Amgueddfa Blog

Shwmae,


I am a Biology Undergraduate at Cardiff University and today I am just over two months into my professional training year placement within the Botany section, Department of Natural Sciences at the National Museum Wales. Plant life of all sorts has always delighted me, and when an opportunity to work in Wales’s largest herbaria arises, you grab it by both hands! So far, my experience has been nothing short of extraordinary. Working with and learning from a team of respected and experienced botanists has been the highlight of my stay so far, rivalled only by the history and scientific value that this department holds behind its doors.

 


The project I am working on involves studying the highly invasive annual plant Impatiens glandulifera,-Royle, or Himalayan Balsam as it is commonly known. Himalayan balsam, like so many other invasive plants found in Britain today was introduced by the Victorians as a botanical curiosity. First contained in botanical gardens, its high growth rate and reproductive output mean that now, it is found in almost every area of Britain. Himalayan balsam can reach heights of 3 metres and produce up to 2500 seeds per plant, often forming dense populations along river banks throughout the UK. Buoyant seed pods mean that seeds are easily transported in river systems, and seeds don’t have to germinate the following year after set, they have a two-year dormancy period whilst they wait for the right growth conditions. The life traits of Himalayan balsam mean that it has become incredibly invasive in the UK, with it being listed as a Schedule 9 plant in the Wildlife and Countryside Act; i.e. it is illegal to plant or otherwise cause it to grow in the wild.

 


My project involves studying specimens to see if any morphological traits have changed since its introduction into the UK in 1839, and looking at variation between populations of Himalayan balsam in the South Wales area. So far, much of my time has been spent conducting field work! I have been out collecting specimens of Himalayan balsam using a plant press. Specimens are randomly chosen from their habitat, mounted between a folded bit of thin paper called a ‘flimsy’, making sure that all leaves and flowers are flat and arranged in a way that their features can still be studied. Acid free card is placed between specimens and they are mounted into a plant press, straps are then wrapped around the plant press and pulled as tight as possible before it is placed in a specialist drying oven. After the specimens have been in the drying oven for between 5-7 days, they are then placed in a freezer for 4 days to kill any insects, bacteria or fungal spores that may have contaminated specimens.

 


After the drying and freezing process is over, specimens are ready to be examined and studied! So far, I have spent most of my time in the field collecting information such as number of seeds, flowers, height, colour of flowers, type of habitat, light levels, whether population is managed or not, etc. I plan to use this information to compare differences between sites where I. glandulifera is found in the South Wales area, and whether there are discrete differences between these populations. This will involve molecular work in the lab; potentially looking at differences in the number of ‘microsatellites’ between populations. ‘Microsatellites’ are repetitive DNA sequences and by directly comparing the number of repeats of microsatellites we can learn more about the diversity within and between local populations.

 


I am collecting a large data-set I. glandulifera in the South Wales area, looking at different morphological characteristics of the plants, as well as collecting measurements from the habitat it was collected from. Measurements include light levels, tree cover, habitat type, whether the population was managed etc, with the ultimate goal of allowing me to see if these different habitat variables impacts how I. glandulifera grows. After I have collected specimens from different habitat types, their morphological characteristics can be analysed. This will involve imaging software to look at traits like leaf area, leaf width, leaf length, flower length, leaf shape, and microscopy work looking at stomatal density, size of ‘guard cells’ that make up a plant’s stomata and pollen structure (picture). Once I have collected measurements from I. glandulifera collected in 2017, I can then look at specimens of I. glandulifera in the herbarium collected in the 1900s to see if there has been a change in any of these morphological traits in the past 100 years. If there has been a change, what is happening, are the leaves larger or smaller? Are plants taller or shorter? Do they produce less or more flowers? These are the questions I am hoping to answer with my research, and in doing so produce some answers on how we can begin to tackle this unwelcome invader.

 


It has been a very exciting and enjoyable few months in the herbarium I have had opportunities that most people would only dream of, and each day I spend here I learn something new from the experienced curators I have surrounding me. The herbarium is something to be treasured, plant records frozen in time that contain a wealth of information just waiting to be discovered. And this resource is here for you to explore and enjoy too, just contact one of the herbarium team to make an appointment (https://museum.wales/curatorial/botany/staff/). Everything here fills me with sheer joy, and it is an absolute pleasure to wake up each day knowing that I am spending my time in such a wonderous place. I don’t look forward to leaving this gorgeous establishment, but I look forward to seeing what wonders this herbarium has in store for me, and what answers it can provide me on my path to stop invasive species here in Wales.

 

 

When Dr Christian Baars, the Senior Preventive Conservator at National Museum Cardiff, contacted me to ask me take part in his project, I’d never really thought about the work going on behind the scenes at a museum. I’d been on a tour I mean, beyond the ticket desk, café staff, security guards and perhaps cleaners if you’re there right to the end of the day. But have you ever thought about the work that goes into maintaining collections and displays? I doubt it.

Conserving the historic exhibits is one of the largest behind the scenes jobs. There are many things that can damage the artefacts, such as light, air pollution and moisture. But for a big collection of stuffed animals, such as in Cardiff, one of the big problems is pest insects. Lots of different insects, such as carpet beetles and clothes moths, like to eat dead animals. Dr Baars showed me some of the pinned insect collection, which are falling apart or disappearing because one of the beetles has got in to eat them.

We wanted to show the visitors that fighting these insects is a huge job and so we set about making a video that showed the damage the beetles can do. Luckily, Dr Baars had a dead mouse in the freezer (as you do!) which would do just the job. I added some beetle larvae to the dead mouse and left it in a box to be eaten. I used a time lapse camera to film the process of the mouse being devoured by the beetle larvae.  

