Confessions of an Amateur Aquarist: Having an Aquarium in a Museum Exhibition

Sea Life: Glimpses of the Wonderful‘ is the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery’s (RAMM) 2017 summer exhibition. It takes inspiration from the works of PH Gosse. Gosse was a Victorian naturalist who lived near Torquay and spent his time exploring the coast. He wrote many popular books and RAMM is fortunate to have over 100 of his original artworks.

Devonshire cup coral. Teaching aid drawn in coloured chalk by PH Gosse. (Image courtesy of Royal Albert Memorial Museum and Art Gallery).

Gosse is well known for his interest in aquariums. He invented the word aquarium and was among the first to keep animals alive successfully. In 1856 he published a book; ‘The aquarium: an unveiling of the wonders of the deep sea’, and was also partly responsible for the aquarium craze that gripped Victorian England.

The exhibition team decided that no exhibition on rock pooling and aquariums was complete without a real one set up in the gallery.  Kids keep fish as pets – can’t be that hard … or so we thought. I’d like to share a few things we have learnt over the past few months: Continue reading

Portrait of a Sensitive, Armoured Snout

Unraveling an ancient mystery

Picturing the world of the prehistoric is often likened to a jigsaw puzzle: one in which each new piece starts a whole new puzzle. Your pieces are scattered across all the museum stores in the world or weathering out of the ground. The quality is variable and some of the pieces are warped. In some cases we get lucky and find an immaculately preserved specimen, like the ones being uncovered in China, with evidence of soft tissue still preserved. In other cases, we must rely on osteological correlates in living animals to work out what’s going on.

Palaeontologist Mark Witton recently wrote a post
about a group of predatory dinosaurs called abelisaurs. These animals have a rough, cornified texture to their skulls. Living animals with a comparable bone texture usually have hardened, reinforced skin. Hippopotamus faces regularly endure blows from rival hippo teeth and, while scarring occurs, lasting damage is usually avoided. Some theropod dinosaurs* show bite scars on their faces which suggest that something similar was happening with these too. Hardened, armoured skin would be very useful here. However…

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We are used to thinking of armour in the mediaeval knight or Kevlar sense of the word. This is not quite how tough hide works in living animals and apparently not for extinct ones either.

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Neovenator salerii, showing neurovascular regions. Image property of Darren Naish, shown here with permission.

Enter Neovenator

A new paper, published today by Chris Tijani Barker and colleagues, point to a network of sensory canals in the snout of Neovenator salerii – an early Cretaceous allosauroid theropod. The type specimen, held at the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology, has all the hallmarks of abelisaur-style facial armour but also sensory features similar to those found in crocodiles.

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Crocodile facial tissue is both tough and sensitive, like a gauntlet that can read Braille.

It’s most intriguing because, in 2014, Nizar Ibrahim and colleagues highlighted sensory pits in Spinosaurus as one of a suite of characteristics that demonstrate aquatic behaviour. That paper ricocheted around social media like a gunshot, with many critiques of the revised limb proportions of Spinosaurus

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New-look Spinosaurus. Image property of Natee Himmapaan, shown here with permission.

but very little attention was paid to the sensory pits – until now. Neovenator is a clearly terrestrial carnivore, built for land-based activity, yet it has these sensory features on its snout which allow the face to respond to subtle touch stimuli. The paper goes into other examples of animals that have such protective face coverings and delicate sense of touch: duck beaks to name but one. I shan’t steal the paper’s thunder by reciting them all here – it’s well worth a read if you’re curious. One of the paper’s contributors, Darren Naish, has also written up the discovery here.

Perhaps we will see another revision of the Spinosaurus material when the long-awaited monograph comes out, now that yet another feature has fallen into the “not necessarily aquatic” category, we can only wait and see. Regardless, Neovenator is an interesting specimen in its own right and I’m sure it has even more secrets to yield.

* I’m explicitly not naming that species: It already gets the lion’s share of press coverage and is mentioned in unrelated press articles, it’s about time it was ignored in related ones.

 

Unexpected Natural History in a Sporting Museum

As a Curator at a Sporting Museum you may be wondering how my blog relates to Natural Science Collections… I am lucky enough to work at the National Horseracing Museum; part of the National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art, recently shortlisted for Museum of the Year 2017!

