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Collections work in Natural History is a process fraught with unseen difficulties. A project can, on rare occasions, proceed rapidly and uneventfully to a satisfying conclusion; however this is not the norm, and usually one soon finds oneself abroad in a treacherous jungle of scientific literature, beset on all sides by pitfalls and false trails, seemingly lost forever in a sea of confusion and miserable self-doubt. Such a process is a part of the standard working behaviour of the biologist, who is forever springing between the meteoric highs and dashing lows of their profession, drawn onwards in endless pursuit of the elusive Name with which to crown their specimen.

The naming game

Names in biology are contrary things, and the source of much agonising and confusion on the part of their employer. Upon discovery, each form of life is assigned a name, which, in theory, will remain with it forever, serving as its own unique cross-cultural reference code, and allowing it, again in theory, to be snugly positioned in the correct place in the proverbial tree of life. The system used, with a group-name (the genus) and an individual name (the specific), is much the same as that used to assign human beings into families – with great success – and would seem to be an ideal tool for defining the interlocking relationships of general non-human forms, but the small-scale elegance of the base idea melts completely away when applied to the vastnesses of known life, which currently musters some 1.2 million units (a number growing by the day). Beyond the inherent scaling problems which occur when expanding a small model by many orders of magnitude, further problems arise as our understanding of biodiversity evolves – relationships between members of a group, and between groups, are frequently revised, to an extent that rarely happens in the human example, as our nebulous understanding of deep prehistory is clarified, and our past mistakes are corrected.

Theo Tamblyn working on the Phorson mollusc slide collection.

Checking the checklists

What does this mean for the average worker ‘in the field’, so to speak? If the material to be addressed is newly collected, not much – reference to current literature and up-to-date checklists should enable the specimen to be correctly identified and assigned the current iteration of its taxonomic name, as opposed to an older version which has been superseded (known as a synonym). However, as soon as your specimen is filed away the clock begins ticking down towards the next taxonomic revision of the group in hand, and when future researchers come upon it in the course of their studies then problems begin to appear. The material I have been working on, the Phorson collection of juvenile molluscs, ranges in age from twenty to forty years since the date of collection, and a lot of the nomenclature employed when the specimens were first identified has exceeded its shelf life by a considerable margin. In order to record the collection in the Museum’s databases to the greatest degree of accuracy, the correct name must be substituted, which is a simple process in the short term but greatly increases in difficulty as the specimens in question get older. Historic material from the early twentieth century or earlier is named and catalogued in archaic ways, often utterly incomprehensible to those trained in the most up-to-date traditions of taxonomy, and the evolution of the name into its modern form tends to become lost to history as the elapsed time increases, much as is the case with the evolutionary histories of real organisms. Older names tend to be referenced poorly and copies of the original texts where they were first proposed are difficult or impossible to come by, rarely accessible with ease and, when found, are impenetrable to the modern reader, extremely long, and often only available in foreign languages (in my last period of work at the Museum I spent many hours struggling with a book on planktonic molluscs, written in a combination of 19th-century Danish and Latin).

Hunting in the Mollusca library for the most useful books to help identification.

The digital age

This may seem like a rather hopeless situation to find yourself in, even as an academic with access to a well-stocked library, but a solution is close at hand, one that opens historic records of taxonomic changes to everyone from the casually-interested member of the public to the paid researcher and the amateur specialist. Widespread online communications have allowed an organic model of constantly-updated databases to become the norm for the curation of large scientific datasets in the digital age, covering topics from biological records and species distribution (the National Biodiversity Network being the main system used in the UK) to the aforementioned taxonomic complexities that plague the curator. For alleviating this latter problem, the whimsically-named WoRMS (World Register of Marine Species) is one of the most comprehensive projects, and the one I have found myself using most often while working on the Phorson collection; administered by a large number of taxonomic editors, luminaries in their respective fields, the site serves as a searchable database for all taxonomic names of marine organisms, both those in current use and superseded synonyms, and enables the user to swiftly follow the links from the searched synonym to the version in current usage (where a full list of synonyms for the species in question is displayed).

Theo Tamblyn and bivalve expert Anna Holmes getting to the bottom of a tricky identification.

