Manchester Museum

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.

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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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The Poison Chronicles: Bryony – Deadly Margins

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Guest Post by Laura Cooper

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Margin Illustrations from The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre. Image Source.

 

The Hours of Jeanne de Navarre is one of the most famous and beautiful illuminated manuscripts. It is a collection of prayers and psalms for each of the hours of the medieval religious day made for the personal use of the Queen of Navarre somewhere between 1328-1343. The book is lavishly and elegantly decorated with images of saints and angels framed by a naturalistic border. This curling foliage has been referred to as ivy, but was identified by Christopher de Hamel actually white bryony, Bryonia dioica.

Bryony is a notoriously poisonous plant, so the scenes the illuminator painted are far from idyllic. As de Hamel writes in his book Meetings with Remarkable Manuscripts,“The world in the medieval margins is not a comfortable place, any more than the gilded life of Jeanne de Navarre was safe and secure.” Bryony is not just a decorative flourish, but a memento mori, a reminder of the danger that surrounded the medieval monarch.

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Byronia dioica leaves and flowers from the Charles Bailey Collection of the Manchester Museum Herbarium

 

In reality, despite it’s elabourate image, bryony is an unglamourous poisoner. The plant is the only gourd (family Cucurbitaceae) native to Britain, mostly found in Central and South Eastern England. Eating the plant produces powerful laxative effect, a scatological killer not fitting the intrigue of the royal court. There doesn’t seem to be any records of human poisoning by B. dioica, but it’s occurrence in hedgerows means livestock occasionally are poisoned by the root. Historical there would have been many more cases, however. B. dioica was used as a medicine, such as for leprosy, likely as a drug of last resort for an untreatable condition.

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Bryonia dioica from the Charles Bailey Collection of the Manchester Museum Herbarium

 

The B.dioica plant is remarkable for its large, rapidly-growing and foul-smelling root. Roots the size of one year old child were shown to John Gerard by the surgeon of Queen Elizabeth I, William Goderous.The size and speed at which the roots can grow means that they have been used by “knaves” to counterfeit the more alleged aphrodisiac mandrake (Mandragora officinarum). In his Universal Herbal of 1832, Thomas Green describes this practice; “The method which these knaves practiced was to open the earth round a young, thriving Bryony plant […] to fix a mould, such as is used by those who make plaster figures, close to the root, and then to fill in the earth about the root, leaving it to grow to the shape of the mould.” However, the notably effects of anticholinergic toxins of mandrake, inducing hallucinations and rapid heart rate, and the laxative bryony means these frauds were unlikely to have repeat customers.

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Bryonia dioica leaves and fruit from the Manchester Museum Herbarium

 

The medieval margin illustrations feature identifiable bird species, but lack botanical detail. Bryonia dioica itself is a rapid climber of hedgerows. It’s five-lobed leaves have a rough feel with curling tendrils, white flowers and red berries which produce a foetid smelling juice when squeezed. The root is usually simple like a turnip and when cut produces a white foul smelling milk from the bitter succulent flesh.

Despite its surface charms, its scent, taste and effects are the exact opposite of belladona, meaning it lacks the glamour of this more famous poisoner.

Stories from the Museum Floor – Valentine’s Day

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With Valentine’s Day just around the corner, today’s post by Fang from the Visitor Team, is all about love! And for more about the objects and collections at Manchester Museum, have a look at the Curators’ blogs. All about love … Valentine’s Day is coming soon. In anticipation of a day all about love, I’ve taken a […]

via Valentine’s Day – All about Love … — Stories from the Museum Floor

Upcoming Exhibition: Object Lessons

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For the past few months I’ve been working on a really exciting exhibition opening on the 20th of May: Object Lessons #MMObjectLessons 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. […]

via Object Lessons exhibition: coming soon — Palaeo Manchester

The Poison Chronicles: Cyanide -Cassava’s Built in Pesticide

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Guest Post by Laura Cooper

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Manihot esculenta leaf sewn onto this Herbarium sheet.

I remember hearing as a small child the rumour that swallowing a single apple seed would kill you. Whilst I later learnt that this was false, it is true that the cyanide in apple seeds means that theoretically, chewing a large number could cause poisoning.

Cyanide is a simple chemical produced by many organisms, often as an unwanted by-product. But cyanide is found in relatively high levels in many plant species, including the seeds of many common food plants, such as peaches, almonds, and legumes.

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Manihot esculenta tubers, sold as cassava or yuca. Source.

The cyanogenic plant I will focus on here is cassava, Manihot esculenta, also known as yucca. It’s tubers are a major carbohydrate source throughout the tropics due to its drought tolerance and ability to thrive in poor soil. It is probably most well known in the UK in the form of tapioca pearls in puddings.

Cyanide is a general defence against herbivores, as at the right dose it can kill anything that respires.  There is variation in the levels of cyanide in fresh cassava tubers, “sweet” strains have as little as 20mg/kg whilst “bitter” strains have up to 1g/kg. It has been suggested that when early farmers selected plants with the best insect resistance, they were inadvertently choosing plants containing small amounts of cyanide. This means that sometimes the decision to grow (potentially) dangerous food is not a straightforward one, and higher cyanide cassava is often preferentially planted due their greater pest resistance and drought tolerance.

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Manihot esulenta in the form of tapioca pudding. Source.

