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5 Posts tagged with the explore_your_archive_2013 tag




This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (


Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), founder of the natural history museum in Tring (at that time titled the Walter Rothschild Zoological Museum) left that museum in his will to London’s Natural History Museum, including the extensive scientific specimen collections he’d amassed throughout his life.


One notable gap though was his ornithological material – Walter’s bird collection, which he began amassing from the age of seven, was widely considered to be the most comprehensive in the world, and as a Trustee of the Natural History Museum it was presumed (by him as well as us) that they would end up in our museum in South Kensington.


Unfortunately though, ultimately his finances precluded it. The economic crash of 1929 (possibly also compounded by a rumoured case of blackmail, supposedly a result of an affair with a lady of high standing) left him financially struggling and he sold his famed bird collection to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York when they were able to raise a substantially higher balance for the collection than we.











Perhaps helping to shed a little more light on this, and definitely showing the more personal side to Walter’s decision, is the Museum Archive’s recently acquired small collection of Walter’s private letters.  Particularly interesting because he had asked that all his personal correspondence be destroyed on his death - a wish which was carried out, leaving very little of his own letters to be read.




In one letter in 1932 Walter wrote to Ernst Hartert, who had previously been one of his curators at Tring, that:







It is with a very heavy heart & with most of my life torn up, that I write these lines. Owing to the world economic conditions & the failure of many stocks & bonds to pay interest, not to talk of increased & increasing taxation, I / have been forced to retrench drastically. The 2 alternatives which faced me were either to dispose of one of my two scientific collections as a whole or else to see the museum broken up & sold piecemeal by auction. I could not face the latter alternative as my life’s work would have been annihilated. So I had to decide to dispose of that collection /for which I could find a purchaser as a whole, & that is the bird collection. I have disposed of the whole collection except about 200 skins & the 250 Struthionidae & of course the mounted portion, ie about 280000 skins & the contract as signed provides that the collection is kept together in a separate room as the Rothschild collection under a separate body of three / trustees. As the British Museum could not find the money; the collection has been purchased & presented to the American Museum. I know that you will feel as crushed by this blow as I do but the worlds collapse made it inevitable.




The deal with the AMNH was protracted with negotiations with other museums, including ourselves, also taking place.  The complexity and controversy of the deal is demonstrated by him later when he mentions:


The economic conditions in America are in such a bad way that the millionaire donor has absolutely forbidden his name or the sum to become known at present for fear of reprisals for having spent such a large sum; so at all events for some months I cannot say anything. All I can tell you is that the sum is a third more than I expected to get & much more than I even could have got in Europe before the war even [sic]. 2013_53_Hartert_sketchbook_2.jpg





Almost as excitingly, in this little collection there is also a notebook of sketches of Claudia Hartert, Ernst Hartert’s wife, for his book ‘On the birds of the islands of Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire’.  The little volume contains sketches of eggs and birds, as well as bird feathers.


This collection was sent to us by the Dutch Art Museum in the Hague, who found the package when clearing out their basement.  Quite how or why the letters Walter wrote and Hartert’s sketches ended up in Holland is entirely unknown.









This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (


The scientific work the Museum has done is found throughout the Archives, for over 250 years the Museum has been researching and studying, and the results of that are held here.

By delving into the Archives you can see that the Natural History Museum was far more involved scientifically in both world wars than might have been thought.










In the First World War the Museum’s science departments played a significant part in the war effort, with 14 Government departments consulting the Museum on a wide range of issues, from solutions to crustaceans damaging telegraph cables and fungus destroying army tents, to examining German Zepellin propellers to determine their composition. Museum staff provided advice on the safest ways to remove bullets from human bodies, information on possible alternatives to oil and food sources and the prevention of dysentery and contamination of foodstuffs. What information was supplied to the Admiralty ‘in relation to white mice in regard to certain matters connected with submarines’ can only be guessed at!  






Lazarus Fletcher, the Director of the Museum, took it upon himself to send samples of whale meat to various senior government officials, with the idea of persuading them of the usefulness of this alternative food source. Although one responded that ‘I had two or three people to dinner on Monday night and I feasted them royally on whale, for I think a joint of whale is really a royal dish’, other responses that it was ‘oily’, ‘tough’ and ‘unappetising’ were less positive, and the suggestion was never taken up.


Entomologists worked on eradicating ticks and mites, mosquitoes, and flies in the trenches, as well as how to protect the envelopes of air-ships and underwater cables from insect attacks.  The Zoology Department contributed important work on safe food to eat and designing camouflage, as well as examining crustaceans on sunken submarines to determine the age of wrecks and producing an ambitious study on using gulls to locate enemy submarines.




Gulls were successfully trained to identify submerged submarines by circling above them – though they couldn’t be trained to distinguish between a Fritz and a Tommy sub. While this particular study did not quite produce the desired result, it is a great example of just how creative Museum scientists were during the war.


Botany gave advice to the military on such topics as using moss for surgical dressings, suitable food for humans and horses in foreign climes, and the right timber to use for airplanes and air-ships.   






