Amgueddfa Blog: Natural History

Written by Caitlin Jenkins, MSc Conservation Practice student, Cardiff University

I’m Caitlin, an MSc Conservation Practice student from Cardiff University and I have just finished my summer placement at National Museum Cardiff. I’ve been working with conservator Julian Carter on the natural history collections, with the last five weeks focused on preparations for the museum’s summer exhibition, Snakes!

The first week saw me elbow deep in jars full of snakes, as we worked our way through getting 32 fluid preserved specimens ready for display. Although the snakes had already undergone previous treatment, many were very old and in need of attention. After checking the jars’ condition, we added or replaced conservation fluid as required.

Replacing the preserving fluid in the jars

Many snakes needed to be rehomed in new jars. Some preservationists use wires or mountings, but we chose to follow the natural shape of the snake and its flexibility to guide its positioning within the jar. My favourite of the specimens was a grass snake that had been preserved in the act of eating a toad (with one leg dangling from its mouth...poor toad!)

Topping up the preserving fluid for a grass snake

I was also able to assist with preserving a new addition to this collection – a boa constrictor named Aeron. After formaldehyde injections and several fluid changes, we needed to find an extra-large shiny new jar, because he was over a metre long. Aeron has now bagged a starring role as the centrepiece of his display case. I really enjoyed this experience, and it has given me a fantastic insight into the complexities and potential of fluid preservation.

Injecting the Boa with preserving fluid

Rhodri Viney from our Digital media team filmed the whole process of preserving the Boa

Aeron the Boa looking magnificent in the gallery

My other major project was the treatment of three snake models destined to be part of a large interactive exhibit within Snakes! Two were painted plaster models of a rattle snake and a king cobra. These incredibly detailed antiques were perhaps cast from real specimens. The third was a moulded rubber and polystyrene grass snake model from the 1960s. The models had survived in remarkably good condition given their age, they just needed a little ‘zhoosh’ to make them display-ready. Light brushing and swabbing with water and mild detergent was all that was needed to remove ingrained dust. Any loose or flaking areas were consolidated to ensure that they didn’t become further detached from the model.

Cleaning the rattlesnake model

Nevertheless, small elements were missing from each model. The grass snake model posed a specific conservation risk, as rubber and plastics can become unstable over time. Its tongue became fragmented during cleaning and unfortunately proved too badly degraded to reattach. Using photographs of the real-life snake species as a guide, I fashioned replacement tongues for this and the king cobra model from a strong plant-based fibre known as Japanese tissue. They were secured in place and painted to blend them into the jaw area. Being able to see the immediate improvement after each snake ‘facelift’ was very satisfying - this took cosmetic surgery to a whole new level!

Finally, the finished models were settled into their new home for the summer – a large interactive exhibit affectionately dubbed ‘the snake pit’. I’d become so immersed in their treatment over the last five weeks that I was kind of sad to see them go – but it was satisfying to see them looking their best and used in the spirit for which they were originally created.

The finished snakes in their jars ready to go up to the gallery

I’ve really enjoyed working on Snakes! from preparation to completed display – it’s been a fantastic experience. If you are in the vicinity of the museum, pleasssse pay them a visit.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.

On the 22nd June our new summer exhibition opened. This family friendly exhibition runs until September and delves into the captivating life of snakes, helping you to find out more about these extraordinary and misunderstood creatures. We are hoping to feature more detailed stories about all of the things mentioned below in a series of blogs running through July and August so keep tuning in to find out more.

Dr Rhys Jones at our opening launch event.

Snakes is a touring exhibition created by a company called Blue Tokay with added bonus content generated by our team. Work began on bringing together all of this way back in September 2018 and since then we have been busy researching, writing text and preparing some great specimens for you all to enjoy.

The main exhibition covers all aspects of the lives of snakes, so we focused our efforts on highlighting our collections at the museum. We hold over 3.5 million natural history specimens here, and as you can imagine, not everything is on display. We hold a small collection of 500 reptiles from all over the world. These are mostly preserved in alcohol and stored in jars, but we also have skeletons, skins and eggs. We chose 32 of our best snakes to go out on display. Each of these were carefully rehoused and conserved as many of the specimens were old and in need of work.

Some of the fantastic snake collections at the museum.

Our Conservation intern, Caitlin Jenkins, hard at work rehousing the snakes.

But it’s not just snakes in jars. We have also displayed some fantastic casts of 49 million years old fossil snakes, and 3D printed the vertebra of Titanoboa, the largest snake that ever lived.

Snake evolution case featuring casts of snake fossils.

