Month: January 2015

Herbarium closed for building work

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The herbarium is currently closed for building work. The University is doing important maintenance work to the roof above the herbarium and to the glass roof over the void in the natural history galleries. We hope to be back in and able to use the collection late summer/early autumn 2015.

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North West natural history curators’ meeting

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I really enjoyed visiting Kendal where we had a very successful NW natural history curators’ meeting. We were all blown away by the excellent digitisation facilities in the museum.

Here’s a write-up of the day from Rachel at Kendal.

Looking Through a Lens HLF project

Last week Kendal Museum hosted the meeting of natural history curators from museums in the North West of England, including curators from Manchester museum, Tullie House, Oldham and Penrith and Eden museum. It was a great opportunity to show them the work and progress of the HLF Digitisation project at Kendal museum. A talk was given by Tony Riley the Digital imaging consultant informing fellow curators about digitisation standards and how digitisation projects can be carried out on a limited budget. Following the talk there was a tour of the Image preservation studio showing digitisation in action, this sparked great interest and many questions.

After lunch Henry McGhie, Head of Collections and Curator of Zoology at Manchester Museum presented the newly developed website http://naturallycurious.co.uk/ which celebrates natural history collections in museums in the North West of England. As part of the project linking natural history collections in the North West…

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Powerful poppies!

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by Jemma

This blog post is going to focus on a particularly interesting plant called Papaver somniferum, more commonly known as the opium poppy. Not only does this plant have a fascinating medicinal history, it also impacted heavily on us socially.

Pressed poppy flowers from Europe
Pressed poppy flowers from Europe

Firstly, a bit on the poppy’s medicinal use. Opium, the narcotic extracted from the plant’s seed pod, contains a number of natural painkillers and has been used in pain relief for millennia. In the 17th century, a tincture of opium combined with alcohol became readily available to the general populace under the name laudanum. Along with acting as a painkiller, laudanum was quickly employed as a cure for almost every ailment: from colds to heart problems to menstrual cramps. The drug morphine was later extracted from the opium poppy by the German pharmacist Friedrich Sertürner in the early 19th century. Morphine quickly became one of the most widely used painkillers in medicine. A further extract, called heroin, was released in 1898 by the drug company Bayer. This well known drug is now an illegal substance that is frequently abused. All of the forms of opium can be highly addictive and long term use may result in interference with the brain’s endorphin receptors. These receptors are responsible for preventing the transmission of pain signals, making withdrawal difficult.

Poppy seeds contain less of the opiates but can give a positive result on a drug test if too many are eaten. From the Materia Medica
The poppy seeds do not contain much of the opiates but can give a positive result on a drug test if too many are eaten. From the Materia Medica

P. somniferum use predates human recorded history and has been found in Neolithic burial sites as far back as 4,200 BC. The use of opium has been documented in numerous ancient medicinal texts including the Egyptian Ebers Papyrus from 1,500BC and those by Hippocrates in 460 BC and Dioscorides in 1st century AD.

One country that has played a big part in the history of opium is China, which was first introduced to P. somniferum between the 4th and 12th centuries via the trading route known as the Silk Road. By the 1600s, opium was smoked with tobacco and had become a popular pastime for the social elite. The recreational use of opium soon spread to the lower classes and its popularity soared. British traders from the East India Company sold large quantities of opium to smugglers to meet the growing demand for the drug. Worried by this, the Chinese Emperor began to take serious measurers to stop the illegal importation of opium, and in 1838 opium worth millions was destroyed by the Chinese Commissioner Lin Zexu.

Since opium smuggling accounted for 15-20% of income for the British Empire, they started of the First Opium War on 18th March 1839 to combat the clampdown. The British won in 1842 and implemented a series of Unequal Treaties. The first of which, the Treaty of Nanking, involved trade concessions as well as forcing the Chinese to pay a total of 21 million ounces of silver in compensation. When Britain tried to make further demands in the 1850s, the Chinese refused and the Second Opium War began. Once again, China lost and this time was forced to legalise the opium trade.

Soon opium use spread from China to the west and, as opium dens became commonplace in cities, Britain attempted to curb the use by its populace. From the 1880s onwards, they tried to reduce opium production in China by discouraging its use. However, this had the opposite effect and opium’s popularity continued to escalate. After the introduction of the more addictive heroin by Bayer, the use of opium and heroin soared even further.

Two opium pipes in the museum's collection.
Two opium pipes in the museum’s collection.

In 1906, the anti-opium initiative was set up by the Chinese to attempt to eradicate the problem. The initiative tried to turn public opinion against the drug through numerous methods, such as meetings, legal action and the requiring of licence. Opium farmers had their properties destroyed, land confiscated and sometimes publically tortured in an attempt to turn the general population against using opium. Though cruel, this method was quickly deemed a success with the majority of Chinese provinces ceasing opium production. However, this success was short-lived. By 1930, China had become the primary source of opium in Eastern Asia. Today it is estimated that 27 million people[1] are addicted to opiates in one form or another and heroin continues to be a widely abused drug across the world.

Despite its chequered past and uses, the opium poppy has still contributed greatly to modern medicine and produces one of the most widely used painkillers today: morphine.

An illustration of the opium poppy from the Leo Grindon collection of the Herbarium
An illustration of the opium poppy from the Leo Grindon collection of the Herbarium

[1] According to the World Drug Report 2014 by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime

Migration of people and plants to Manchester Christmas Market

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Thematic Collecting

One migration story I’ve been looking into is how plants get to the UK (either by accident or design). In December I decided to visit the Manchester Christmas markets  with David Gelsthorpe to see what people had brought along to sell.

First we went to see what horticultural delights had arrived from the Netherlands on the Dutch nursery stalls.

I decided to buy some bulbs to grow and add to the collection by pressing the flowers later in the year.

Then we found a lovely stall specialising in Greek herbs, herbal teas and honey.

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