The geological department seems to have been the department which turned itself over the most completely to war work. Staff provided advice to Government on where to drill for water and oil, based on fossil specimens. One of the enquiries received was to determine how to build and maintain cement platforms in salt water and so enabling the easy docking of naval vessels.


But perhaps their most important work was in relation to the battle-grounds themselves, where they provided information and guidance on the geology of the terrain.








Across the Museum staff received letters from soldiers – from those who suddenly found themselves in charge of a paddock of goats or 200 camels and needed urgent advice, to those suffering from a scourge of bed lice or fleas. One man sent a selection of mosquitoes, adding that 'they were done to death with such violence they'll be difficult to identify'.


This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (




On the opening of the Natural History Museum in 1881 the Central Hall was reserved for species type characters of the principal subject areas of the museum with the purpose of, as Richard Owen put it, ‘forming an Epitome of Natural History’.


The concept of a type museum, or Index Museum as it came to be known, had been with Owen, the Natural History Museum Superintendent, for many years.  He had attempted in his previous post as curator of the Royal College of Surgeon’s Hunterian Museum to bring this to fruition – buying many non-surgical specimens for display, including a wide variety of mammals, and trying for a time in the 1840s to canvass the powers that be to remove the zoological specimens from the British Museum to his own Hunterian.  His central display there contained as many fossil mammals as it did surgical specimens, moving the focus of the museum and its exhibits from a practical medical one to a more general study of comparative anatomy.


On moving over to what was then the Natural History Departments of the British Museum, Owen focused on this perceived need for this Index Museum from the very outset – his first report to the Trustees in 1859 to propose a Natural History Museum separate from the Bloomsbury museum contained a circular hall in the centre, for the exhibition of type specimens.  ‘Such a building, besides giving accommodation to the several classes of natural history objects…should include a hall for a distinct department, adapted to convey an elementary knowledge of all divisions of natural history, the large proportion of public visitors not being specially conversant with any particular subject’.  His design by 1879 showed the Central Hall much as it is today with its series of bays, but with each bay devoted to a different subject area (mollusca, botany, minerals, fish etc.)


This period of development was at the peak of the age of the museums – a period of about 50 years when the majority of national and provincial museums were established.  Owen himself, although a key player in this, was in many ways quite old fashioned in his approach.  His emphasis on this Index Museum, at least in part, stemmed from this. His vision of a museum was a somewhat dated one: he desired that his new Natural History Museum would follow the old model where every specimen was on display and the whole museum was an exhibit, and therefore a key reference area would be needed to orient visitors and summarise the complex and voluminous array of collections on display.  His originals plans showed a huge 10 acre museum (only 5 acres of land were finally purchased).  Other members of staff followed the lead of some of the more modern institutions, and believed that only a select sample of material should be on display, the rest kept in a reference section only available to researchers. With this arrangement, there would be no need of Owen’s desired Index Museum.


The Keepers of the various scientific departments wrote reports to the Trustees in 1880 arguing in favour of this segregation of research and display, and against the setting up of a separate Index Museum.  Their other key arguments were that more funds for a central display might mean less money for scientific research and display in the individual departments, and that Owen would take all the prime exhibits from the departments for his own exhibits.  Owen in turn wrote to the Trustees attacking these arguments and the scheme went ahead, largely by force of the old man’s will alone.

When the Natural History Museum, after a gestation period of over 20 years, was finally opened in 1881, Owen was 77 years old.  He had drawn up extensive plans for the museum generally, and in great detail for the Central Hall, having gone as far as coming up with a list of specimens and writing a guidebook for the proposed displays.  However he was no longer in a position to carry through many of his grand plans, and stayed on as Superintendent only until 1883 when the move of the last of the mammal specimens to South Kensington was completed.  He was replaced in his position by William Flower who had, like Owen, previously been the curator of the Hunterian Museum.  As such, Flower had considerable experience of curating and managing zoological exhibits.  He was given the new title of Museum Director.




The role of Director at this point though was very limited. Each Keeper had full control, not just of the scientists in their respective departments, but also over the structure and contents of all displays.  The only area which the Director had effective sway over was the central Index Museum, and Flower made the most of this opportunity.  The Trustees had wanted to give up on the type museum idea after Owen’s retirement, but Flower ensured that this did not happen.  He was in many ways much more forward-looking in museum layout and exhibition design than his predecessor. 





He was really one of the first to address the need for distinctly separate exhibition and study collections, the need to severely limit the amount of material on display for ease of understanding of the general public and the need to, as he put it, use specimens to illustrate labels, rather than labels illustrating (often rows and rows of only marginally different) specimens.  He stated that ‘The Curator’s business will be quite as much to keep useless specimens out of the museum as to acquire those that are useful’.



