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.
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:
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.
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.
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!
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.
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:
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.
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.
On the fifth day I had a tour of the Linnean Society. Carl Linnaeus’s personal herbarium in particular was amazing to see.
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.
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.
I’ve transcribed the first few pages of the book detailing the society’s first meeting:
Manchester Cryptogamic Society
Lower Mosley St School
November 4th 1878
Meeting of Cryptogamic botanists for the purpose of carrying out some suggestions recently made and further formulated at the annual service of the Lower Mosley St. Natural History Society by the cryptogamic botanists present, having reference to the establishment of a society for the especial study of cryptogamic plants. Mr James Cash having been duly elected as chairman.
It was proposed by Mr Thos. Brittain and seconded by Mr James Neild of Oldham that the title of the aforementioned society be the Manchester Cryptogamic Society. – carried unanimously
Proposed by Mr Sunderland of Ashton andseconded by Mr Neild that a subscription of 2 shillings per year be contributed by each member of the society in accordance with the rule which regulates the membership of the Natural History Society., and which said contributions are applied in defraying incidental expenses of meeting and purchasing books on Natural History for the use of members of both these societies. – carried unanimously
Proposed by Thos. Rogers and seconded by Thos Brittain that Mr John Whitehead be elected president of the society. – carried unanimously
Proposed by Mr James Cash and seconded by Charles Weld that Thomas Rogers be elected as secretary. – carried unanimously
Proposed by John Whitehead and seconded by Thos Rogers that W H Pearson and Thos. Brittain be elected as vice president. – carried unanimously
Proposed by Peter Cunliffe of Handforth and seconded by John Whitehead that Mr Cash, Mr Hyde, and Mr Weld be elected as a committee in conjunction with the foregoing officers as managing committee for the next twelve months subject to re-election. – carried unanimously
Proposed by Mr Neild and seconded by Mr Cash that the secretary be elected as treasurer. – carried unanimously
Proposed and seconded that the meeting of the Society be held in the library of the L.Mosely St. Natural History on the second Monday in each month at 7.30. – Carried unanimously
The meeting which carried the foregoing resolutions was well attended and about 20 members joined the society whose name will be entered in subscription list at the end of this book. The following paragraph is cut from the Manchester Guardian Nov 5th.
The books are full of the minutes of the of the society’s meeting together with many newspaper clipping reporting the meetings in the Manchester Guardian. As well as being a keen amateur botanist, James Cash, the society’s first Chariman, was also a journalist for the Manchester Guardian, this may or may not have something to do with the meetings being reported so frequetly in that publication.
The subscription lists at the back of the books are a great resource for the history of Manchester botanists. Not only does it give the names and addresses of the key botanists working in Manchester at that time but it also shows how closely they knew each other and that they regualrly met to discuss and share their knowledge and passion for botany.
Here are some more ‘behind the scenes’ videos from the botany stores.
In this first clip, Leander shows you round the area where the liverworts and fungi are stored. Please excuse the boxes cluttering up this space – they are being temporarily stored here while some maintenance work is being carried out in the top tower room. The clip ends with a trip upstairs to the mezzanine and the collection of mosses.
This clip shows where the majority of the European flowering plants are stored together with our collection of exsiccatae (books of dried and pressed plant specimens).
Having looked through our archives, I found one letter from Thomas Whitelegge. It was written to his old friend from The Ashton Linnean Botanical Society, John Whitehead. It is dated March 23, 1885 and shows Whitelegge’s address as 537 Crown St, Surry Hills, Sydney, New South Wales.
Having discovered last week that Whitelegge had corresponded with Darwin, I was a little disappointed to only find this one letter, however it is such an interesting letter I soon cheered up. Considering Whitelegge left school at 8 years old, his handwriting is remarkably easy to read. Working in the herbarium and doing my History degrees, I have spent many hours transcribing Victorian handwriting so I know how difficult it can be to read. I’ll try and find time to transcribe the letter fully and post it up here, but in the meantime here’s an excerpt to whet your appetite…
“…I think it is now time I gave you some hint as to how I like this country. I like it better every day and never regret coming out here but I have been very fortunate in getting a government billet, which is a fine thing out here there are no broken weeks or paydays although there is some 10 public holidays in each year, and the hours are only school hours 9 to 4 with 1 hour for dinner so that when I leave off I can jump on our steam tramway cars and go mossing and have 3 or 4 hours out before dark. The trams go at such a speed to that is a wonder there is not more accidents then what there is. The cars are double deckers ugly looking things appearing top heavy so that you would think they would topple over…”