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I had to smile when I read our news story about digitising our collections and the task of transcribing 'sometimes illegible' handwritten specimen labels. I smiled because bad handwriting was something the Museum actively sought to avoid in the pre-digital era. So much so that scientists were required to prove the quality of their penmanship when applying for a job here.

 

Clare Valentine, Head of Life Sciences Collections, says:

'We requested handwritten covering letters for curatorial posts until the late '90s for Zoology curators. Curators were also trained to "refine" their handwriting to produce legible labels for the collection to last in perpetuity and be completely understandable.'

 

Theresa Howard, Head of Entomological Collections, concurs:

'All applications used to have to be handwritten, not typed. We didn't get our first computers until the early '80s. However, even once computer generated documentation became the norm, the Entomology Department used to insist that all curatorial applicants hand write 10-20 specimen labels as part of their interview.'

 

Zoe Jay Adams, a Research Assistant in the Life Sciences Department, took the specimen label writing test when she was interviewed in 1993, and recalls:

'I was alarmed, because I don't have the neatest of handwriting.'

 

While contemporary specimen labels are written in a small but clear and tidy hand, old labels in our historic collections often feature the copperplate script preferred by Victorians, which can sometimes be difficult to read.

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Gordon Paterson, Museum zoologist and head of the iCollections project, says: 'Difficult is not nearly a suitable term for some of these labels!' (left). 'But on the brighter side there are examples of good, clear writing.' (right).

 

Lawrence Brooks, a database expert in the Zoology Department who is working on digitising the historic Mollusca collection, says that deciphering labels is 'equal parts luck and hard work'.

'Context is your friend. It helps narrow the field from “this could say absolutely anything at all” to “this is a species of mouse”, giving you somewhere to begin your search. Sometimes though, you’ll always be on a hiding to nothing. Like trying, for instance, to decipher the spelling of a colloquial place name for an oasis somewhere in northern Africa that has never been formally recorded. '

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Before our field trip to the Isles of Scilly, I conducted the following short interview with Jo Wilbraham, an algae and seaweed specialist:

GA: Can you tell me about your fieldwork methods when collecting seaweeds?

JW: When searching the intertidal zone, we aim to spot all distinct species and collect samples where necessary for identification/voucher preservation. It is important to get an eye in for spotting seaweeds that look different, which probably are (but not necessarily) different species. Observation is the key to finding and recording species diversity. Photos of species in situ and the general habitat are very useful as are notes on observations in the field etc.

 

GA: What do you do with the specimen after it has been collected?

JW: We Identify the samples. We tend to take a microscope and ID book to the field station with us if possible, and work on identifications in the evening before pressing the specimens.

 

GA: Can drawing help to tune the scientist’s observation, benefiting their scientific fieldwork?

JW: Observation is critical in fieldwork as you are trying to visually pick out the species diversity of the group you are looking for against a lot of background ‘noise’. This is where drawing is very helpful and delineation can show important morphology and omit surrounding details. We never have much time as we also have to press the specimens/change wet drying papers etc. So there is no time to do drawings or extensive notes.

 

Shared methods

 

During the trip, the field methods of exploring, observing and collecting were shared by the artist and the scientist. It is the motivations, selection criteria and outcomes of the fieldwork that differentiate what we do.

 

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Diagram showing where artistic and scientific fieldwork methods converge and diverge.

 

As an artist, I identify the morphological subset of forms within the specimen and then re-order and re-classify the specimen through drawing methods. I spend time with the specimen in it’s three-dimensional form, observing and drawing, building on my previous drawing and observational practice. The scientists take lots of photos of the specimen and then process it for the Museum collections, pressing plants into two dimensional forms and pinning insect material.

 

Although observation is still important in many scientific practices, the motivation behind observation in fieldwork is to identify the specimen (to name) and observational drawing is rarely prioritised in contemporary practice. I do not want to name the specimen, but to creatively explore it’s morphology through drawing methods in order to expand what and how I can know about the object.

