The Museum ‘homemade’ mobile field laboratory – Explore Your Archive Week | Library and Archives

Scientific expeditions have been regularly undertaken by the Museum since it opened its doors in 1881. These are often abroad and need to be planned well in advance, with supplies and equipment ordered and prepared, often on the Museum site. On many occasions staff can find themselves having to be creative and imaginative, especially when the terrain about to be experienced is likely to be extreme and the facilities limited.

Colour archival photograph showing a white truck in the mid-distance, parked in sparsely vegetated bushland next to a watering hole, with sand dunes rising from the horizon in the background
Museum field work in Namibia during the 1970s needed some special #AutoArchives facilities…

In the 1970s a group of Museum entomologists did just that, having acquired an ex-army lorry they were to transform it into a mobile field laboratory suitable for all their scientific research needs during a five month expedition through southern Africa. And thus, our Explore Your Archives Week stories continue…

During 1971-72 the staff in the Museum’s Entomology Department, arranged a major expedition to Namibia (South West Africa), plus adjacent parts of South Africa, Botswana and Angola. This included travelling through two ancient deserts, the Namib sand desert and the Kalahari. It became known as the ‘South Western Africa Expedition’.

The team consisted of five entomologists: Brian Cogan, Mick Day, Peter Hammond, Dave Hollis and Dick Vane-Wright. As well as their own specific research areas, they had a large collecting remit for the trip as a whole, and jointly their expertise covered all the main insect orders.

One of the biggest requirements was a mobile laboratory, which would need to be able to handle the varied and often unpredictable terrain and weather conditions. Such a vehicle would also be expected to store a large variety of collecting equipment, and provide research space and living quarters. However money for the overall expedition was tight, and buying such a piece of equipment new, regardless of how essential, was not going to be possible.

So the team decided the best way to achieve this was to custom build their own, all on a shoestring budget.

Colour archival photograph showing four bare-chested men in shorts seated and standing inside the mobile laboratory in the truck.
The team at work inside truck and demonstrating the ‘spacious’ personal belonging drawers at the top (and, also, that the hipster look is nothing new…)

An ex-army Bedford 4 x 4 ‘gun tractor’ was purchased for £300 and the cab of an old army fire engine (£21) was grafted on. The ‘truck’, as it was fondly referred to, was positioned in the then Museum car park on Queen’s Gate, stripped to the flat bed, and rebuilt to the required specification by the team, including all the electrics. This took several months, working evenings and weekends. The woodwork was of such a high quality, that it was clear if entomology ever failed them, then carpentry was a viable plan B!

Each member was allocated two overhead boxes for their personal belongings. It had 120 gallon fuel capacity, a sand anchor and powerful winch (literally for getting out of sticky situations, which proved a very wise precaution), three generators for lighting and trap lighting, and two spare wheels.

Colour archival photograph showing the truck driving through muddy water from a flash flood with a man walking beside it
Flash floods posed some problems along the way

The vehicle was shipped out to Cape Town strapped to the deck of a Union Castle line vessel ready for its adventure. The team were joined along the way by experts from local institutions, who provided invaluable support and knowledge.

By the end of the five month long journey, millions of specimens had been collected. These were studied and are still being studied by scientists from all over the world, as well as those at the Museum. This resulted in many new species and hugely valuable distributional data related to all the species collected.

Colour archival photograph showing a white truck in the background parked between some very large, oval boulders with a flat ridge stretching out in front of it.
At Bulls Party Rocks, Namibia

The Museum Report for 1972-1974 concluded that:

One of the most significant features of the expedition was to collect at over 150 sites at intervals of approximately 80-100 km. By simple standardisation of the collecting methods, in particular in the siting of traps and the collecting of dung and litter samples, much additional ecological and distributional data were obtained. No previous entomological expedition has, to our knowledge, covered such an area in a tropical or subtropical environment, sampling with comparable depth or frequency.

The total cost of the expedition was £3,000 (about £42,000 today), including the initial cost of the army vehicle (but excluding staff salaries and their hundreds of hours of voluntary work).

The ‘truck’ returned to the UK and continued for a couple of years as a training vehicle. After this it was used twice for Trans-Sahara expeditions by the Museum Palaeontology Department. She ended her days somewhere in North Africa, stricken by a broken water pump after crossing the great desert for the fourth time.

By Hellen Pethers, Researcher Services Librarian

Many thanks to Dick Vane -Wright for his information and photos.

To learn more about the collections held by the Library and Archives, including the electronic resources we subscribe to (most of which can be accessed by external researchers using our reading room), and how to make an appointment to research in the public reading room, please visit our webpages.