The day the ‘Sea elephant’ came through the roof – Explore Your Archive Week | Library and Archives

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.

Photograph of a paper unfolded in its middle with several lines of cursive handwriting on each side of the fold.
7 April 1900 correspondence between Lord Walter Rothschild and Ernst Hartert

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.

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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…

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The Chrysler that drove across Africa in search of birds – Explore Your Archive Week | Library and Archives

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.

Black and white archival photograph showing a man sitting at a portable table in the foreground, a vehicle to his right and another man seated beside it to the rear.
Lynes (foreground) and Vincent, at breakfast in their mobile camp

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!

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The importance of archives: the retail angle #ExploreArchives | Library and Archives

For Explore Your Archives Week, Rosie Gibbs, buyer at the Museum talks about how the collections within the Library and Archives provide inspiration for her, her team and external designers.

The retail buyers at the Museum are responsible for sourcing and developing the products on sale in the Museum’s shops and online store, and one of the first places we look for inspiration for new ranges is our Library and Archive collections.

Photo of the poster
Original WWI ‘The Fly Danger’ poster produced by the Museum
Photo showing retail products on a table featuring the poster design
The new range of products created using the poster

They are a fantastic source of design material and are incredibly important for retail products as they enable us to create ranges that help tell a story about the Museum and its collections. It is very important for us to be able to offer visitors exclusive gift products that remind them of their visit, and that they cannot buy anywhere else.

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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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