On Thursday 5th March 2015, CILIPinKent were very excited to be visiting the Natural History Museum.
On arrival the 150 million-year-old Sophie the Stegosaurus, originally from Wyoming, was waiting to greet us, together with our guide Andrea Hart. Sophie is the most complete specimen of Stegosaurus in the world, and her 360 individual bones have been laser-scanned at the museum and imaged to study the way Sophie would have moved and ate. Researchers are especially interested in the function of her back plates, which has become a controversial issue.
After our initial introductions, Andrea who is Special Collections Librarian at the Natural History Museum, began our tour in the ‘Images of Nature’ gallery with an exhibition of women artists from the collection. Noteworthy items included Margaret Elizabeth Fontaine and Olivia Frances Tonge’s sketchbooks of watercolours, Dorothy Thursby-Pelham’s drawings of emperor penguin embryoes brought back from the Terra Nova Expedition; Olive Tassart and Sarah Stone’s exotic birds; and Grace Edwards’ striking series of horseflies. More modern female artists also featured, including Pandora Sellars’s exquisitely beautiful ‘Lady’s Slipper Orchid’.
By contrast, the Spirit Collection inventory room, tank room, and dissection chamber was an assault on our olfactory organs, providing an unusual blend of ethanol and methanol spirits, and fishy smells to accompany the sights of unidentified pickled creatures – unidentified meaning awaiting identification and storing, as opposed to jars of UFOs or the like! The collection is housed over 8 floors and is classified by taxonomy and place of origin. Among these sterilized artifacts was one jar that added a special poignance to the whole experience. It was the preserved dorsal fin of the Thames whale, stranded in 2006. Most of its body was in too poor a condition, but the dorsal fin was saved for DNA and tissue research. Its skeleton is stored elsewhere in the museum. One of the largest containers in the tank room held Archie, the giant squid: a unique and rare specimen. Her (yes, her!) natural habitat would have been approximately 1000m deep in what we call the ‘twilight zone’, so deep that the human body cannot withstand the temperature and atmospheric pressures, but a freak accident led to her being caught in a trawler net near the Falkland Islands. Among the tank room’s other residents was the British Angling Record Breaking Seabass, donated by the fisherman who caught it in 2008; a coelacanth: a living fossil more closely related to humans than the fish we know today; and some type species (the first of a species to be identified) from Darwin’s Beagle voyage. Our next stop was the dissection room, not often used, but an exciting place to be when a new ‘resident’ arrives. Fascinating and macabre!
Last, but by no means least, we were able to explore the library and reading room, and special collections. When the Natural History departments of the British Museum moved to South Kensington, much of the library materials remained with the British Museum, and so the collection was redeveloped by the Museum’s first librarian, Bernard Barham Woodward (1853-1930). As the collection grew, the library established itself as one of the most comprehensive natural science libraries. The library continues to acquire new material, and is open to visitors by appointment. The collection is moving towards online delivery, particularly for electronic journals, and book cards are being replaced by a barcode system. The service has recently moved to library management system provider Ex Libris Alma because of the front end capabilities it offers. The range of items available to view from the special collections was astounding. From a pig-skinned binding of Pliny from 1472 to an example of Japanese paper and wheat starch paste hinge-mounting for a spectacular sheet painting, there was something for everyone! It was great to get an opportunity to leaf through some of Olivia Frances Tonge’s sketchbooks from her travels to India, and Margaret Fontaine’s meticulously annotated sketchbooks of Lepidoptera having seen examples on display in the gallery. G. W. Dalby’s watercolour of a fried egg jellyfish, a barrel jellyfish, and a moon jellyfish was stunning (if you pardon the pun!). John Fullwood’s watercolour sketchbook of pebbles found on beaches from the South and East of England was mesmerising and of special geographical significance! Of particular interest was a selection of botanical illustrations from the Endeavour voyage. Sydney Parkinson (1745-1771) was one of two artists on board the Endeavour, neither of whom survived the voyage. A team of watercolourists were employed to complete Parkinson’s work, followed by a team of engravers who cut copper printing plates in readiness for scientific publication in colour. It was not until 1973 when a selection of these engravings were finally published in ‘Captain Cook’s Florilegium’, and printed catalogues of the complete set were published by the Museum between 1984 and 1987. On display was an unfinished original drawing by Parkinson, a complete reconstruction made by the team of watercolourists, a copper printing plate, and a finished colour print.
There were many more interesting and unusual items to see from the special collection, and I can only recommend that if the opportunity arises, you visit the Natural History Museum Library and Archives. What a fantastic opportunity! Many thanks to CILIPinKent’s Rebecca Daniels, and the Natural History Museum’s Andrea Hart for arranging a fascinating tour.
If you have any further questions for Andrea please get in contact at Andrea.Hart@nhm.ac.uk
Write-up by Philippa Rose, CILIPinKent