collections

My week at the Natural History Museum, London

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I spent a wonderful week at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) on a placement. The aim of the scheme is to exchange knowledge, aid professional development and enable lasting change.

I learnt and experienced so much – here are some highlights.

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My host was Ranee Prakesh, Curator of Flowering Plants. After my induction, she gave me a tour of the herbarium and Darwin Centre gallery, both housed in a purpose built cocoon:

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In the afternoon I learnt about NHM’s Digital Collections project, and then got to work.  I scanned herbarium sheets on a Herbscan machine – an upside down scanner. Some of the sheets had writing on the back so both sides had to be scanned. The images would be added to the museum’s database later.

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On the second day, I was shown how NHM staff use Emu, the museum’s database, and learnt about the current rapid digitisation project.  Herbarium specimens are shipped to The Netherlands for imaging on a conveyor belt / camera system called Digistreet, then the data from the images will be transcribed in Suriname.  The NHM staff were waiting to find out the quality of the data.

I shared ideas with the plant mounting team, demonstrating ‘Manchester style’ (strapping) and having a go at the NHM way (glueing and pressing). They were surprised I cut my own straps from archival quality paper: sometimes the best way is not always the most expensive way. That’s one of the many things I love about curatorial work.

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I was shown how loans were documented and packed in the afternoon, and how the NHM staff process a loan on Ke Emu.

Day 3 was spent in the herbarium store. Ranee explained how the herbarium sheets are arranged taxonomically according to APG, and filed geographically within this system. I spent some time sorting specimens to family and genus level in preparation for laying-in.  The open plan workspace was visible through a window in the gallery so I had the public watching me at work!

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Later that day I had a tour of the Specimen Preparation Area to see the V-Factor volunteers at work. They were sorting through sediment from a quarry, looking for tiny fossils, and a different project is run each weekday in this area visible from the museum gallery.

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The fourth day was spent in The Cryptogamic Herbarium.  I had a short tour of the bryophyte collection then got to work repackaging mosses into individual capsules:

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I was showed round the historical collections and the fern herbarium in the afternoon. We discussed Integrated Pest Management and preventative conservation in relation to historic botany collections.

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I also worked alongside Ranee laying out specimens ready for the plant mounters. This involved placing the pressed specimen and label on a sheet of mounting paper and enclosing any loose material in a capsule. There was a large amount of newly donated material to be mounted and filed in the herbarium sent in from researchers and staff on expeditions.

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On the fifth day I had a tour of the Linnean Society.  Carl Linnaeus’s personal herbarium in particular was amazing to see.

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Next, I learnt about citizen science at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. This is where the public gather or analyse data for research or curatorial purposes, such as transcribing data from a bird register, which is an NHM project called ‘Notes from Nature’ currently running on Zooniverse.

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To wrap it all up there was a tea party at the end of my last day. It was lovely to see the staff I had met during the week and thank them all for giving up their time and making me feel so welcome. I am intending that some lasting change will happen at Manchester Museum as a result of my week at the NHM, particularly better storage for our type specimens and some changes to volunteering.

Many thanks to all the curators and collections managers at the NHM who allowed me this fantastic opportunity.

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Beautiful Lady’s Slipper Orchids

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by Rachel

Stream bed

The Passo Pura in the Carnic Alps was awash with summer flowers when we visited for our Field Course in Alpine Biodiversity and Forest Ecology in July. One interesting walk took us up this seasonal stream bed on the side of Monte Tinisi and rewarded us with some beautiful Lady’s Slipper Orchids (Cypripedium calceolus).

Lady's slipper orchid

The flowers in the hot Italian sun were fading and drying up, but the plants in the shade were perfect.

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I’d only ever seen this plant in cultivation before, so it was a treat to see it growing wild. In the UK it is very rare having been lost from many sites through 19th century collecting for the horticultural trade. The lady’s slipper orchid was thought extinct in the UK until a plant was found growing at one site in Yorkshire. This plant has been the focus for conservation and re-introduction programmes.

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We also have pressed examples of this species in the herbarium collection and one sheet is on display in the Living Worlds gallery. This example was collected in the same area of the Carnic Alps in 1897 by James Cosmo Melville. He didn’t do a very good job of pressing the intricate 3D flowers, which is one reason why orchid flowers are often preserved in spirit collections.

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This specimen collected from neighbouring Austria does a much better job of showing the structure of the flowers. However, the person who picked it also included the roots (not just examples of the leaves and flowers) which could have had consequences for the population of plants at that site. Like other orchids, germination needs the presence of a symbiotic fungus and  the lady’s slipper orchid can take many years before it reaches flowering size.

Favourite Object from the Collection

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Watering the Museum allotment
Watering the Museum allotment

As it reaches the time of year when the Museum allotment is always thirsty, I thought I’d share this post from Bryan Sitch (Curator of Archaeology) about his favourite object from the collection……

Ancient Worlds

Collections Team with their favourite objects Collections Team with their favourite objects

Here we all are in this morning’s team meeting with our favourite objects. Kate had a shark’s jaw bone with some nasty looking teeth, Steve had a copy of the Salford register because it had details of the most important ethnographic objects in the Museum collection, Phil had some parasitic  flies, Campbell part of an ivory chariot fitting, Rachel had some saffron, Lindsey had some rubber stamps, Henry a mounted Ross’ gull and I took along a post-medieval watering can made of fired clay (accession no. 20838). The latter is one of my favourite objects in the collection. I kind of fell in love with it as soon as I saw it in the Museum store.

Ceramic watering can Ceramic watering can

It’s about 36cm tall and as you can see it’s made of orange-red clay with a brownish glaze. You can see where the separately made rose…

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