Archive for December, 2022

There is no better time to celebrate and recognise the support of museum volunteers, and particularly those in the Entomology during this Christmas festive season. While the Manchester Museum has been closed to visitors due to the “hello future project” (see here for more information), our volunteers have embarked on a different journey from the galleries to behind-the-scenes, showing the same enthusiasm and full dedication for the collections as they do to the museum visitors (see here the blogpost by Kate Glynn, Volunteer Manager).

During the last two years, since the Museum was closed, volunteers, usually in the galleries, have had the opportunity to support different collections and departments. They have played a key role in the Conservation Department helping to prepare the Japanese Incense Burner, which will become one of the central pieces in the newly built Museum’s entrance. Yet, in the Herbarium, they have been cataloguing plant specimens, transcribing labels with old, sometimes difficult to read handwriting, and bagging pressed plants to prevent the spreading of such biscuit beetles.

Since May 2022, the Entomology Department welcomed four enthusiastic volunteers. After an introduction given by Dmitri Logunov (former Curator of Arthropods) about possible tasks, our expectations and time required; it came as a big surprised when all the attendees decided to take up the challenge and to become part of the behind the scenes volunteer team. With no previous experience required, they were in good hands with full support from our small team along the way.

The Museum volunteers, Angharad, Niamh, Margaret and Vivien committed 4 hours per week, sometimes spending more time in the Entomology. They support re-arranging and documenting of the departmental archive, also and rehousing and databasing our spirit-preserved collections. A brief description of the tasks chosen by each volunteer is given below.

Angharad Denby has been rehousing Richard (Dick) Jones’ spider collection (around 10,000 tubes) acquired in 2017. This collection was re-curated and documented in 2019 but is still kept in small glass tubes with plastic stoppers in its original cabinet. However, a recent inspection revealed a high evaporation rate of the ethanol from sample tubes. It then became a priority to have this collection rehoused and stored more securely in the larger jars, in the spirit store. Angharad’s task is to change plastic stoppers of small glass tubes for cotton wool stoppers and to rehouse them in medium sized glass jars with clip-tops and airtight seals. She also conducts a similar task for Eric Duffey’s spider collection.

Angharad rehousing the identified and unidentified spiders from D. Jones’ collection

Niamh Roche has been supporting the digitization of the archive materials of Eric Duffey donated to the Museum by Rita Duffey (Eric’s widow). Eric was an ecologist and conservationist; he conducted spider faunas surveys in Britain and European regions. His archive contains long lists of species, habitats, maps from 1972, stories of spider bites and correspondence with other researchers. For more information about Eric’s legacy and life, see his obituary here.

Niahm documenting the archive of Eric Duffey

Vivien Mentern has been documenting a collection of European spiders donated by A. Russell-Smith. She is giving unique accession number to the samples, documenting species and specimens numbers and storing them more securely in clip-top jars after changing the plastic stopper to cotton wool ones. Her task will continue with the digitisation of the gained information to the Museum’s database.

Vivien working with samples of European spiders

Margaret McCadden has been digitizing beetle family (order Coleoptera) data from Colin Johnson (former Keeper of Entomology and British coleopterist). His archive contains species lists, many personal letters and documents, photographs and original beetle illustrations that were donated to the Museum by his family after Colin sadly passed away (see his obituary here). Margaret has made a digital list of the Manchester Museum Annual Reports from 1895 to 2003 also kept in the entomological archive. She also helps us to digitise the paperwork related to Acquisitions and Donations from 2004 to 2019.

Margaret digitising the acquisitions and donations received from 2004 to 2019

We would like to thank Phillip Rispin (former Curatorial Assistant and Honorary Curator) for his dedication to the collection and for sharing his knowledge and passion with visitors, researchers and volunteers.

Phil moving beetles specimens from a damaged box after a flooding in the Entomology store

We would also like to mention the work and commitment from the collection volunteers, many of them have gained experience in working with natural history collections and others have developed a real interest in insects. Many thanks to Beth Moran, Emily Hill, Piotr Korpak, James Jepson, Michael Pentland, Robert Tracey, Michael Dockery (Honorary Curator) and Libby (volunteered in Entomology for 3 months). The support given by all the volunteers will help us to better maintain and keep our entomological collections and increase their usefulness and value for various users.