One of my favourite features of the exhibit are our objects dealing with snake folklore and mythology, featuring a 13th century manuscript showing how snakes were used in medicinal remedies. Also some fantastic ‘snakestones’, actually fossil ammonites with snake heads carved on to the top.

Getting out the Snakestones from the collections.

You may also recognise the statue of Perseus that has long been displayed in our main hall. Perseus is enjoying his new surroundings, with Medusa’s snake ridden head looking positively sinister with the new lighting.

Perseus with the severed head of the serpent haired Medusa.

The exhibition features six live snakes and as I’m sure you can imagine, bringing live animals into a museum requires a LOT of preparation. We have done a great deal of work to ensure that their time with us is spent in 5 star accommodation. Their ‘vivaria’ are purpose built to ensure our snakes are well cared for, including warm and cool spots, as well as a water feature for a bathe. We have a fantastic (and very brave) set of staff who are volunteering their time to looking after them including changing water bowls, and clearing up their poo! Dr Rhys Jones (Cardiff University) has been fantastic with helping throughout this whole process, including coming in every week to feed them. The snakes are all provided by a company called Bugs n Stuff, you can see a video of them installing the live snakes here.

The largest of our live snakes, Prestwick, the Jungle Carpet Python.

Dr Rhys Jones with some of our staff at the live snake care team meeting.

Guy Tansley from Bugs N Stuff with Mela, the Boa constrictor.

Finally, our fantastic learning department, design team and technicians have worked hard to add some fun activities for all to enjoy. Our Spot the Snake pit features, amongst other things, two beautifully conserved models of a cobra and a rattlesnake that date back to 1903, and a real freeze-dried adder! We also have a snake expert quiz, a world map of snakes, and drawing and colouring stations. Volunteers will be in the gallery periodically across the summer with snake handling specimens including a real full length skin of an African Rock Python.

The exhibition runs till 15th September 2019, entry charges do apply, and all your contributions go towards bringing you even bigger and better exhibitions in the future. Please note that there is no live handling of the snakes within the exhibition, there will be a series of bookable handling sessions throughout the summer as well as a Venom themed Open Day in August. To find out more about all of this, go to our What's On page.

 

Within Amgueddfa Cymru’s botany collections are books of dried plant specimens created by scientists and enthusiasts. Each specimen has been carefully dried and pressed, before being added to the books, sometimes with handwritten or printed notes alongside. The books are of enormous importance both in terms of modern scientific research into climate change and biodiversity, and as a way to see first hand the history of botanical exploration.

You can now look through a catalogue of the 36 books that contain non-flowering plants, fungi, lichens and seaweeds. You can read about a few of the stories surrounding these books below. For more detailed information about each book, please visit the website.

These books show the changes in how we collect, classify and name plants over two centuries from 1800 to present day. An old volume which probably dates from the 19th century entitled “New Zealand Mosses”, contains more than just mosses. Lichens, algae and even some pressed hydrozoans (tiny marine animals) have been included by the unknown collector who chose to group these superficially similar ‘moss-like’ specimens together. This donation entered the Museum’s collections after its Royal Charter was received and before work had begun on the present Cathays Park building.

While the earliest currently known non-flowering plant specimen in the Museum is a moss collected in 1794 from Gwynedd, the earliest specimen book dates from 1803. This book is Lewis Weston Dillwyn’s personal collection of seaweed and freshwater algae collected between 1803 and 1809. Dillwyn’s specimen book was donated to the Museum in 1938 by the National Library of Wales, and has great importance both scientifically and historically.

Lewis Weston was part of the influential Dillwyn family, and his son John Dillwyn Llewelyn became an early pioneer photographer. He was interested in the natural history that he saw in south Wales where he lived. This is reflected in his scientific research as well as in the pottery designs created while he was owner of Cambrian Pottery. Dillwyn described new species of algae and his specimen book contains type specimens (irreplaceable specimens used in the original description of a species). The book is a personal record of his scientific life, recording places he visited and scientists who sent him specimens. He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1804 and later had a plant genus named after him in recognition of his work.

Many of the botanical specimen books in National Museum Cardiff have a fascinating history. Two contain mosses collected by Thomas Drummond on the Second Overland Arctic expedition between 1825 and 1827 to British North America (now Canada). Delving further into the book’s background reveals that the Captain, Sir John Franklin, sent Drummond to the Rocky Mountains with one Native American hunter. After the hunter left him on his own, he survived a severe winter, being mauled by a bear, and starvation. He still managed to collect, preserve and study many new plants of the North American continent. This work was published by Sir W.J. Hooker, who later became the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

The more recent books are systematically collected specimens known as ‘exsiccatae’. These are sets of duplicate specimens distributed by scientists to other museums. They help to spread the risk of losing a particularly important set of specimens, and to allow scientists around the world to study them. Lists of their contents are usually published in a journal or online. Much of the Berlin Herbarium and the botanical specimens within it was destroyed in World War 2, however many duplicate specimens from this collection survive in other herbaria around the world. From around the 1900s, exsiccatae changed from being bound books to being loose specimens. This meant museums receiving them could incorporate them into their collections alongside other closely related specimens for easier access and comparison.

