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Next week our dinosaurs will go to sleep for two weeks. The Geology exhibition will close for “essential maintenance” – you will have seen similar signs in other places. In our case “essential maintenance” does not mean that the dinosaurs’ toilet is blocked (now we do have coprolites on display but they are well and truly fossilised). But if you thought all the light bulbs were blown and we have to fit new ones you wouldn’t be far off. Except that we never did have any black holes in our galleries – no need to bring miners’ lamps which are absolutely reserved for Big Pit.

What we are going to do does indeed involve changing light bulbs. We need light in order to see, and without light we would not be able to appreciate most objects in museums. Light, however, can damage many types of objects. You may have noticed at home that old photographs fade, as do organic inks and pigments on prints and paintings. Leave a newspaper out on the window sill for a few days and it will have yellowed.

In the museum, where we preserve objects for posterity, the damage done by light can be a major problem. Any such damage is irreversible and cannot be repaired by our best conservators. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is particularly damaging. How long do you think museum objects should last? As part of our collections care, we plan lighting in galleries carefully to leave colours bright and vivid for as long as possible.

The new lighting systems we are fitting this month at National Museum Cardiff will be more energy efficient. In addition, the new lights will be of better quality which means you will see objects more vibrantly yet safely, without causing unnecessary fading. Because the new lights also produce less heat they will make it easier and cheaper to air condition our galleries.

Changing the lights is not all we are going to do – there are a myriad of additional jobs to be done while we have the opportunity. All this takes a little time – between the 20th June and 3rd July. It won’t really be the dinosaurs changing their own lights, of course – there will be technicians, curators and conservators busily climbing ladders and scaffolding.

We do all we can to preserve our national collections and to improve our sustainability. So please bear with us when you see the signs and come back to see the Geology galleries in a new light in early July.

 Find out more about care of collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here.

Between 20 June and 4 July, our popular Evolution of Wales galleries will be closed while we undertake some essential maintenance work.

For these two weeks, visitors will not be able to access areas showing the introduction, Big Bang, Carboniferous forest, dinosaurs, mammoth or the Ice Age animals. Other galleries remain open during this time, including the Diversity of Life gallery (with lots of birds), the mineral collection and all the natural history galleries with the British woodland scene, basking shark, hump back whale skeleton and our new exhibition Wriggle! The art galleries upstairs are also open, unaffected by the maintenance work.

The work covers improved care of the collections and sustainability of the building, including:

  1. Changing the gallery lighting to LED, to reduce electricity consumption, our carbon footprint and costs. LED lighting gives off less heat than conventional lighting so the air conditioning system will work better - it’s better for the items on display, because keeping a stable temperature helps maintain the condition of the objects. LED lighting also reduces future maintenance costs, and changes to the lighting will make the galleries brighter in some places.
  2. Improvements to the fire alarm system so it's better for the collections, the building, staff and visitors.
  3. Upgrading video screens from CRT to HD LCD with touch button interactive controls. This will improve video content delivery, reduce maintenance costs and provide a contemporary aesthetic to the gallery, making units more streamlined.
  4. While the galleries are closed curators will be able to secure some of the items that have become loose in the cases, thus improving their long-term care. They will also clean the displays thus reducing the risk of potential pest infestations – pest management is vital to the care of museum collections.
  5. Finally, installation of the new life-sized recreation of the new Welsh dinosaur, Dracoraptor hanigani as part of the dinosaur display.

This blog is about fossils whose beautiful patterns have intrigued us for as long as we’ve been human. These animals survived the evolutionary power struggles of the past to leave their relatives in today’s oceans. They are the Sea Urchins, or to give them their scientific name, the Family Echinoidea - Echinoids to their friends.

A ‘Hedgehog’ by name, but not by nature

Their name comes from the Greek ‘Echinus’, meaning Hedgehog, because of their spines. People in the Middle Ages had the idea that each kind of land animal had a matching version living in the sea; sea-horses, sea-cows, and so on. So the spiky Echinoid was naturally called a Sea-Hedgehog. This might sound daft today, but we still call the Echinoids’ cousins “Starfish” though we know they’re nothing to do with fish at all !

Like little armoured aliens

The bodies of echinoids are really strange, almost like something from science-fiction. Being covered in massive spiny stilts you can walk on is weird enough, but inside their box of a shell they’re even more peculiar. They have a multi-purpose organ called the water vascular system. It’s a central bag of fluid connected to five lobes which lead to many tiny tubes coming out through pores in the shell. These are its tube-feet. It can move them around by changing the pressure inside the bag. They’re very handy for dragging itself along the sea floor, sensing the surroundings, and for getting food to its mouth. Some burrowing echinoids can even stick a tube foot up above the sand to get oxygen from the water.

Their basic body plan has proved to be very well adapted to a life of sea-bed scavenging. They move along like armoured tanks eating up whatever they can find; mostly algae, but their set of five toothed jaws can deal with a varied diet.

