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Behind the scenes

3 Posts tagged with the sir_hans_sloane tag
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Some time ago I got a tip-off from my regular library source about the existence of a mineralised human skull in our collection. All she could tell me was that a scientist had been down to consult a book that contained some information about it; but she wasn't sure what book it was.

 

Armed with the scientist's name, and with visions of the crystal clear skulls of ancient Mesoamerican - and more recently, Indiana Jones - legend circling my mind, I set off to find out more.

 

But like the coded letter from Indy's old friend Oxley, which lead him to a Peruvian psychiatric hospital, and the interpretation of symbols scrawled therein which lead to the subsequent discovery of the grave of a sixteenth-century Conquistador which contained a crystal skull, my library tip off set in motion an epic series of twists and turns I had to navigate in order to track down our specimen and record its story in this here blog.

 

After months of emails and answer phone messages, conflicting schedules and workloads that didn't permit a spare moment to meet, I received an unexpected call from a scientist on the coast of Cornwall.

Hi, it's (Minerals Collection Manager) Mike Rumsey here. I'm on holiday right now, but I've got a 15 minute walk by myself back to my car so I thought I'd call you to talk about the skull. What would you like to know?

 

Hooray, I cheered internally, and replied: 'Everything!' And so he began:

It's a Hans Sloane specimen which dates to the foundation of the Museum, and we can trace it back quite a long way. We know that Sloane got it from the collection of a guy called Cardinal Filippo Gualtieri after Gualtieri died in 1728.

 

There's not many things we can trace back that far in the Mineral Collection.

 

It's a bit of a curiosity, really. It's supposedly the skull of someone who had fallen into the Tiber river in Rome. It's covered in a deposit called travertine.

 

Sadly for my crystal skull fantasy, Rumsey revealed that the skull is in fact a creamy limestone colour (not clear), and contains no crystal points (and probably never did). But, he continued:

It's got what looks like a handle attached to it. That sounds a bit morbid, but there's no evidence it was ever used as a drinking vessel. We think it's a rib bone of the same skeleton the skull came from.

 

Scientifically, we've not really done a great deal of work on it, although quite recently it was CT-scanned. I think they did find out that the skull is still in there, not completely replaced, which is quite interesting.

 

mineralised-skull-in-book_700_2.jpg

An image of the skull from the late eighteenth-century book Museum Britannicum, being an exhibition of a great variety of antiquities and natural curiosities belonging to the British Museum, by Jan van Rymsdyk. This was the tome that sparked the original tip-off.

 

mineralied-skull_700.jpg

A surface scan of the mineralised skull, which once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane.

 

Indeed, Farah Ahmed, manager of the Museum's X-Ray CT Scan Facility, confirmed Rumsey's belief.

Of all the skulls I've had come my way, this is probably one of the most well preserved. And considering the fact that you couldn't see it, and we had no idea what level it might have been preserved at underneath  - it's pretty special. The whole skull is intact, with only a small bit of damage above the nasal cavity, which is surprising, considering it must have had a bit of a bashing.

 

That's a rib going through its mouth. We think the whole body went in, and then the commotion and the motion of the river over time broke it up and just that rib got lodged there.

 

mineralied-skull-scan_700.jpg

An internal image showing the preserved and intact skull, and rib bone, under the travertine deposit.

 

The mineralised skull is currently on long-term loan to the British Museum, and can be seen on display in the King's Library, home to their permanent Enlightenment exhibition.

 

It is perhaps fitting that this specimen is no longer (at least for the next 25 years or so) at the Museum, as I am about to leave the Museum, too. The completion of my quest to track down, and uncover the history of, our mineralised skull marks my final Behind the Scenes blog before I move on to career pastures new.

 

Thanks for reading.

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Art is only nature operating with the aid of the instruments she has made

 

Paul Henri, Baron d'Holbach; French philosopher

 

Rarely have I come across a quote more fitting, than the above to the subject of this month's blog: a carved hornbill skull held in the bird collection at Tring.

 

By the accounts of all those who have had the pleasure of viewing the skull in the flesh (or in the bone, I should say) it is a truly remarkable thing. While other Museums do have examples of carved hornbill skulls, most are just etched, rather than actually carved in relief like the specimen I'm featuring today.

 

Jo Cooper, Senior Curator of the Avian Anatomical Collections at Tring, says:

It's a rather spectacular thing, and it's quite a rare piece.

 

Our specimen is crafted from a helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil), a species found on the Malay peninsula, Sumatra and Borneo. It is the bird's casque - an ivory-like plate at the front of the head which it uses for fighting, or jousting - that features our intricate artwork. The helmeted hornbill is the only hornbill with a solid casque (and therefore the only one suitable for carving). The composition of other species' is more spongey or honeycomb-like. Such is the density of the helmeted hornbill's casque, it is said to make up around a third of the weight of the bird.

 

700px-Rhinoplax_vigil.jpg

A helmeted hornbill (Rhinoplax vigil) with it's large and heavy casque. © Citron, CC BY-SA 3.0

 

The carving on our skull depicts a Chinese battle scene, set in a town by a river. There is also a figure holding a flag bearing the Chinese wén character, which can be translated to mean literature and culture. Jo says:

The level of detail is extraordinary, to the point there's a tiny bird, a kingfisher, which can be seen diving.

 

carved-hornbill-left-700.jpg

carved-hornbill-right-700.jpg

The solid casque of the helmeted hornbill is the only one suitable for carving, which is exquisitely intricate and detailed in our specimen of the month.

 

The specimen was acquired by Tring several years ago and was presented to the Museum by former curator Philip Burton, following his retirement. Burton had been given it by an eminent ornithologist.

 

Its origin dates to the 19th century, but Burton's and the Museum's records can only account for it up to the 1950s. Jo says:

Before that, we just don't know its history, but it is an antique object that goes back well into the 1800s.

 

The Museum consulted with experts at the Victoria & Albert Museum to help establish the specimen's provenance, and they confirmed that it was most likely created in China because the country had an established trade out of Borneo of the rare hornbill ivory. The Chinese often used it to make decorative belt buckles, snuff boxes and other small accoutrements.

 

Our beautiful hornbill specimen is not on public display, but Jo says it is very much at home at Tring:

This is the kind of thing you'd expect to see in the V&A or the British Museum, but actually it has a zoological interest too, so I think it's a good fit for Tring. It's also about cultural use and cultural relations, and that's what a lot of our collection is about as well.

 

We have a few (other similar) artifacts, in terms of things that have been modified, but nothing on par with this.

 

carved-hornbill-top.jpg

Spot the kingfisher?

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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...

 

Domenico_Remps_-_Cabinet_of_Curiosities_-_700.jpg

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).

 

stuffed-animal-man-700.jpg

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-corals-700.jpg

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.

flea-claim-700.jpg

flea-denial-700.jpg

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.