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Behind the scenes

2 Posts tagged with the daisy_cunynghame tag

Guest post by Daisy Cunynghame


Much is known about the Museum's work and contribution to the efforts of the Second World War. One of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) workshops was even housed in the Museum, where new weapons, explosives and sabotage techniques were invented and developed by the British war organisation. But less is known about the contributions made in the First World War - both by individuals and as a Museum collective.


The Museum made important contributions to the war effort in a wide range of areas - supplying departmental expertise, furthering public education, providing public services and, of course, undertaking military service. The work helped solve many practical day-to-day problems, as well as developing innovations that aided in military strategy. Often the solutions found or attempted were ingenious and imaginative.


A number of Museum workers volunteered for military service, although casualties were inevitable and 13 were killed. Supplying men for the British Expeditionary Force was obviously one important facet of the Museum's role in the war, but there were many others. Some people translated German reports and correspondence. A number of scientists used their contacts on the continent to distribute propaganda, including The Manifesto of the Intellectuals and Gee! I Wish I Were a Man. The Museum also provided British prisoners of war with scientific publications for a little light reading.


There were several war-related projects and exhibitions at the Museum for the soldiers and the general public. A war farm was built at the eastern end of the grounds, which was tended by wounded soldiers as well as staff. The Museum was kept open to the public throughout the war, to provide an escape for convalescing solders and to educate the public on important matters related to the war effort.



Staff and convalescent soldiers, pictured in 1917, tend the 'war farm' at the eastern end of the Museum's grounds.


Special exhibitions included managing wartime allotments, dealing with infestations of various bugs, and how to prevent the killing of carrier pigeons by differentiation from the feral type.



A Museum display, ca. 1918, of carrier pigeons like those that saved lives by relaying messages from downed pilots or disabled ships during WWI.


The Entomology Department's part in the war effort was very important, having direct effects on the health of soldiers, food supplies and military operations. Work was done to find solutions to tick- and mite-related damage - on humans, army horses and food supplies. Additionally, important research was undertaken on how to protect the envelopes of air ships from attacks by insects, how to minimise the impact of mosquitoes and scabies on soldiers in the trenches and mites attacking food stores, and how to protect telephone and telegraph cables in the tropics.


Our armies in Egypt sent many enquiries to the Zoology Department, most of them relating to flat-worms, snails and the like, from a perspective of disease, food supply, water supply and commerce. Zoology contributed important work in other areas as well, including the use of crustaceans to determine the age of wrecks when examining sunken submarines, and an ambitious study on the use of gulls to locate enemy submarines. Gulls were successfully trained to identify submerged submarines by circling above them - although teaching them to distinguish between a 'Fritz' and a 'Tommy' sub proved less successful. While this particular study did not produce the desired result, it is a great example of just how creative Museum scientists were during the war.


The Botany Department gave advice to the military on topics such as the use of moss for surgical dressings, suitable food for humans and horses in foreign climes, and seaweeds and fungi safe for human consumption. Other areas of guidance included camouflaging weapons, the right timber to use for airplanes and air ships to avoid issues with insects and fungi, and how to prevent tents from being destroyed by fungi.


The Geology Department provided advice on where to drill for water and mine, based on fossil specimens. But perhaps their most important work was in relation to the battlegrounds themselves, where they gave information and guidance on the geology of the Italian and Belgian fronts. In addition, the department played a key role in finding a way to build and maintain cement platforms in salt water for the docking of naval vessels.


The staff in the Museum played an important role in the war effort, but the specimens themselves also proved invaluable. External visitors used the collections for a variety of ends. Mineralogy specimens were used to study the make-up of German trench cement and Austrian steel components, while overseas governments examined entomological collections to identify pests and insects of potential economic significance.


This, of course, is just a small sample of the extensive impact of the Museum's staff and collections on the war effort. Owing to the ingenuity and dedication of individuals, as well as the value of the collections for a myriad of purposes, the Natural History Museum can rightly claim to have played an integral part during WWI.


Further WWI posts:


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.