What lies beneath: dusting and documenting the blue whale skeleton | Conservators

The team have been busy in the 3 weeks since my last post, studying the blue whale skeleton and documenting its condition. The first stage was to record the initial condition of the skeleton, including the coating of dust that has accumulated over time, and to start to identify areas which would require attention prior to dismantling.

Photo showing the dusty vertebra close up
Thoracic vertebrae coated in dust and also showing an area where a metal support has failed.

Dust particles that are deposited on museum objects will typically consist of fibrous material (aka “fluff”) and non-fibrous particulates. Dust is hygroscopic and can accelerate biological, chemical and physical deterioration of specimens and even though it is over 6 metres above the ground, the whale skeleton is a dust attractor so a regular cleaning schedule is important where practicable. On this occasion, over 1.3 kilos of dust was removed from the blue whale skeleton during this initial clean.

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Notes in the collections tell natural stories | Curator of Micropalaeontology

Earlier in the summer I tweeted a picture of a microfossil slide I made in 1997. On the back I had written that it was made while I was listening to England bowl Australia out for 118 in a cricket test match at Edgbaston, Birmingham.

slide with cricket annotation
A microfossil slide with a cricket-related annotation on the back.

The slide got me thinking about more important hidden notes I have found recently that relate to historical events and provide a context to the microfossil collection. This post examines evidence of a collector’s escape from a disintegrating ice floe, attempts to cover-up a major disagreement between two scientists and the sad end for a laboratory that led to my first job as a curator.

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Up in the air: the beginnings of a whale-sized conservation project | Conservators

The stunning 25 metre long skeleton of a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus) currently suspended in the Museum’s Mammals and blue whale gallery since 1934 is to be taken down in January 2016. After an extensive period of cleaning and conservation it will then be re-suspended from the ceiling of the Hintze Hall in the summer of 2017.

Photo of the blue whale skeleton from head-on and below.
Head-on view the blue whale skeleton prior to scaffolding being put in place.
Photo showing the scaffolding from the rear, left side view
The scaffolding in place around the blue whale skeleton, with the model of the blue whale below.

Following months of careful consideration the blue whale skeleton has been chosen to take centre stage at the Museum, to give an immediate introduction that illustrates our research into the rich biodiversity of life on Earth and a sustainable future, as well as the origins and evolution of that life.

Moving a blue whale around is quite literally an enormous project which involves many specialists including curators, project managers, scaffolders, structural engineers, specimen handlers, and mount makers, to name but a few. Central to this project are the conservators who will be ensuring the skeleton is given the due care and attention it needs.

So exactly how do you work on a large specimen suspended over 6 metres above the ground with many other specimens and models surrounding it? That’s the story we aim to tell in our upcoming posts in our new Conservators blog.

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Guest post: What an experience! A working week at the Museum | Curator of Lepidoptera

One of the most important aspects of being a curator is not actually related to the Museum’s collections, but instead it’s ensuring that we encourage others to become interested in the natural world and the role we perform. So, this August gone, I was very lucky to have help from Billy Stockwell, a young wildlife enthusiast, who spent a few days at the Museum for work experience. Here’s his own tale of his time here, which he has kindly given me permission to reblog and I encourage you to read the rest of Billy’s adventures in the world of nature on his own blog:

The Natural History Museum is far more than just a museum. With 80 million specimens straddling 4 billion years of natural history it’s more of a microcosm of mother nature herself; a snippet from each stage of our planet’s life hitherto. Its collections are no less over-whelming, including prehistoric creatures worthy enough to feature in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park, to millions of butterfly specimens whose species inhabit our modern world today.

Photo showing hawkmoths in a drawer
Hawkmoths in the Museum’s collection

From a visitor’s perspective the most exciting aspects of the Museum may be the captivating dinosaur exhibition, the butterfly house, or even the Museum’s gift shop. But if you’re brave enough to venture behind the scenes you have another thing coming! And that’s exactly what I decided to do for my work experience a few weeks ago…

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Science Uncovered 2015 – we will see you there! | Library and Archives

Science Uncovered 2015 is rapidly approaching and, as usual, the Library and Archives team will be contributing to the night this Friday 25 September. And not just at the Museum in South Kensington but also at our sister Museum in Tring, Hertfordshire.

Image showing the digitised coloured image by Smith
“The Courtship of Pisaura mirabilis” by Arthur Smith

South Kensington (between 17.00 – 21.00)

We’ll be in the Earth Sciences Library in the Red Zone (the door is within the Lasting Impressions gallery). This collection space is not usually open to the public, so it’s a very rare opportunity to have a peek inside.

This year we’ll be showing off some our favourite items from the Library: books, artworks, archives and artefacts that highlight the amazing diversity of our collections and our work.