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View of the ‘Living Worlds’ gallery from stairs. © The Manchester Museum

The following text is the second part of our online tours around the Manchester Museum; the first tour is here. This time we are presenting a brief overview of the museum’s gallery called ‘Living Worlds’.

Fig. 1. Skeleton of a young Sperm Whale (Physeter macrocephalus) found dying on sea ice in Massachusetts in 1896, mounted by Harry Brazenor in 1898. The whale was suspended from the ceiling of the mammal gallery, where it became an iconic specimen, emblematic of the Museum as a whole. © The Manchester Museum

The ‘Living Worlds’ gallery sits at the heart of the oldest galleries of the Manchester Museum, which were purpose built to show their newly acquired natural history collections. The striking views of the cases and the balconies to the floors above are similar now to how they were in 1912, but without game trophies on its columns. The view includes the skeleton of the sperm whale, hanging suspended over the gallery floor after its discovery in Massachusetts in February 1896 (Fig. 1).

Fig. 2. Mounted Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus), taken as a flat skin from Arctic America to Dundee Museum by a whaling ship SS Eclipse around 1905, mounted by Harry Brazenor. Credit: Paul Cliff and the Manchester Museum

Despite the historic setting, the gallery today aims to move away from a traditional understanding of nature when it is presented as if existing in far off countries, separate from people. ‘Living Worlds’ puts people back into nature and describes its role in our everyday lives. Different ecosystems of our planet vary from polar lands to tropical forests, all full of life adapted to live in those conditions (Fig. 2). The life surrounding us could be viewed with fascination or fear, as something to exploit or to protect or as something to admire or to understand how it works (Fig. 3).

Fig. 3. On the left: skull of ‘Old Billy’, the horse that lived near Manchester during 1760-1822. On the right: Oil painting of ‘Old Billy’ by Charles Towne, painted shortly before the horse died. © Michael Pollard and The Manchester Museum.

Each case in Living Worlds takes a theme exploring one way in which people might connect with nature, either past of present. For example, the taxidermy tiger takes centre stage in a story about hunting for sport and trophy collecting. The tiger stands as if frozen in the moment of attack, telling us more about how the species was predominantly seen by Victorian society and about how the hunter wanted to be remembered, as a conqueror (Fig. 4). In comparison, other animals, such as those which came to the museum after living their lives at Belle Vue Zoo, are in poses which aim to show people how they may have behaved in life.

Fig. 4. Taxidermy of the Tiger (Panthera tigris) mounted in upright, pouncing position; from the ‘Domination’ case of the gallery. © Michael Pollard and The Manchester Museum.

We all rely on nature in our daily lives. There are the very practical things, like food, clothing and shelter, but there are also less tangible ways we rely on nature. Having access to greenspaces and nature is known to help our own sense of wellbeing, helping us stay healthy, find a sense of place and of peace. We also use nature to help us communicate complex ideas about ourselves, our cultures and organisations. By a symbolic view of animals and plants we represent ourselves in the way we want to be seen or interpreted. The industrious and communal bee is the symbol of Manchester, whereas the bee has long been a universal symbol of ethical virtues, such as diligence, sociability, purity, wisdom, hard-work and community (Fig. 5).

Fig. 5. An Ancient Greek coin (c. 387-295 BC) and Honey Bee. The bee symbolises Artemis, the goddess of wild animals, the hunt and childbirth; priestesses of the goddess were known as ‘honey bees’. © Michael Pollard and The Manchester Museum.
Fig. 6. Dodo model (Raphus cucullatus), based on modern research and interpretations. © Paul Cliff and The Manchester Museum.

Today, many animals and plants are threatened in the wild, and museum collections hold examples of species which are already extinct (Fig. 6). Human activities such as agriculture, deforestation or mining can make it hard or impossible for nature to find the space to thrive, or even to co-exist with us. Many charities, organisations and individuals work to keep ecosystems healthy and make room for wildlife. How we view nature and the choices we all make in our day-to-day lives all has an impact on the natural world around us (Fig. 7).

Fig. 7. Male and female taxidermy of Peregrines (Falco peregrinus) from the ‘British Wildlife’ case of the gallery. During the breeding season, this predatory bird can often be found above rocky sea cliffs and upland areas throughout the UK. © Michael Pollard and The Manchester Museum.

