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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

2 Posts tagged with the microfossil_christmas_cards tag

The end of March and start of April at the Museum marks the end of our reporting year so I thought I'd report on the news from the micropalaeontology collections over the past year. This includes details of national press coverage, exhibitions, loans, acquisitions, disposals, visitors, university teaching, projects by artists and answers to big questions about past climates.



Our most iconic specimen as advertising for the Treasures Gallery as 'hair to a Neanderthal with Darwin's beard'!




Microfossils are not the easiest display subjects. However, this year has seen several microfossil themed displays, both in the Museum and galleries elsewhere, that feature or have been inspired by our collections.


The highlight of the year has to be the display of one of our Blaschka glass models of radiolarians in the new Treasures Exhibition in the main hall of the Museum. The radiolarian scale model, multiplied by about 500 times, was a centrepiece of the display and featured heavily in the advertising for the gallery. The gallery has a public voting panel at the end and last time I looked, the Blaschka items were second favourite behind Guy the Gorilla!


The radiolarian model received a large amount of press coverage as part of the advertising of the gallery, including an image in the colour supplement of the Financial Times. I am told that a giant image of the model was projected onto the wall behind the Duchess of Cambridge as she opened the exhibition. A Blaschka video also featured on the Museum's YouTube channel including some additional radiolarian models that are yet to be put on display.


The year started with the the exhibition at the Gasworks Gallery of Irene Kopelman's images inspired by our collection of Antarctic Ocean radiolarians and ended with Gemma Anderson's exhibition of art at the Ebb and Flow Gallery, inspired partly by the loan of some radiolarian specimens from our collections.


Images of coccolithophores from our archives have been on display at the British Museum. Closer to home, Tom, Steve and I used a portable scanning electron microscope to display our microfossil zoo during the Science Uncovered public event in the galleries at the Museum in September.



Microfossil Christmas cards featured in the national media.


Other national press coverage


Our collections of Foraminifera hit the national press at Christmas when the story behind the microfossil Christmas cards was published by the Independent and a gallery of images from the collection were included on the BBC Focus web site.




The cabinet of foraminiferal slides loaned to the University of Birmingham for teaching on the Applied and Petroleum Micropalaeontology course.


Loans to support micropalaeontology teaching


The main loan of the year was to the University of Birmingham who borrowed 730 slides and over 2,500 countable specimens for use in the teaching of the new MSc course in Applied and Petroleum Micropalaeontology. Another loan of 180 slides from the former British Petroleum Collection was sent to support a student project on the same course that will be co-supervised by my colleague Steve Stukins.


Other loans have supported undergraduate projects at the University of Manchester and a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. A total of 500 images of our specimens or surrogate loans have also been sent out this year.



Tom Hill transporting part of the Modern Pollen and Spores collection past the giant sequoia in the main hall.


Collection enhancements and disposals


In January we transferred over 30,000 slides of modern pollen and spores from the former Botany Department. A good start has been made with rehousing some of the slides that are currently stored in less than adequate conditions. Other major donations have included 5 slide cabinets of Recent Foraminifera donated by Prof Jo Haynes to accompany the former Aberystwyth University Micropalaeontology Collection that arrived in 2000.


Space for these new collections was created by donating a large number of duplicate foraminiferal reprints to the Gryzbowski Library in Poland and a large collection of duplicate ostracod reprints to the University of Brasilia in Brazil.



Some acritarch images taken by Associate Tim Potter that were released on-line database this year.


Details of our collections on-line


About 8,900 microfossil specimen records were added to the museum on-line database this year and completed the transfer of records from our paper fossil foraminiferal registers. Details of about 90,000 microfossil slides are now available on-line covering most of our type and figured collection of fossil foraminifera.


Records from the Richard Dingle Collection of 90,000 ostracods on 2,500 slides were also added to the database this year and a paper detailing the collection published in the Journal of Micropalaeontology. The collection underpins Richard's work on ostracods that has helped illuminate some major questions in evolution, detailed the movements of ancient continents and shown patterns of migration of ostracods across oceans.


1,776 microfossil images from our collection have been posted on-line this year. Images of acritarchs from Tim Potter's collection have been added (see above). Images and videos relating to the Duxbury collection of Cretaceous Dinoflagellates are now available with the specimen details on-line.