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Chance discovery contributes to origins and evolution focus | Curator of Micropalaeontology

When I first came to the Museum I dreamt that one day someone would bring something in for identification that I would recognise to be a really important find. The contents of a consultancy sample back in 2005 helped to make my wish come true. This post tells of the discovery and subsequent publication of a significant species of early fossil fish from Oman that provides information on the origins and evolution of life on our planet, one of the main focus areas of Museum science.

Montage of photos showing close ups of fossil plates and scales
Examples of plates and scales of the early fish Sacabambaspis

Very occasionally I get consultancy rock samples sent to me for dissolving to find microfossils. This is so that we can provide the age for a rock formation or details about fossil environments or climate. And so it was that Alan Heward, then of Petroleum Development Oman (PDO), sent me a sample in 2005 for analysis to try to find age diagnostic conodonts. Conodonts are extinct phosphatic microfossils that look like teeth and are used extensively for dating rocks that are roughly 500-205 million years old.

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New webpages launched | Library and Archives

The Library and Archives have launched its brand new webpages. It has never been so easy to learn about our collections and how we can help your research.

Screen shot of the new Library home page
The Library’s new home page on the Museum’s website

The Library and Archives team have recently been working hard to create clearer, more in-depth webpages to provide information about our collections, services and work. We are very proud of the end result and hope you like them too.

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Inspiring young Victorian minds through sport | Library and Archives

In amongst the collections of one of the largest natural history libraries in the world, are some unexpected items and here’s one of my favourites:

A photo of the front cover of Entomology in Sport
The front cover of Entomology in Sport by Two Lovers of the Science

Traditionally the Museum Library has not actively purchased natural history material aimed at younger readers, but there are some to be found within the shelves.

Entomology in Sport is an example of a publication aimed at aspiring young Victorian minds. A miniature visual world of insects has been intertwined within the words and paragraphs of this little book. Regardless of your age, you can’t help but be charmed.

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Neglected Tropical Diseases on display at the Museum | Super-flies and Parasites

On 25 June the Museum will open its doors to a special event in celebration of the international and global commitment between countries, industry, charities and academia to work together against Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs). This commitment was first agreed upon in London in 2012 and has since been termed the London Declaration On NTDs.

World Health Organization has identified 17 Neglected Tropical Diseases. 10 of these have been targeted for control and elimination by 2020
World Health Organization has identified 17 Neglected Tropical Diseases. 10 of these have been targeted for control and elimination by 2020

By joining forces to fight NTDs the world would achieve a huge reduction in health inequality paving the way to sustainable improvements in health and development especially amongst the worlds poor. The 25 June sees the launch of the third progress report, ‘Country Leadership and Collaboration on Neglected Tropical Diseases’. A pragmatic overview of what has been done, what has worked, what hasn’t and what key areas still need to be achieved.

The Museum is thrilled to be participating in this event, having a long-standing history in parasitic and neglected tropical disease research. As both a museum and an institute of research our mission is to answer questions of broad significance to science and society using our unique expertise and collections and to share and communicate our findings to inspire and inform the public. We are excited to be hosting a day of free public events on Neglected Tropical Diseases. Continue reading “Neglected Tropical Diseases on display at the Museum | Super-flies and Parasites”

New paper: Modal mineralogy of CI and CI-like chondrites by X-ray diffraction | Meteorites

Some meteorites, called CI chondrites, contain quite a lot of water; more than 15% of their total weight. Scientists have suggested that impacts by meteorites like these could have delivered water to the early Earth. The water in CI chondrites is locked up in minerals produced by aqueous alteration processes on the meteorite’s parent asteroid, billions of years ago. It has been very hard to study these minerals due to their small size, but new work carried out by the Meteorite Group at the Natural History Museum has been able to quantify the abundance of these minerals.

A CI chondrite being analysed by XRD. For analysis a small chip of a meteorite is powdered before being packed into a sample holder. In the image, the meteorite sample is the slightly grey region within the black sample holder. The X-rays come in from the tube at the right hand side.
A CI chondrite being analysed by XRD. For analysis a small chip of a meteorite is powdered before being packed into a sample holder. In the image, the meteorite sample is the slightly grey region within the black sample holder. The X-rays come in from the tube at the right hand side.

The minerals produced by aqueous alteration (including phyllosilicates, carbonates, sulphides and oxides) are typically less than one micron in size (the width of a human hair is around 100 microns!). They are very important, despite their small size, because they are major carriers of water in meteorites. We need to know how much of a meteorite is made of these minerals in order to fully understand fundamental things such as the physical and chemical conditions of aqueous alteration, and what the original starting mineralogy of asteroids was like.

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