 

Drawing the ‘uncollected’ fieldwork specimens

 

The collected fieldwork specimens are immediately pressed; their three-dimensional form squeezed into two dimensions before anyone - scientist or artist - has observed them in detail. It becomes clear that there is no time on fieldwork for the scientists to draw the collected specimens, or even for an artist to draw them!

 

But I am still determined to draw what the scientists have collected, and I decide to ask  if I can draw the specimens that  will not be taken back to the Museum - ‘the collected, uncollected’. These specimens, which have been brought together by the scientists, create a very unusual species combination at the field station. They are superfluous to the needs of this field trip, and would otherwise be thrown away as rubbish, so drawing them transforms them into a different material, it is a nice form of recycling!

 

etching-process700.jpgDrawing leftover specimens: the etching process.

 

I draw the specimens together to create a micro environment, where the work of the scientists and the artist combine. As an artist I am interested in how these specimens, which have been valued and subsequently devalued, can be re-valued and re-known through drawing practice; a practice which scientists are valuing less and less in contemporary scientific work.

 

finished-etching.jpgA scan of the finished etching: 'Collected, uncollected'.

 

I have explored these ideas further in my recent research paper ‘Endangered: A study of the declining practice of morphological drawing in zoological taxonomy’ (Published by Leonardo Journal, MIT Press 2013). I focus on the established drawing practice of three zoologists at the Natural History Museum in relation to my own drawing practice, adapted to the camera lucida device.

 

Posted on behalf of Gemma Anderson, an artist and PhD researcher who accompanied Musuem scientists on a field work trip to the Isles of Scilly between 17 and 23 August 2013.

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The cultivation of aubergines has been recorded in Chinese literature as far back as 96 BC

 

Sandy Knapp, one of our Museum botanists, is travelling to China in February. She’ll be studying the origins and domestication of aubergines with a colleague from the Institute of Botany in Beijing.

 

Aubergines are native to southeast Asia, but were brought to Europe sometime in the 1500s, eventually becoming popular and being exported around the world. You can find out more about this regularly used cooking ingredient on Sandy’s recent Solanum melongena (aubergine) Species of the Day page.

 

Sandy will be keeping us up to date with her trip preparations, progress and experiences on her new blog Investigating aubergines in China, so check it out to stay posted.

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Earlier this year I wrote that Dr William Purvis, one of our lichen experts, was planning a visit to Signy Island to evaluate lichen biodiversity in the Antarctic.


He’s just arrived back in the UK to begin working on the specimens and data he collected, but you can still read his fascinating account of his travels on his blog, Discovering Antarctic Lichens.

 

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A nesting gentoo penguin by lichen covered rocks.

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It's always nice to see our scientists getting recognition for the work they do: Dr Sandy Knapp, a Merit Researcher in the Botany Department, has received the American Society of Plant Taxonomists' Peter Raven Award for 'outstanding contributions to public education in systematic botany'.

 

The commendation was well-deserved, as Sandy regularly involves herself in a range of public outreach activities - from public lectures to radio interviews. Among other things, she has recently helped develop the stunning exhibitions in the Museum’s new Darwin Centre.

 

Sandy says the award means a lot to her as Peter Raven (of the Missouri Botanical Garden) has been one of her most valued mentors throughout her career in botany. She also feels it is particularly special to receive an award in the 'Darwin year'.

 

Here's a picture of Sandy with Professor David Spooner, who presented her with the award at the American Society of Plant Taxonomists' banquet during the 2009 Botany and Mycology Conference in Snowbird, Utah, USA:

 

SKnappAwardBotany2009-400x297.jpg

 

As well as receiving her award, Sandy was there for the closing project meeting for Planetary Biodiversity Inventory (PBI) Solanum, which she co-led. You can find out more about the project on the Solanaceae Source website. Another of our botanists, Dr Maria Vorontsova, gave a presentation on ‘African spiny Solanum: a thorny taxonomic tangle’.

 

It sounds like the meeting was a lot of fun and apparently the scenery in Snowbird is spectacular - I've never been myself. But Sandy assures us the science was new and exciting enough to ensure the mind didn't wander. She's hoping more of our botanists can come and enjoy next year's meeting in Rhode Island - anyone who's interested should check out the Botany 2010 meeting website.