The resulting video is on the right hand side of this page. Evidently, the mouse is getting progressively smaller as the larvae munch through its body. Now imagine this happening to the woolly mammoth, or the foxes, or any other amazing object at the museum. This is what museum conservators work hard to prevent and this is why we wanted to spread the word.

Once the video was finished, I showed it to museum visitors and asked people to tell me what they thought it was about. Most people had not heard about conservation in museums before nor about the damage insects may cause, even though some had experience with moths or similar insects at home. One visitor described it as fascinating. Another reminded me that “dead things always make good exhibits!” People certainly enjoyed the “gross factor” of a video of a decomposing mouse!

Yet the most important result for me was the finding that everyone wanted to learn more about what goes on behind the scenes at museums. Both adults and children understood the significance of the work. An adult visitor said “once it’s dead and in a case, you don’t really think about it about what happens after”, highlighting the need and the interest in what goes on to make a museum exhibit happen. And a younger visitor exclaimed “imagine you had a billion year old thing and it just got ate… I would very sad”. I couldn’t agree more.

While the purpose of this project was to educate museum visitors about pest management in museums, I think this experiment shows there is an enthusiasm for knowing more about the hard work of museum staff beyond those you see when you visit. In Cardiff visitors can come for free, but in a world where every institution is fighting for funding, we need to show the public that our work is vital and worth every penny. We showed that it is simple to raise awareness and that the work of conservators is worth an exhibit or two all of its own.

 

Charlotte @scicommchar undertook this project as part of a 'Learning Lab' placement while studying for a MSc degree in Science Communication at the University of the West of England. The University contact was Andy Ridgway, Senior Lecturer in Science Communication and Programme Leader MSc/PGCert in Science Communication, @AndyRidgway1. Many thanks also to Rhodri Viney, the National Museum's Digital Content Assistant, for help with producing the video.

Find out more about Care of Collections at Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales here and follow us on Twitter.

 

Heather Pardoe from the Botany Section, Natural Sciences, has been working with the Museum Shop to provide a beautiful selection of Christmas themed botanical images for you to view.

The Museum holds a collection of over 7000 superb botanical prints and drawings.  Principle Curator, Heather Pardoe, has handpicked a seasonal range of exquisite botanical illustrations in order to reflect the  range of illustrations in the collection. 

This provides a ‘bird’s eye view’ of some of the illustrations that Botany holds behind the scenes; many are rarely on public display.

We have been working towards providing a series of collections for you to enjoy - we are currently focusing upon a spring collection. Watch this space for more news!

If you would like to see more of this beautiful Christmas collection, please follow the link below which will take you to the Print section of the online shop.  This will also provide you with the opportunity to purchase a reproduction of one of these beautiful images, as well as a wide range of other images from the Museum collections.

Online Shop

Don’t forget to follow the Shop blog and Natural Sciences blog for regular updates!

First came the sound, a loud slow regularly timed booming, the constant beat of a drum. Shortly after this rhythmic cacophony of the beat, a clatter and rattle is heard. A blended mixture of clinking and clanging, the sound of metal on metal and within this tumult of sounds the shout “Io Saturnalia” echo's out. Then from around the street corner an armoured figure in ancient dress appears, followed by another and another. Roman legionaries in single file, marching in full armour, rain dripping off their helmets and soaking into their cloaks as they march. Each carrying a lantern or banging a drum, echoing the proclamation “Io Saturnalia” as their hob nail sandals slam down hard onto the modern streets tarmac.

Anywhere else this sight might be considered unusual, not however for Caerleon, the small village on the banks of the Usk, outside Newport. Home to the National Roman Legionary Museum and former Fortress home to the Roman, second Augustan legion. There the sight of Roman legionaries or museum staff dressed as Roman soldiers is practically an everyday occurrence (so much so that people hardly stop for selfies anymore).   
In this instance the staff of the NRLM were recreating the celebrations for the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, in honour of the Roman god Saturn last December. 

Romans believed Saturn ruled the world during a golden time, they celebrated Saturnalia at the darkest and coldest time of the year in December in the hope that he would bring back the sun and usher in a new golden age for the coming spring harvest. Romans would hold large feasts, decorate their homes with greenery, place Janus tablet heads on garden trees, visit friends and family and even give presents. We have inherited many of our own Christmas traditions from this festival. Romans would also wear hats, Phrygian caps (or freeman hats) were worn and slaves were even given a day off. 
  
This year we’ll be celebrating Saturnalia in the museum on the 9th of December. With traditional Saturnalia celebrations such as a shrine to Saturn offering good fortunes to the Gods, off duty Roman legionaries eating and drinking in honour of the festival. Explaining the holiday and also showing off their armour.   

And of course the day will finish with our legionaries marching around the Fortress e.g modern day Caerleon to insure Saturn brings back the light and to usher in a good new year with the traditional Roman saying of “Io Saturnalia”." 

You can find out more about Saturnalia by watching this short film, made last year for the museum for a take over day. 

https://www.peoplescollection.wales/learn/io-saturnalia

 

When we were designing the exhibition  we discussed different ways visitors could share their connections with the art on show. We designed conversation prompts to get people thinking and post cards for people to give their feedback:

please talk
wall of cards

 

It's been really exciting to read people's responses and we'll be sharing some of our favourites over the coming months along with our thoughts. We'd really like to hear from you as well, tell us what you think, how do you connect with art?

 

Here's the first one:

 

I like this comment because it's so positive, starting with self awareness, other people, then the world. Seeing involvement with art and creativity as a journey is something I can indentify with. In a way we all have the same journey but with different twists and turns which is what makes life so interesting. When someone describes or makes something real you can laugh in recognition. Maybe art is about mutual recognition of beauty, horror and humour?

#WallichXart