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Behind the scenes

3 Posts tagged with the museum tag

Do you know the difference between a cryptogamist and a cryptogramist? The MoD certainly didn't, at least not during World War II, and that's why it recruited former Museum scientist Geoffrey Tandy to work at Bletchley Park.


You see, a cryptogamist is an expert in non-flowering, spore-reproducing plants like seaweeds, mosses and ferns. That's what Tandy was. He worked at the Museum from 1926 until 1939 and was the first member of staff to specialise in algae.


However the MoD got his speciality confused with a cryptogramist, someone who deciphers messages written in code. And so Tandy - who had enlisted as a volunteer in the Royal Navy Reserves in 1939 - was sent to Bletchley, the centre of signals intelligence during the war. He was tasked with helping to crack the code of the German Naval Enigma machine.



An Enigma machine, used by the Germans to send and receive encrypted military messages.


Lieutenant-Commander Tandy (codenamed 'Six') did his best to learn the skills for which he'd been mistakenly hired, but while he was no Alan Turing, he did still play a significant role in the breaking of the Enigma cipher and in turn, the defeat of the Germans.


You see, in 1941, a German U-boat was torpedoed and valuable items were salvaged by the allied forces. Among them were German procedural handbooks, navigational charts, and most vitally, bigram tables (or double-letter conversion tables).


The bigrams were used by the Germans to unscramble the coded messages sent via the Enigma. But, alas, the paper on which the bigrams were printed was sodden and the Bletchley lot feared the secrets were beyond recovery.


And that is where Geoffrey Tandy came to the rescue. With years of scientific experience preserving and preparing wet plant specimens, such as algae, as herbarium sheets, he knew exactly what to do to safely dry the precious paper.


A call to the Museum elicited a supply of the tools Tandy needed, and he was able to save the paper and its cryptic clues from soggy obscurity. And that's how a seaweed scientist helped win the war.


The cracking of the German Enigma machines at Bletchley Park is credited with considerably hastening the end of World War II.



A specimen of marine algae, Kallymenia perforata, collected by Geoffrey Tandy. Preparing such specimens  provided Tandy with the experience required to preserve wet documents captured from the Germans during World War II.


In my ongoing quest to uncover the most fascinating and curious specimens and stories from behind the scenes at the Museum, I recently came across this lovely tale that I think epitomises the inquisitiveness, perseverance and patience that it takes to be a good scientist. Let me recount it for you:


In 1973 Dr Peter Whitehead, head of marine fishes at the Museum, began a personal quest that would soon take on international (and interdisciplinary) significance.


Whitehead, an expert in clupeids - herrings, anchovies and their numerous relatives - was attempting to track down the original painting of a fish called a piquitinga. The painting was used as the basis for a woodcut that accompanied a description of the species by the naturalist Georg Marcgraf in Historia naturalis Brasiliae in 1648. Marcgraf's brief Latin description and poor quality woodcut was then used by Carl Linnaeus and later taxonomists, who variously identified it as a herring or as an anchovy.



The woodcut of piquitinga from Marcgraf's Historia naturalis Brasiliae (1648). Detail was lost from the original painting when the book illustrations were made.



Whitehead was determined to get to the bottom of the classification once and for all. He knew that Marcgraf's original paintings were part of a collection known as Theatri rerum naturalium Brasiliae given to Friedrich Wilhelm, Elector of Brandenburg, in 1652. The Elector's library formed the basis of the subsequent Royal Library, which later became the Prussian State Library in Berlin.


During the Second World War, allied bombing made Berlin unsafe, so hundreds of boxes of material were removed from the library and allegedly sent to a Benedictine monastery in Silesia called Grüssau. And that's where the trail went cold.


The materials were not returned to Berlin after the war, and the monastery (now known as Krzeszów) nor the major libraries in Poland knew anything of their whereabouts.


Whitehead admitted that 'the search took on something of an obsession'. Indeed, there are two bulging folders in the Museum's archives - known as the Grüssau file - filled with reams of correspondence relating to the matter.


During his years of detective work Whitehead discovered that as well as the natural history artworks he was looking for, the Prussian State Library had also held many important musical manuscripts by artists including Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Mendelssohn. These too were evacuated during the war and had not been seen since. He said:

For a year or more I was quite unaware that I had joined one of the biggest and hitherto more frustrating searches for treasures lost during the last war.

Whitehead called on the Polish Ministry of Culture to help, and despite an 'immediate search of all Polish libraries', nothing was found. Undeterred, he 'redoubled his efforts' and began contacting Polish libraries himself.


The breakthrough came in March 1977 with a 'matter-of-fact' letter from Jan Pirozynski at the Jagiellon Library in Krakow: 'I am very glad to be able to tell you that the problem of the lost manuscripts has been cleared up. I have been authorised to tell you that the manuscripts exist... I hope this will be satisfactory to you for this moment'. Understandably, Whitehead was 'absolutely delighted' to hear of the 'miracle'.

It was not until September 1979 that I was able to visit the Jagiellon Library. A trolley was wheeled in bearing seven large volumes. Lifting one of the Theatri, the librarian opened it at a marked page: "There!" he said with a flourish, "There is your piquitinga!" It was a magnificent oil painting and immediately resolved all doubts - it was the small herring Lile piquitinga.


The oil painting of piquitinga from Theatri rerum naturalium Brasiliae, vol 1, p161. Remarkable for its realism, it immediately proved that Marcgraf's fish was the herring Lile piquitinga.



Also contained among the many boxes Whitehead was responsible for tracking down were original scores, in whole or in part, of Beethoven's 7th, 8th and 9th symphonies and his 3rd piano concerto; Mendelssohn's violin concerto and incidental music for A Midsummer Night's Dream; various Bach cantatas; and Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, Marriage of Figaro, and more than 90 other pieces which represented nearly a quarter of all his works known to survive in manuscript.


So that is where Brazilian fish and brilliant composers meet - in boxes in a Polish library, undiscovered for more than a generation.

That Marriage of Figaro, Cosi fan tutte, Beethoven's 9th and piquitinga should reappear after almost 40 years in wooden crates was unbelievable.


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...



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).



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.



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.



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.