 

The Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection features 65 specimens of plant-based dyes and tannins. The collection includes a range of leaves, roots, petals, seeds and barks used for dyeing and tanning from around the world.


'Economic Botany' refers to a group of plants that have recognised societal benefit. The Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales economic botany collection contains over 5,500 plant-based specimens, together with 12,000 timber specimens. Categories within the collection include medicinal plants; food products; dyes and tannins; gums, resins and fibres; and seeds.


Most of the dye specimens were collected from Asia, South Africa and the West Indies as well as a few samples from South America. There is one specimen from the UK - Isatis tinctoria (Woad) from Roath Park Cardiff (1936). Most of the acquisitions of these specimens were made in 1914, 1920—22 and 1938. Only two of the specimens were added after 1938.

As well as leaves, petals, roots and fruits the collection contains a range of specimens of barks for dyeing, largely acquired in the 1920s.

Dye specimens

A number of the plant-based dye specimens originate from India including:

  • The dried leaves of Indigofera tinctoria (Indigo) – one of the most famous plant dyes produces a range of blue tones.
  • The roots of Rubia cordifolia (Indian madder) which produce a red dye.
  • The roots of Morinda citrifolia (Al dye) which produce a yellowish colour.
  • Myrobalans fruits (Terminalia chebula) which produce a yellow dye.
  • The petals of Safflower (Carthamus tinctorius).

Many of these plants indicate their potential as colouring agents in their botanical names. Carthamus derives from Arabic meaning ‘dye’ whilst tinctoria is a Latin word for dyeing or staining.

The collection also includes specimens from the Caribbean including Bixa orellana (Anatto seeds) from the Dominican Republic, Gold Coast, Trinidad and Tobago; and Bursera graveolens leaves from Colombia, both of which produce a red dye.

Some of these plants are used in combination to produce enhanced tones. For example, Myrobalans (Terminalia chebula) produce a buttery yellow on their own, if added to Indigo (Indigofera tinctoria) produce a teal and with madder (Rubia cordifolia) they produce orange.

Tannins

Some barks are very high in tannin. Such barks are useful for the dyeing of cellulose fibres (such as cotton and silk). The collection features a range of barks used as tannins including:

  • The powdered bark of Quercus tinctoria (North America 1921), known as Dyer’s oak.
  • Haematoxylon campechianum (Log wood) (Central America and West Indies 1921) which produces a purple from the heartwood.
  • Rhizophora mucronata (Mangrove) (India 1920) bark which produces a reddish brown with mordant.
  • The bark of Ceriops candolleana (Tengah) (India 1920), used in Malaya within Batik dyeing for purple, brown and black colours.
  • Cassia auriculata (Tanner’s Cassia) (India 1921).
  • An extract of wood from Schinopsis balansae (Quebrachio) from Argentina.
  • Acacia mollissima (Black Wattle) (South Africa) including bark, chopped bark, ground bark and solid mimosa extract (acquired from Kew in 1924).

The collection also includes a range of Libidibia coriaria (Divi divi) seed pods from the West Indies used for tanning and extract as dye (including specimens acquired from Kew in 1924).

Galls

The collection also contains a range of galls mainly from Southern Europe (used as tannin) mainly acquired in 1914. This includes Blue Aleppo Galls, Green Aleppo Galls, Morea galls (Greece), White Bussorah galls, Blue Smyrna galls. These oak marble galls are caused by gall wasps which puncture bark of Quercus species and lay eggs inside. As well as oak marble galls, Chinese Sumac (Rhus chinensis) are also used as tanning agents.

Galls are used in dyeing processes since they tend to be very high in tannin. Cellulose-based fabrics are often treated in a gall bath prior to adding mordant (a substance that fixes dye in fabric). This process is called ‘galling’. The fabric can then be mordanted with alum, as the tannin forms an insoluble compound with the alum and natural dye, resulting in more permanent colour.