A cabinet of former staff member Dr Ray Bate's correspondence relating to the ostracod collection has been transferred to the Museum archive and details of these documents added to the on-line archive search.



Temperature ranges of non marine ostracod species identified by Horton et al. (1992) from a Hoxnian site about 400,000 years old at Woodston, Peterborough. The mutual temperature range for the month of January is calculated and shows slightly lower mean temperatures than the present day (courtesy of Dr David Horne). New records of non-marine ostracod occurrences from our collections have been added to Dr Horne's database this year.




We hosted in excess of 200 scientific visitors again this year and welcomed student groups from the University of Birmingham, Imperial College, King's College and the British Science Academy. Academic visitors from universities continue to make up the majority of our visitor numbers with a visit from a post doctoral student from Turkey a highlight. She used the distribution of ostracod species in our collections to add to a database which helps estimate past climatic conditions.


John_Williams1.jpg John Williams with part of the Index of Palaeopalynology.


Publications on our collections


This is a harder question to answer as we usually rely heavily on our collection users to provide details of their publications that cite or figure our collections. I know of at least three major mongraphs in preparation/press and this year a book proposal submitted by Micropalaeontology staff and associates on the Museum Iraq Petroleum Microfossil Collection was accepted by Wiley Blackwell.


A short article on the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology was also published in the journal Palynology and we continue to welcome palynologists to use the index for their research.




I hope this does not sound like I am soley responsible for carrying out all of these tasks relating to visits, loans, donations, collections moves and exhibitions. It has very much been a team effort with so many collaborators that is would be impossible to list them all here. I would particularly like to thank Museum Scientists Tom Hill, Steve Stukins and our volunteers Daryl, Johanna, Freya, Heather and Stephanie without whose support this extremely successful year for the collections would not have been possible.


And finally ...


Keep in touch with what we're doing in Micropalaeontology with our @NHM_Micropalaeo Twitter feed that we also launched this year, which is where you'll hear about new positions in the labs and about our recent activities like this podcast from Palaeocast in which I featured.


Last year I posted some images of microfossils sent as Christmas cards by Arthur Earland (1866-1958) to his collaborator Edward Heron-Allen (1861-1943). Following my post I was contacted by Brian Davidson who now owns Arthur Earland's collection. He visited the Museum in October and brought with him some fine examples of Arthur Earland's foraminiferal slides. It is 100 years since the creation of one of the Museum slides and the story of Earland and Heron-Allen, their collaboration and their subsequent falling out has been published in The Independent newspaper and subsequently the BBC Focus web site.



The slide of Foraminifera made by Arthur Earland for Edward Heron-Allen in 1912.


How were they made?


Each individual specimen was positioned with a fine paint brush and glued down with gum Tragacanth by Arthur Earland. The specimens are Foraminifera; single celled organisms that mainly form shells of calcium carbonate with one or many openings. The sandy looking lettering on the slide is made mainly from tube shaped agglutinating Foraminifera of the genus Rhabdammina that gathers fine sediment from the sea floor to create a shelter for the single celled organism.




Why were they made?


Arthur Earland made them as gifts for his collaborators and aquaintances. He collaborated with Edward Heron-Allen for over 25 years, including a publication on the Foraminifera of the 1910-1913 Antarctic expedition of the Terra Nova (also known as Scott's Last Expedition). The specimens were chosen to show the amazing range of morphologies of the Foraminifera. Other slides in the collection show assemblages from particular samples, for example dredgings from the Challenger Expedition.



Portraits of Heron-Allen and Earland now hanging in the Museum's micropalaeontology library, The Heron-Allen Library.


Arthur Earland


Earland was a high-ranking civil servant who made a career working for the Post Office Savings Bank. Earland and Heron-Allen shared a room at the British Museum (Natural History) where they were able to work on the Foraminifera in an unpaid capacity. Earland's private collection is now owned by Brian Davidson who bought it from Brigadier H. G. Smith who had obtained it from the Estate of F. W. Mills in 1952. Earland must therefore have disposed of his collection well before his death in 1958. Foraminiferal slides made by Earland have been recorded in Ireland and also in Scotland where he went to live after his falling out with Heron-Allen. Brian Davidson has a listing for a 1,500 specimen slide made by Earland that has not been located in any museum collection.