One of the founding principles of toxicology is an adage derived from Paracelsus: it is the dose that makes the poison. But the case of cyanide in cassava root goes to show that it is not only the dose that matters; the ability of the host to deal with the dose can be the difference between life and death.

The lethal dose of cyanide has been reported as 1mg of cyanide ions per kg of body weight, but it is difficult to ingest this from cassava. At lower levels, chronic cyanide poisoning can have serious effects, especially in people who are already malnourished. For those with diets low in Sulphur containing amino-acids, the body cannot add the Sulphur to cyanide to make it safe. They therefore struggle to remove cyanide at amounts a healthy person could do easily, so cyanide becomes cyanate, which is associated with neurodegenerative diseases. Severe cyanide poisoning can lead to a permanent paralysis of the limbs known as Konzo, which can be fatal. Unfortunately, the hardiness of cassava means it does become relied on when other crops fail and the population is already malnourished.

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This Herbarium sheet states that “natives eat the roots”, but so do  many people around the world.

However, cyanide can be removed from cassava by proper processing. Cassava stores cyanide as a chemical called linamarin, which released cyanide when hydrolysed. This occurs which can occur in the gut if ingested, or when the cassava is soaked and mashed. If done thoroughly, processed cassava is safe to eat. However, if it is done by hand, the person preparing it can inhale a considerable quantity of cyanide gas. Additionally, the water by-products of cassava processing are rich in cyanide so can be an environmental hazard.

A genetically engineered strain of cassava lacking cyanide would be a valuable crop to large agricultural companies, as it would cut down on processing time. However, for small scale farmers with poor soil, drought and no pesticides, the cyanide in cassava acts as a built in pesticide and allows cassava to thrive when little else can. This shows perfectly that poisons are not always villains, but if dealt with carefully can be a vital part of a crops’ survival tool-kit.

For more information, see this excellent article on cyanide in food plants.

 

The Poison Chronicles: Deadly Doping with Strychnos nux-vomica

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Strychnos nux-vomica‘s bumpy nuts

Guest post by Laura Cooper

Strychnine is an infamous poison. It is most well-known by its appearance in the novels of Agatha Christie as an effective but unsubtle method of murder. It was widely available in the 19th century from chemists as a rat poison, but this was taken advantage of by a number of real life serial killers including Dr Thomas Cream who gave disguised as a medicine and in alcohol. But strychnine had another side to it. Its caffeine- like stimulating effects means it has been used as a performance enhancing drug in competitive sports.

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Herbarium sheet of Strychnos nux-vomica

Strychnine, along with the toxin brucine, is present in the seeds of Strychnos nux-vomica. Though its name is lurid, it does not have anything to do with vomiting, “nux vomica” translates as ‘bumpy nut’. S. nux-vomica is in the family Loganiaceae and is native to South-East Asia and India. It is a medium-sized tree with large smooth oval leaves. The flowers have a repellent smell and the fruit is apple-sized with a hard shell that is orange when ripe. Inside, the seed are held in soft gelatinous pulp. The seeds are flattened disks covered with fine hairs, their flatness gives them the nickname ‘Quaker buttons’. The strychnine is concentrated in the seeds, but the wood also possesses poisons including brucine. Strychnine in the S. nux- vomica plays the same role as abrin in Abrus precatorius, it prevents herbivore species evolving which specialize in eating these seeds, as the poison is so general that it will likely kill any animal that eats the seed.

Strychnine poisons by blocking glycine from binding to specific neurons in the central nervous system. Strychnine prevents glycine from carrying out its inhibitory role, so causes the central nervous system to over-react to the smallest stimulus.

Initially the muscles become stiff, which is followed by hyperreflexia, where small stimulus trigger powerful reflex reactions. Later, increasingly frequent whole body convulsions occur. These resemble those in tetanus, an explanation often used to cover up strychnine poisoning. Eventually the respiratory muscles become paralysed and death by asphyxiation  occurs usually within a few hours. Strychnine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so the victim is fully conscious throughout, making strychnine poisoning one of the worst ways to die I can imagine.

The main method of treating strychnine poisoning is crude. The patient is given barbiturates and muscle relaxants and removed from stimuli to prevent convulsions until the strychnine is metabolised by the liver which takes a few days.

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Botanical illustration of Strychnos nux-vomica

However, S. nux-vomica extracts have been used in herbal and alternative medicine. It has been recommended for many different health issues from abdominal pain, heart disease and migraines though there is no evidence for its efficacy as a drug. However, a low dose of strychnine stimulates the central nervous system in a similar way to caffeine, but to a greater extent. This gives it great potential to act as a placebo, which is likely why it was reported to treat a wide range of illnesses, as well as to help spur athletes to victory.

S. nux-vomica‘s stimulating effects were used in 19th and early 20th century Europe and America in competitive sports as one of an arsenal of performance enhancing drugs, which were even deemed necessary for some endurance sports. Strychnine helped the American Thomas Hicks secure an Olympic Gold Medal. He was given strychnine and brandy during the 1904 Olympic marathon when he was flagging, though he collapsed after crossing the finishing line he later recovered. To this day, strychnine is on the list of banned stimulants in the World Anti-Doping Agency International Standard Prohibited List.

For more information, see the Poison Garden’s page on the species and Ian Musgrave’s article on strychnine in sport.