Dr Isabella Gordon (1901-1988), Crustacea specialist at the Natural History Museum 1928-1966.
A few weeks ago Catherine Booth made an appointment to view material in our reading room for the first time. Catherine has recently retired as Science Curator at the National Library of Scotland and will now able to spend time researching what had became an interest while she was working – the lives and careers of forgotten Scottish female scientists. One of these scientists, Isabella Gordon, drew her to visit the Library and Archives at the Natural History Museum. The following is Catherine’s guest blog.
For Explore Your Archive Week Jordan Risebury-Crisp, Internal Communications Officer at the Museum, recalls how the Hintze Hall redevelopment prompted his own adventure in to the Museum’s past.
The Museum has seen a number of changes in the last few years. In 2015 it was announced that the much beloved and iconic Diplodocus cast, affectionately called Dippy, was to be removed from his position in the Museum’s Hintze Hall where he had stood proudly on display, greeting visitors as they arrived at the Museum for over four decades.
Following Dippy’s departure the entire hall would then undergo a multi-million pound transformation, involving renovation, re-imagining of displays and bringing our Museum into the 21st century; a tough feat to accomplish considering the hall has been open to the public from 1881.
The scope of the Library collections at the Museum is truly international with many items already having travelled a significant distance to reach us. From the artworks of Cook’s Endeavour voyage, through to the Chinese illustrations of plants collected by John Reeves and the sixteen beautifully illustrated sketchbooks of Olivia Tonge detailing her travels in India, many of the items in our collections have undertaken and survived incredible journeys of their own just getting here.
Imagine travel with no need for a passport, no lengthy queues for security, no limits to baggage, and when passing through customs, you could happily note, ‘no questions asked about my gun’.
That, for the pioneering palaeontologist, Dorothea Bate, was the upside to travel in the early years of the 20th Century. It was by no means all positive, however. Travel by ship and train round Europe, not to mention journeying by a variety of ‘quads’ – donkey, mule and pony – over mountainous Mediterranean islands could be challenging, to say the least.
The art of writing a cheque is somewhat of a lost one these days, what with direct debits and online transfers revolutionising the way in which we pay our bills. However discovering a box of cheque book stubs within the remnants of the Tring Correspondence (in the Natural History Museum Archives) has given me a vital source of evidence for tracing the history and finances of the Natural History Museum at Tring.
Within the box there are surviving cheque stubs for the years 1895 through to 1897, a key period in the museums history. Lord Walter Rothschild (1868-1937) had begun to employ staff, furnish and expand his museum and of course, buy large existing collections of specimens from other private collectors and smaller ones from natural history dealers and suppliers, in order to enhance his own rapidly growing collection of zoological specimens.
There are thousands of books in the Natural History Museum Library, covering the subjects of Zoology, Botany, Entomology, Ornithology and Earth Sciences. A book can often tell a story other than that originally published on its pages. This is the additional story written by one or more owners during its lifetime. Some people add a bookplate, record their name or dedication on the flyleaf when presenting to a loved one, others annotate text with comments or bookmark sections with ephemeral items such as tickets or receipts. Many in a collection such as the Museum Library include relevant additional information added by the owner such as newspaper cuttings, photographs and pressed specimens.
Edwin Rose has been using the Museum Library and Archives for research into his PhD. In this blog he highlights one such example, British Zoology by Thomas Pennant.
Elle Larsson is a PhD student at King’s College London, researching the specimen and archival collections related to Lord Walter Rothschild, at the Natural History Museum (at both South Kensington and Tring). A significant part of this involves going letter by letter through the volumes of correspondence of the Museum at Tring. In the following blog, Elle highlights one particular letter which describes the planned arrival for a very large #AnimalArchive acquisition in 1900.
Being able to delve into the Archives of the Museum has to be one of the most exciting things about doing a collaborative PhD with the Museum. In my case I’m looking at the Tring correspondence collection, the papers and letters which came from Lord Walter Rothschild’s (1868-1937) Zoological Museum at Tring (now the Natural History Museum at Tring). I am not a scientist but a historian and am looking to find out more about Rothschild’s zoological enterprise and scientific work. The Museum Archive is a critical source of information for my research.
In recent weeks I’ve come across some fantastic items including original watercolour drawings completed by Clara Hartert the wife of Tring curator, ornithologist and zoologist, Ernst Hartert (1859 – 1933), while on an expedition with her husband; a letter which contained feathers originally sent in 1894; and cheque stubs which reveal the colossal sums of money that changed hands as natural history specimens were traded. However it is the letters which relate to specimens held in the Museum collections, which add a whole new dimension to the work I’m doing. Recently I came across two letters which referred to a ‘Sea Elephant’ and one which can still be seen in Gallery 5 at the Natural History Museum at Tring.
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.
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…
An event such as Explore Your Archive Week (#ExploreArchives on Twitter) provides a great opportunity to challenge us to look at our collections in different ways. Today’s theme of transportation and automobiles (#AutoArchives) is a perfect example. As a natural history library and archive, we wouldn’t be an obviously rich source for material on this subject, but it is exactly for this reason that real gems can emerge.
When I approached our volunteers Effie and Judith, who work with our ornithology manuscript collections at the Natural History Museum at Tring, they knew exactly where to look!