A major redevelopment and move to a 5 acre site has allowed the Museum a huge expansion.  Our new galleries include exhibitions dedicated to the science of the sport and the racehorse. Within these we are fortunate to possess some specimens on long term loan as well as some wonderful new loans from our fellow, and more obviously natural science, museums.

The redevelopment has been a great way to (rapidly) develop collection handling, packing and moving skills!

The redevelopment has been a great way to (rapidly) develop collection handling, packing and moving skills! (© National Heritage Centre for Horseracing and Sporting Art and Animal Health Trust).

The skeleton of racehorse Hyperion was on display in our old Museum and formed the main focus of the previous scientific displays along with a small veterinary collection.  We have a few other equine specimens in the permanent and loan collection; two taxidermied horse heads, a tail and, my particular favourite, our mini spirit collection of 3 horse forelimbs and an aneurysm. Continue reading

‘Provocative Practice’: New Ways of Working with Natural Science Collections

A 70 foot long whale skeleton hangs overhead a fantastic ‘collection’ of natural science curators, collection managers, conservators, and education and museum professionals, busily gathering around and eagerly greeting each other at this year’s annual Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) conference. As Natural History Museum ‘fly’ specialist Erica McAlister tweeted: “If that fell that’s most of UK’s natural history curators & conservators wiped out”.

NatSCA delegates gathering below the newly hung Fin Whale. Photograph by Simon Jackson, shown thanks to University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge.

This year’s event (#NatSCA2017), at the University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, had a record 110 delegates, and as such was the biggest NatSCA conference to date. At the heart of the conference was the new Whale Hall, part of an enormous redevelopment project of the David Attenborough Building. As many of us marvelled at the huge leviathan overhead, the rest of us rushed between advertising sponsor stalls, exchanged ideas, caught up with one another and most importantly, fuelled up on coffee!

Feeling inspired, we were ready to begin this year’s talks on the theme: “Evolving Ideas: Provocative New Ways of Working with Collections” as Paolo Viscardi, NatSCA Chair, keenly ushered us in to the main lecture theatre. Continue reading

NatSCA Digital Digest – June

Three-toed sloth (C) Horniman Museum and Gardens

What Should I Read?

Four new dinosaurs all under one article, plus a good reason to check what’s in your museum stores more carefully. Dr Dave Hone introduces a cavalcade of new giant dinosaurs.

We all want to live in a perfect world where all museum records are available online, so why don’t we just digitise everything huh? Peel Art Gallery, Museum and Archives tackles The Question so many of us seem to get asked: Why don’t archivists digitize everything?

Not so much a blog or article to read, but definitely something to have a quick look at for it’s wow factor alone. If you’re looking for inspiration for your next event, be it for children or adults, it doesn’t come much better than these balloon animals and insects. These incredible balloon sculptures are by artist Masayoshi Matsumoto, and are just amazing. Continue reading

National Gorilla Day! (or Racist Skeletons in our Closets)

Happy National Gorilla Day!

We don’t usually cover “national *insert_animal* day” specially on this blog, but this year we’re particularly excited about gorillas because a book was recently published that contains a comprehensive list of all the gorillas held in natural science collections worldwide.

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This impressive resource has been compiled by John Cooper and Gordon Hull over the course of many years and not only are specimens listed, their collection and/or acquisition data are also reported. Cooper and Hull have also offered suggestions for use of specimens in collections as well as guidance on the different types of preservation available and how they can be achieved. This only forms part of the book, with the first section more concerned with the health and conservation of these impressive animals. Continue reading

Object Lessons; Manchester Museum

Most curators have those niggling objects at the back of their stores. Models and illustrations previously used for teaching or display in the dim and distant past, but kept for a rainy day. Not quite real objects and not the kind of thing you would necessarily want to accession.

Well, we’ve embraced these wonderful objects in our new exhibition: Object Lessons.

Brendel Models, George Loudon Collection

Brendel Models, George Loudon Collection

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.

The object-rich exhibition will look at this incredible collection through themes such as Craftsmanship, the Teaching Museum and the Microscopic. Continue reading