Edward Heron-Allen


Heron-Allen, a Lawyer by profession, also had an unpaid position at the British Museum (Natural History). He was responsible for gathering much of the early microfossil collection as well as a vast library of foraminiferal books which he donated to the Museum in 1926. They are now housed, along with more recent microfossil library acquisitions, in the 'Heron-Allen Library'. The web site of the Heron-Allen Society lists his interests: violin making, palmistry, Persian texts, Selsey, esoteric fiction and asparagus. A number of publications detailing Heron-Allen's interests are available via the society.



The "Christmas card" slide made in 1930 and a 1922 "Thank you" slide made by Arthur Earland for Edward Heron-Allen. The 1930 slide contains far fewer specimens than some made in the 1920s that fill the whole cavity. This may represent a waning of their relationship by this time.


Why did they fall out?


In the early 1930s their long collaboration ended suddenly. Anecdotal evidence suggests they visited the Museum to work on different days after this to avoid seeing each other. Historical data and two key pieces of evidence in the Museum archives suggest a number of factors in the deterioration of their personal and professional relationship:


  • Poor health

    At the time both Heron-Allen and Earland were in poor health. Heron-Allen was devastated by the tragic death of his youngest daughter Armorel in a car accident in 1930 while Earland had angina and was unhappy at being passed over for the position of controller of the Post Office Savings Bank.


  • Authorship on a publication

    Part 2 of the monograph on the Discovery Foraminifera published by Earland in 1933 tells an interesting story. Part 1 had been published jointly by Heron-Allen and Earland but a note in part 2 states "Owing to illness, my colleague Edward Heron-Allen was unable to take as large a share as usual in the preparation of this report. At his own request, and against my wish, his name is omitted from the authorship".

    Heron-Allen's personal copy of the monograph tells a different story. A handwritten note, that subsequently had several layers of paper stuck over it, reads; "I had my name removed from the titles of this paper, when, on my return from Ceylon in 1931 I found that Earland had claimed all my work upon it as his own, and that, not having knowledge of the German language, he had ignored Hans Wiesner's report on the 'Süd-Polar Expedition' in which (in my opinion) most of his new genera and species are described and figured."


  • Division of labour

    The Museum archives contain a letter written in Edinburgh in 1943 from Earland to Ovey, who was then curator of Foraminifera at the Museum. It itemises in great detail exactly who did what during their association. It would appear that Earland did most of the slide related work while Heron-Allen did the writing, often using his personal wealth to encourage editors to accept their manuscripts for publication (In the Heron-Allen Library we have the receipts for various bills paid relating to illustrations and publishing).

    What is certain is that Earland's collection does not contain any "Christmas Card Slides" from Heron-Allen. Either they were never made or they were destroyed by Earland. The collection's owner Brian Davidson tells me that any references to Heron-Allen on the slides have also been scored out.


  • Jealousy and recognition

    It is clear from the 1943 letter that Earland was jealous of Heron-Allen who had all the connections and the money to pay for publications while Earland felt that he was the one doing the work. He may have had a point as all their papers were by Heron-Allen and Earland with Earland's name never as first author. Heron-Allen had also been elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his work on the Foraminfera. 


  • A female acquaintance

    The 1943 letter states that everything was fine until "that final woman" came around. Heron-Allen was a very charismatic and popular figure and often had an entourage of young females. It would appear that one of them may have been involved in the rift between the two scientists. The 2012 Annual Meeting of the Heron-Allen Society was entitled "Edward Heron-Allen and some women of his acquaintance"!





Earland's mounting skill, diligence and Heron-Allen's writing, connections and money was a fruitful combination for 25 years. Many publications and the accumulation of the best foraminiferal collection and library of the time was the result. The Heron-Allen and Earland Collection is the backbone of the current collection, in which the 1912 Christmas Card slide is one of the most treasured items. Happy 100th anniversary of the sending of this microfossil Christmas card and more importantly, Happy Christmas to you all!

Giles Miller

Giles Miller

Member since: Apr 21, 2010

This is Giles Miller's Curator of Micropalaeontology blog. I make the Museum micropalaeontology collections available to visitors from all over the world, publish articles on the collections, give public talks and occasionally make collections myself.

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