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Behind the scenes

1 Post tagged with the curation tag
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I am what you might describe as curious about the curious. If it's strange or surprising, remarkable or rare, it will pique my interest and usually find a place in my heart.

 

When I think about the mid-to-late-'teenth centuries, when a steady flow of goods from far-away places began arriving in European ports and populating the drawing rooms of those with a bit of social and cultural cachet, I get a little misty eyed.

 

Oh, to have had my own curiosity cabinet, filled with fossils and minerals and taxidermied creatures; my own window through which to experience exotic lands, and a reflection of my good taste and wealth...

 

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Cabinet of Curiosities, an oil painting by Domenico Remps (1620–1699) *swoon*.

 

But these cabinets weren't purely vanity projects. As scientific thought blossomed, the desire to possess items grew into a desire to understand them. Curiosity cabinets developed into natural history collections, and went on to form the future model, and in some cases, the actual contents, of the museums we still visit today.

 

Sir Hans Sloane's massive private collection of plants, animals, antiquities and curios was the founding core of the British Museum and later the Natural History Museum. And of course Walter Rothschild's personal museum went on to become our Museum at Tring.

 

At his peak, Rothschild had 300 men working for him in far-flung locations around the world sourcing specimens. Frederick Selous, an African big-game hunter, was responsible for procuring many mammalian specimens for us. (Selous died in WW1 and there is a memorial to him in the Central Hall on the left of the Darwin statue).

 

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A museum staff member photographed in 1932 surrounded by stuffed animals.

 

But in contrast to our taxidermic tendencies of the past, today the Museum's collecting interests focus on fossils, minerals, insects and plants.

 

When you consider that beetles make up 25% of all life forms, and that trees have dominated dry land for over 300 million years (far longer than dinosaurs or mammals), there's clearly a lot for us to discover within those fields.

 

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Fossil coral collected by Museum scientists in Indonesia in 2011. The fossils are helping researchers discover why the waters where the Pacific and Indian oceans meet are so rich in biodiversity and may also provide clues to how the area will be affected by climate change

 

In a recent chat with archivist and records manager Daisy Cunynghame I learned that the perception of the Museum's collections and collecting practices over time has been the source of much intrigue and even urban legend.

 

Daisy says:

There have been, over the last 100 years or so, a lot of rumours about what we're collecting behind the scenes.

 

Newspapers used to run stories saying things like we would pay £500 for a blue bottle fly or £50 for a smoked cigarette with its full length of ash still intact. Then we would be inundated with these things.

 

People have historically thought that we are the place for all these miscellaneous things.

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Newspaper clippings from January 1914 claiming Charles de Rothschild paid £1,000 for a rare flea, followed by a denial from Rothschild that he paid any such sum.

 

But we're not a repository for any old odds and sods. In fact, the Museum is one of the leading natural history institutions in the world and a global leader in scientific research.

 

Although that's not to say that we don't have a few curious, unusual and not-strictly-scientific specimens lurking around the place.

 

And it is with that in mind that I am launching a Specimen of the Month series on this blog, to reveal the stories behind some of (what I consider to be) the most fascinating items in our possession. Stay tuned.