Dyed wool specimens

The dyes and tannins collection also features a range of specimens of wool that were dyed with plants using wool from the Cambrian Mill, Felindre. This includes Weld (with tin mordant), Privet (with tin mordant), Brazil wood (with alum mordant), Onions (with tin mordant), Eucalyptus (with copper mordant), Indigo (no mordant), Madder (with tin mordant), Walnut (no mordant) alongside two red and blue cloth specimens (possibly Madder and Indigo).

Tin can produce very bright natural colours. However, in excess it can make wool brittle and it is also harmful, potentially causing irritation to skin, eyes and respiratory system and damage to the liver and kidney system. Of note are the two specimens (Walnut and Indigo) that are ‘substantive’ rather than ‘fugitive’. Substantive dyes do not require a mordant.  

In 2017-2018 Poppy Nicol worked with Heather Pardoe to explore the economic botany collection and its relevance for helping us understand biodiversity and the importance of plants for health and well-being. You can read more about the Sharing Stories Sharing Collections Project here.

Have a look back at previous posts about this collection:

This article is by Dr. Poppy Nicol, a visiting researcher from Cardiff University.

This week marks the launch of the exhibition ‘People and Plants’ in the Insight Gallery, National Museum Cardiff and accompanying public report ‘Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections.’

The exhibition and report are outcomes of a collaborative placement between the Sustainable Places Research Institute and Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales funded by the National Environment Research Council Valuing Nature Programme.

During the placement, Dr. Poppy Nicol (Sustainable Places Research Institute) spent four months within the Natural Science Department at National Museum Cardiff. Poppy worked with Principal Curator Dr. Heather Pardoe and other members of the Botany team to investigate the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection and its potential role it can play in supporting, valuing and understanding of biodiversity. As part of the placement, Poppy and Heather conducted a series of workshops with community groups and interviews, with the aim of exploring how future activities associated with the economic botany collection can further societal understanding and valuing of biodiversity and address the Museum’s duty of well-being.  

Drawing upon the findings of the placement, the exhibition offers insight into the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection and the important role of plants in society.  

Health, well-being and plants

The Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection includes over 5,500 specimens of medicinal plants, food products, fibres, seeds, gums, dyes and resins, most of which were acquired between the nineteenth century and present day. The selected specimens in the ‘People and Plants’ exhibition highlights the role of plants in supporting the health and well-being of past, present and future generations.

Plant-based Remedies: old and new

The economic botany collection contains over 700 medicinal plant specimens including a Materia Medica (donated by Professor Terence Turner, Cardiff School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences). The exhibition features a range of plant specimens used medicinally – including quinine (used for treating malaria), star anise (containing a compound used for treating influenza) and senna pods (a traditional laxative).

It also features a contemporary example of a plant-based compound for medicinal purposes – the daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus). Although toxic if consumed raw, it contains galantamine which is used in the treatment of the early stage of Alzheimer’s disease.

Biocultural diversity: heritage grains

The exhibition also showcases some of the specimens within the Museum’s economic botany seed collection - which contains over 2,700 seed specimens. The collection includes a range of wheat, barley, oat and rye varieties acquired from the Welsh Plant Breeding Station. Hen Gymro, an old wheat variety affectionately known as “Old Man’s Beard” was cultivated in South Wales into the 1920’s, said to have thrived in South Wales. With predicted changing climates and the urgent need for more ecological growing approaches, perhaps some of these old grain varieties might be of value for future farmers and growers. The exhibition highlights the importance of safeguarding biodiversity – of both wild and cultivated crops and wild species.

Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections

The accompanying report to the exhibition, ‘Sharing Stories, Sharing Collections’ by Poppy, highlights how bio-cultural collections have the potential to support public understanding and valuing of biodiversity. It suggests recent legislation in the form of the Well Being of Future Generations Act (Wales) (2015) presents opportunity for Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales to become a global innovator in terms of curating bio-cultural collections.

The report identifies clear interest in the Amgueddfa Cymru economic botany collection amongst the public. It identifies a number of opportunities for innovation in bio-cultural and economic botany collections including research-driven curation; inter-generational learning programmes; and, innovative and participatory approaches to digitisation. Inter-disciplinary collaboration with other centres of learning particularly present great opportunities to share and enhance the value of the collection. Such innovations will improve the role of the collection in supporting public valuing and understanding of biodiversity and the health and well-being of future generations.

In an era where biodiversity is being eroded, bio-cultural collections have a crucial societal role of developing understanding and valuing of biodiversity through raising public awareness of the crucial role of plants in supporting livelihoods, supporting health and well-being, maintaining ecosystem services and adapting to global environmental change.

You can see the People & Plants exhibition at National Museum Cardiff until Sunday 17 March.

Read more about the start of the project in this February 2018 blog post.