Michael Rogers Oldfield Thomas – a resolved ending to a suicide mystery for #ExploreArchives | Library and Archives

Many of the scientific staff who have worked at the Museum over time, have made significant contributions to the world of science and their professional lives has been well documented. For one such individual is was the end of his life, that up until recently, was shrouded in some mystery.

If you research Oldfield Thomas’s time working at the British Museum (Natural History) as we were formerly known, you can see that he was a prolific writer, and his generosity to the Museum is shown by the items he donated during his life and upon his death.

Photo of the Oldfield Thomas portrait
In his will, Oldfield Thomas asked that this portrait remain with the Mammals section if it was moved from his office after his death

Near the front entrance to the Museum is a small staff lift which has a plaque stating that it was installed using monies from Oldfield Thomas (OT), who served the Museum for 48 years. To many who study mammals he is still a hero but, after his death, he was surrounded in mystery and senior management staff at the time appear to have closed ranks to disclose nothing.

Whispers passed to those who enquire about OT, mention him committing suicide in his office, and that it took months for people to even be granted permission to enter his room. This is what got me interested in determining the truth to OT’s death.

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A year in review for #ExploreArchives | Library and Archives

It’s been a busy and varied year for the Museum’s Archives and Records Management service. There have been some staff changes, but our team of two staff (Kate Tyte and Ruth Benny) and some volunteers have still managed to answer 455 enquiries, host 133 visits and retrieve 955 items from the stores for our researchers to use.

Photo showing Kate Tyte seated at the back of the Archives with drawers open in front of her
Kate Tyte, Museum Archivist, working away in the stores

But just what are all these people researching? We’ve had enquiries about the Loch Ness Monster, the Challenger expedition, archaeological excavations, genealogy, meteorites, a botanical expedition to Peru in the 1950s, a model of a woolly rhinoceros, the origin and manufacture of glass jars for wet specimens in the 1800s, the Piltdown man hoax, UFOs (yes, you read that correctly) and taxidermied dogs.

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Latest edition of evolve out now | Library and Archives

Hot off the press is the autumn 2015 edition of the Museum Members’ magazine evolve and for those who love the Museum’s paper collections there is plenty to read about.

Image of the front cover showing a photo from the latest Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition
The cover of the latest edition of evolve

Natural Histories and the mandrake

The Natural Histories collaboration between the Museum and BBC Radio 4 over the last few months included the story of nightshade plant family and in particular the role of the mandrake in early medicine and its depiction in in botanical herbal illustrations such as those held in our collections.

New Bauer Brothers art exhibition in our Images of Nature Gallery and accompanying publication

Special Collections Librarian Paul Cooper introduces our exhibition of the botanical and zoological artwork of Franz and Ferdinand Bauer. The exhibition opened on 7 November 2015 and runs until 2017. All of the artwork by the brothers on display during this period comes from the collections of the Museum Library.

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Images of Nature: The Bauer Brothers (New Publication) | Library and Archives

Our latest publication to accompany the new Images of Nature gallery exhibition ‘The Bauer Brothers’, which opens 7 November, has been published and is now available to buy onsite and online.

Picture of the book cover
The cover of the Images of Nature: The Bauer Brothers book by Paul Martyn Cooper

We are very proud to announce our newest publication Images of Nature: The Bauer Brothers. This beautiful collection of artworks from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries celebrates the work of Franz and Ferdinand Bauer, two of the most accomplished natural history artists of all time.

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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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