So William Flower was left to select and install the specimens following Owen’s grand Index Museum design.  Under his tutelage however, it changed from an index to the main collections in the Museum, into something more like an introduction to the concepts and principles of natural history, covering topics like evolution, albinism, natural disasters, seasonal colour adaptation, flight and domestication of animals.  There was also a series of temporary exhibitions related to specific anniversaries or events, on topics such as animals in the bible and Darwinism.  Flower was able to persuade the Treasury to supply funding for scientifically trained assistants who were not on the scientific staff of the Museum to work on the Central Hall collections – the first time staff were employed at the Museum purely for the managing and arrangement of exhibitions, rather than research work.


The Index Museum continued to grow and develop in the decades after William Flower, although it had faded out by the end of the Second World War.  After this point the bays of Central Hall contained a series of temporary exhibits, along with some specimens which were retained by popular request, while the centre held a series of large displays – originally a sperm whale, then a number of different elephant displays, and finally from 1979 onwards the Diplodocus which is still there today. 







This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (


Amongst the Museum Archives are some little gems of Antarctic history, from applications of aspiring Antarctic explorers and a food list for 46 men for three years with Discovery (costing a grand total of £4946), to exquisite pencil drawings by Edward Wilson and letters from Kathleen Scott to the Museum after her husband’s tragic death.











Besides being an obvious recipient for material collected on the Discovery (1901-04) and Terra Nova (1910-12) expeditions, the Natural History Museum had a direct connection with Discovery – the Keeper of Botany, George Murray, became the Scientific Director, going with the ship as far as Cape Town to provide scientific training for the officers and crew.




It is amongst Murray’s papers that a number of Antarctic-related items, including the food list and Wilson’s drawings, can be found. An introduction to the list reveals that the food had been selected for its variety, and that most of the meat would be purchased in Australia, where the Discovery was to stop off on the way south. In fact, a quarter of the total budget was to be spent on meat alone, ranging from roast beef, roast veal and ‘duck and green peas’, to brawn, compressed mutton and mock turtle stew. A number of unfamiliar items are listed – Viking milk (obviously different from the Nestlé milk it precedes), Plasmon, Somatose, Tropon – while champagne, Devonshire cream and port are included under ‘Medical Comforts’. Even in this basic list of foodstuffs, Edwardian hierarchies are apparent – everyone had the same honey but the crew had separate jam from the officers, and there was ‘Cabin’ and ‘Crew’ tea and coffee.




The drawings by Edward Wilson are a particular gem because the Archives (aside from the Photo Collection) are largely textual rather than visual in content. Wilson was Discovery’s Assistant Surgeon and zoologist. One of Scott’s core men, he went on the march to the then furthest point south in 1902, and to the pole itself in 1911. He died on the return journey in blizzard-bound tent with Scott, just 12 miles from the next food depot.


The nine pencil sketches we have in the Archives are just a taster of his artistic output, much of which is now at the Scott Polar Research Institute. They depict coastal features of South Trinidad, an uninhabited island off Brazil, where the ship stopped on its way south. The detail is remarkable, capturing rock formations and seabirds in a few graphite lines.


The items in the Archives are just a small proportion of the Museum’s Antarctic holdings. Though eclectic, they make their own unique contribution to the history of the Museum’s role in British Antarctic exploration.









This blog is written by Daisy Cunynghame from our Archives team to mark Explore Your Archive Week 2013 (



Before the internet, television, and even the radio, the Natural History Museum was publicised to the world through the printed press.  The Archives hold newspaper cuttings about the Museum from the 1830s right up to 2013, and they’re a great way of finding out more about the Museum – both how we really were, and how the media portrayed us.


What is now sometimes called citizen science was then, via the newspapers, a way of reaching out to people – from publishing a list of particular specimens we were short of, in the hope we’d get some opportune laymen to help, to asking those who stole bits of a giant squid which had been washed ashore if they wouldn’t mind terribly returning the pieces to us.


The newspapers would often track significant collecting expeditions all over the world – there would be regular articles each week about the progress they were making, the specimens they were finding, and any exciting near-death experiences.












Also quite a few clarifications abounded – there were rumours that we were willing to pay £1000 for a common flea, or as much again for the intact ash of a cigarette, and even more for a whole kingfisher nest.  The press was the ideal way to dispel these myths (which sometimes the papers had created themselves in the first place) before we were inundated with smoked cigarettes and fleas.



Senior scientists, and the Director himself, definitely had no qualms about wading into the fray – having extended letters page debates with creationists, deconstructing the myths of sea serpents, and clarifying with one man who described both telepathy and radium as ‘unknowable magic’.

















One of the early 20th century Museum Directors, E Ray Lankester, had a regular column in the Daily Telegraph titled ‘Science from an easy chair’, which discussed issues of the day and explained evolution, extinction and other scientific topics on behalf of the Museum.  And, flipping the coin, when Lankester felt he had been forced into retirement he used the letters pages of the broadsheets and tabloids to fight his own corner.


The press also showed another side to the Museum – from the 19th century warden fired when he was caught drinking a professor’s gin, to the quarrymen who unearthed some fossils and were found by Museum scientists to be using them as cricket balls, the uncouth English ‘roughs’ damaging the railings, and the ‘flirting flappers’ who apparently took to congregating in the Museum’s Central Hall.