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View of the Nature’s Library gallery. © Dmitri Logunov

Manchester Museum is part of the University of Manchester and one of the UK’s leading university museums, holding more than 4.5 million objects and specimens, ranged across nature and culture. The Museum has eight main permanent galleries that reflect its main mission to build understanding between cultures and a more sustainable world. Here is a brief survey of the Museum’s gallery called ‘Nature’s Library’.

Figs. 1–2. On the left: Tens of thousands of soft-bodied organisms, like spiders, are preserved in 70% alcohol and are kept in jars in the hidden storerooms of the Manchester Museum. – On the right: Scallops (Pectenidae) exist in a stunning array of natural colours and patterns. It is believed that Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love and beauty, was born from a scallop shell. © Michael Pollard and The Manchester Museum.

Natural history museum collections include specimens from zoology, botany, entomology, palaeontology and mineralogy, as well as documentation associated with them. Recent estimates suggest that the number of natural history specimens in British museums exceeds 100 million. The vast majority of such collections (c. 95%) are kept in storage, behind the scenes (Fig. 1: on the left). But does this mean that these collections are not used? Far from it, we care for these collections as an irreplaceable resource for research, education and inspiration. Natural history collections act as ‘libraries’, in which a separate specimen can be seen as a letter or word, and an individual collection as that of a paragraph or section in a giant ‘Book of Knowledge’. The Nature’s Library gallery why we have natural history collections, where they came from, why we continue to keep them and collect more, how such collections are used, and why are they still relevant today?

Fig. 3. Specimens of the Australian Rainforest Scorpion, Liocheles waigiensis (Gervais, 1843), were the first invertebrates ever acquired by the Manchester Museum on 15th January 1889. © Michael Pollard and The Manchester Museum.

Natural history collections are the result of the curiosity and private passions of thousands of people, each with their own motivations for collecting. Living things, shells and rocks are often very beautiful or intriguing to look at, with endless variety of shapes, colours, patterns and textures (Fig. 1: on the right). Each specimen in the Museum is identified by a unique ‘accession number’. Information on each specimen is recorded in a Museum’s Register book and database. The Manchester Museum continues to collect, because collections have to be relevant to people and their needs today (Fig. 3).

Fig. 4. Today the red fox is familiar as a fellow city resident. Our taxidermy may have been made before foxes were common as urban wildlife, reminding us about how our cities can change and adapt to nature. © Michael Pollard and The Manchester Museum.
Fig. 5. Educational models allow students to explore the internal structure of plants and animals. They are made of papier-mache, wood, wire and fabric. © Michael Pollard and The Manchester Museum.

The Manchester Museum is part of the University of Manchester, and has been open to the public since 1891. Thousands of schoolchildren, students and researchers use the Museum each year, for study, research and enjoyment (Fig. 4). The Museum is a unique place where visitors can see real objects, have access to experts and develop their own curiosity. Historic natural history collections are a rich resource of historical information about people, places and links to our colonial past. Designers and artists draw inspiration from their remarkable variety of forms, colours and patterns, exploring new ways of seeing and presenting the world around us. The Museum has about 250 enlarged models of plants and animals. These were used to teach students in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and are still used for outreach programmes and undergraduate teaching today (Fig. 5).

Fig. 6. Some of the organisms collected by the Challenger expedition from 362 sites around the world. About 4,700 new species were discovered as a result of this endeavour. © Michael Pollard and The Manchester Museum.

The fundamental value of natural history collections is related to our understanding of the Earth’s diversity. The Manchester Museum holds large collections that were assembled by researchers who studied particular organisms and described new species. In the gallery you can find some of the thousands of specimens collected by HMS Challenger, during the first scientific expedition (1872-76) to explore the deep ocean (Fig. 6).

Fig. 7. Some lichens can survive in dirty air while others will only grow if the air is very clean, like this tree lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria). Where they live, and how this changes over time, tells us what is going on around us. © Michael Pollard and The Manchester Museum.

Natural history collections offer a unique opportunity for understanding the world around us, providing data over a vast time span ranging from millions of years ago (minerals and fossils) to the present day. These data reveal changes in environmental conditions and their consequences from deep time to within human history, and help us build up a better, sustainable future (Fig. 7).

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