Cherished by the Ancients

The beautiful shells of echinoids have fascinated humans for a very long time indeed, maybe because they’re so different from other animals on the planet. Most animals have just one line of symmetry and an even number of limbs. But echinoids and their cousins the starfish can show star-like five-fold symmetry.

We know that this struck many people in the past. Ken McNamara gives the following two examples in his book “The star-crossed Stone” about the rich folklore of echinoids.

The oldest example of a collected and labelled fossil, is an echinoid with Egyptian hieroglyphics inscribed on it about 4000 years ago. It was found “in the south of the quarry of Sopdu, by the god’s father Tja-Nefer”. Sopdu was called the god of the morning star - he was a kind of border-guard god, and it’s been suggested that echinoids were important to the Egyptians in some way in their travels to the afterlife.

But human fascination with echinoids stretches back much, much further than that; long enough for the great ice sheets to have advanced and retreated across Britain four times since. About four hundred thousand years ago in what is now Kent, someone chose to make a tool from a flint containing a fossil echinoid. Most flint tools have two cutting edges, but this one may have been left unfinished on purpose. If the maker had chipped the flint to make the other edge, the fossil would have been destroyed. What is amazing is that this person was not a Homo sapiens like you or I, but either a Homo heidelbergensis or a very early Neanderthal (Homo neanderthalensis). Other humans were collecting fossils before members of our own species left Africa.

Trevor Bailey, Senior Curator – Palaeontology. This blog was adapted from a gallery tour I gave at the National Museum Cardiff.

Turkey may seem a long way away to the people of Wales. But events there some 300 million year ago have had a profound and lasting effect, on our Welsh climate, landscape and wildlife.

For about 10 million years, Wales was part of an enormous tropical swampland extending from eastern North America to Turkey and the Caucasus. The dead remains of the plants that grew there caused massive deposits of peat to build-up. This peat was then buried by mud and sand, and the resulting heat and pressure changed it into the coals on which much of the industrial growth of places such as Wales depended, especially in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

But nothing lasts for ever, and the swamps eventually dried up and the accumulation of the economically important coal-forming peat came to an end. What caused this profound change to the environment has been the subject of much scientific debate. Research co-ordinated from Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales (as part of the International Geoscience Programme project IGCP 575) suggests that it was due to the combination of two major factors.

  1. Landscape Change: The collision of two large continental plates (Euramerica and Gondwana) caused a massive upheaval of the landscape, with rivers changing direction and new mountain ranges forming. The effect of these changes was particularly felt in the areas where the swamps had been.
  2. Climate Change: The changing landscape caused a different type of vegetation to grow here, and this coincided with a significant warming of the climate and a reduction in rainfall.

Importantly, these environmental changes started first at the eastern end of these swamplands, in places such as northern Turkey, and then progressively moved westwards towards Wales.

So, in order to understand properly what caused the collapse of this ancient wetland in Wales, we need to study events in Turkey. To do this might have needed extensive (and expensive) field excursions to the area. Fortunately, we have a scientific resource nearer to hand that can provide at least a start to this work. In the years just before and after World War II, the great Dutch palaeobotanist Wilhelmius Jongmans led expeditions to northern Turkey to collect Carboniferous plant fossils. He sadly died before he could properly work on them. Fortunately, however, his collection of over 5,000 Turkish fossils is now stored safely in the Naturalis Museum in the Netherlands.

Chris Cleal from Amgueddfa Cymru–National Museum Wales is now leading a collaborative project with colleagues from the Netherlands, Germany and the UK, to research this collection – using expertise developed in Wales to bear on an internationally important problem. It will help us understand what controlled the formation of coal deposits such as those found in Wales, and how vegetation, atmosphere and climate interacted in Carboniferous times. 

The world 300 million years ago was in many ways similar to today (far more similar to what it was in the intervening millions of years ago, for instance in Mesozoic times, when the dinosaurs were roaming around). Studying how climate, vegetation and the atmosphere interacted in this ancient world therefore allows us to check some of the assumptions on which scientists have been basing their modern-day climate models.

This shows the importance of international collaboration between museums in scientific research – why it is vital for scientists in Wales to work with colleagues from across the world.

We have had more of our I Spy Nature Competition winners in for special behind the scenes tours of National Museum Cardiff.

We ran a drawing competition as part of our I Spy Nature Pop-up Museum at the Capitol Shopping Centre over the summer. We had some fantastic entries and it was extremely difficult to choose the winners. However, we managed to select several winners and they were given natural history related goodies from the Museum’s shop and offered special tours to see what happens once you leave the public galleries and go into the museum’s collections.

These three lucky winners had tours in the fossil and mineral collections with palaeontologist Dr Lucy McCobb and mineral curator Andrew Haycock. 

Some of our other winners have also been in to see what happens in the marine, shell and vertebrate collections.