fuzzy balls of Neptune’s grass (Posidonia oceanica). Wave action breaks down the dead leaves and rhizomes of Neptune’s grass creating fibres which then become matted into dense spheres. I’ve written a previous blog post about Neptune’s grass on these shores of Mallorca.

Instead, this year we visited a different part of the coast where the material accumulates in sculpted waves along the beach edge. Previously I’ve seen this from the window of the coast, so it was interesting to experience it first hand. It is very soft, prone to collapsing and makes the shore edge difficult to walk on. There must be something different about the coastline here which makes the formation of the fibre balls less likely. Whether in balls or loose, the dried Neptune’s grass adds organic matter to the sand and helps to stabilise the dunes further up the beach.

This bit of beach was at the Finca de Son Real, an example of a traditional land-holding now managed by the Balearic Government as a nature reserve and archaeological site. There is a museum here which gives an insight into the lives of the rural people of Mallorca. Through displays of objects, room reconstructions, audio and projections, the museum explores the site from and  from neolithic times into the 20th century including an explanation of how local farmers would have collected dry Neptune’s grass to use as animal bedding.

The Poison Chronicles: Foxglove – The Killer Cure

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Guest Post by Laura Cooper

Foxglove (Digitalis spp) is one of the rare wild plants for which humans found a wide range of uses. It’s most well known as an ornamental plant, but its use in making the heart drugs with a deadly potential (digoxin and digitoxin) comes a close second. For Digitalis, the same cardiac glycosides which strengthen the heart beat and saves a life are the chemicals which can cause death, the epitome of the maxim “the dose makes the poison”.

The Herbarium has a number of specimens of the two Digitalis species most common in the UK, D. purpurea and D. lanata. The photos in the post are all of the Digitalis purpurea from the collection of Charles Bailey. Despite these specimens being over a hundred years old, the flowers still had their scent, though made musty over the years. Though they have both a poisonous and a healing potential, they are very appealing plants.

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Manchester Museum Herbarium specimen of Digitalis purpurea

Digitalis has been used in folk medicine for many centuries for many conditions, but most consistently for dropsy (fluid retention in the tissues). In the 18th century, the medical effects of Digitalis were put under the scientific scrutiny of the pioneering William Withering (1741-1799). Withering was a doctor practicing around Birmingham drawn into botany by the influence of his wife, a botanical artist. He joined the great tradition of botanist-physicians, and was even known as “the English Linnaeus” by publishing works including A Botanical Arrangement of All the Vegetables Naturally Growing in Great Britain in 1776, the first complete Linnaean classification of the flora of Great Britain.

(c) University of Birmingham; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
Portrait of William Withering with Digitalis Source

Digitalis came to Withering’s attention in 1775 when he was asked to deduce the recipe of on a family treatment of last resort for dropsy, which was kept secret by “an old woman in Shropshire”. Withering discerned that the active ingredient was Digitalis purpurea. Intrigued, Withering trialed giving extract of Digitalis to patients attending his free clinic, but with little success. However, the news that a colleague had treated dropsy with the root of Digitalis spurred him on to continue experimenting with the plant. He obtained the dried leaves and gave this powder to his patients in an early precursor of the modern clinical trial. He meticulously recorded the progression of 163 patients taking the drug and found that the dried leaves were effective at relieving the symptoms of dropsy, adjusting the dose as the trial went on. The results were published in 1785 (including failures) in An Account of the Foxglove. The book was remarkable for showing Withering’s willingness to investigate folk remedies rather than dismiss them, to publish negative results and detail side effects. Withering presumed that Digitalis acted as a diuretic to rid the tissues of fluid, but this was only a consequence of Digitalis correcting the underlying heart condition that caused the edema. 

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Van Gogh’s Portrait of Dr Gachet. Dr Gachet was Van Gogh’s physician, and is pictured here with Digitalis. There is a theory that Van Gogh was suffering chronic Digitalis poisoning at the time of his death, but this hasn’t been sufficiently proved. Source.

Today, the semi-synthetic heart drugs digoxin and digitoxin are derived from Digitalis lanata (rather than  Digitalis purpurea used by Withering). Digoxin is the more widely prescribed of the drugs, being used to treat atrial fibrillation and occasionally heart failure. The safe dose of digoxin is around 8 to 12 micrograms per kg of body weight. Doses much higher than this causes poisoning involving vomiting, delirium, yellow vision and a disturbed heart rhythm, which can kill. However, as digoxin is administered under a doctor’s supervision, accidental overdose of the drug is rare. But chillingly, the availability of the drug and the subtleness of the symptoms makes it a choice drug for an unforgivable but rare crime, the murder of patients by healthcare workers. The person believed to be the most prolific serial killer in American history is the nurse Charles Cullen, who is suspected to have killed several hundred patients using very high doses of digoxin and insulin. This case shows that supplies of all drugs should be carefully monitored to avoid their abuse.

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Poisoning by Digitalis itself do occur, mostly accidentally by uncareful foragers mistaking it for borage or comfrey, but I have found a report of a woman attempting to poison her husband by adding Digitalis purpurea leaves to a salad. Luckily for these people, the strangely bitter leaves cause vomiting, riding some of the material from the body and sending the person to see a doctor. Poisoning by digoxin in any form can be treated by digoxin-specific antibody, a protein which can bind to digoxin and block its effects, but only if it is caught early enough to be effective.

Digitalis is undoubtedly an infamous poisonous plant, but one that has saved many more lives than it has taken, deliberately or accidentally.