Workers in the field of taxonomy have taken these ideas yet further, building new online projects to manage future changes in nomenclature in a way that simplifies things for everyone involved. Divorced from the limitations of the printed media, these sites can be updated as and when changes occur, making them an always-reliable source of up-to-date information on biological names, and a record of past changes as they happened. The National Museum of Wales’ ongoing project on the Bivalve molluscs of the United Kingdom (Marine Bivalve Shells of the British Isles: http://naturalhistory.museumwales.ac.uk/britishbivalves/) is a peerless example of this principle, addressing a field of study which has been historically poor in terms of identification  guides and accessible publications aimed at those away from the ‘front line’ of research. The site is an online identification resource, where descriptions and photographs of the complete British Bivalve fauna can be viewed, compared and searched, and keys allow even those with no prior knowledge of the subject to work through the fauna until they find the correct match. This ‘opening’ of knowledge to those who were historically denied access – through their placement outside research institutions, or an inability to afford expensive niche publications, is part of a commendable shift taking place within the sciences, a quiet revolution championing the principles of free and open access to knowledge that would, in the past, have been hidden in a closed library or behind a paywall. The internet is a marvellous forum for the dispensation of the condensed expertise gleaned from the study of innumerable books and scientific papers, over decades and centuries. A colossal and terrifying volume of work to confront in its entirety, certainly, but when filtered into a useable format through the dedication of scientists and curators, a great doorway into the long galleries of human understanding of the world, thrown open to all who pass by and find themselves drawn in by stirrings of curiosity and wonder.

Using digital taxonomic resources to capture the most up to date names.

What the future holds…

During my work at the Museum I have had the rare privilege of watching the British Bivalves project grow, perhaps even through reference to the material from Ted Phorson’s collection that I have curated. These endeavours to open the galleries seem to me, in my more optimistic moments at least, to be a glimpse into the future of science and the curation of knowledge (which is perhaps the core function of the Museum as an institution) – a future where understanding is as familiar to us as running water, and the fruits of scientific endeavour can be beamed around the globe to anywhere an internet connection exists. Such prospects cause me quite unreasonable levels of excitement, at least until I realise that at online guide to the Gastropod (snail-shelled) molluscs is yet to be attempted, and they form the bulk of the British molluscan fauna; and I am brought heavily to earth again. It is a shame that I will perhaps not live to see the full extent of scientific digitisation, but I can console myself with the thought that, through my work at the National Museum of Wales, I may have left my mark somewhere at the very beginning. In any case I hope I have been able to express a little idealism without leaving myself open to accusations of naïveté and dangerous utopian thought; such is, after all, the prerogative of the millennial youth, of which I seem to have found myself a part, and after sifting the more arcane scientific literature for hours on end, a buoying thought and a cup of strong tea is a great necessity.

Our new exciting, family-friendly exhibition Wriggle has now opened and delves into the wonderful world of worms. As part of this exhibition we have put together a display of some very historic worm models made of glass. These are from a part of our collections called the ‘Blaschka glass model collection’. The models were made by the German glass-worker and naturalist Leopold Blaschka, along with his son, Rudolf, in the latter half of the 1800s’. This period was a time of great scientific discovery and new museums were opening to the public with their galleries displaying fossils, plants and animals from across the globe.

However many types of animal and plant specimens are very difficult to preserve and display, particularly soft-bodied animals, such as jellyfish, marine worms and sea anemones. The best method is to preserve in some sort of preserving fluid such as ethanol or formaldehyde but colours quickly faded and their shapes became distorted. Leopold Blaschka devised a solution to this problem by using his glass working skills to accurately model these animals out of glass. Together with his son, he went on to establish a successful business supplying glass models, mostly of marine animals, to museums worldwide during the latter half of the 19th century.

Initially the Blaschkas relied on illustrations in books as sources of reference for the glass animals, and many of the models are three dimensional representations of animals that they never saw in reality. However, in later years they increasingly based the models on their own observations of real animals, either during field trips or from live specimens in specially built aquariums in their house. This development in their naturalist skills is seen in the models as over time they became increasingly scientifically accurate.  

Amgueddfa Cymru has an extensive collection of these historic glass models representing a wide range of sea creatures such as sea slugs, sea cucumbers, marine worms, cephalopods and sea anemones. A selection of these models is on permanent display in the Marine galleries both as part of a stand-alone case, and as part of the surrounding displays. However for the Wriggle exhibition we have also put together a display case of all our worm related Blaschka glass models. Some of these models have not been on display for many years, and required delicate conservation work to enable their handling and display in the exhibition. A good example is the life series of three enlarged models of the marine worm Proceraea cornuta. All three of the models had been previously damaged in some way and careful conservation work was required to anable their safe display.

Also on display are models of commonly found species from our seashores such as the lugworm Arenicola marina and the ragworm Perinereis cultrifera.

The models of the leech Pontobdella (Hirudo) vittata and the Peacock worm Sabella pavonina are also notable in that they are still mounted on the packing card the Blaschkas’ would have originally shipped the models out on.

However personal favourites are the models of two tube living worms - the sand mason worm Lanice conchilega and the exquisite sphagetti worm Pista cretacea. Both have dense tentacle crowns which becomes an astonishing piece of craftsmanship and taxonomic accuracy when fashioned in glass!

Further information on the museums Blaschka glass model collectin can also be found online at http://www.museumwales.ac.uk/en/rhagor/galleries/blaschka/ .

As usual in this monthly blog post I’d like to share with you some of the objects that have recently been added to the industry and transport collections.

 

The first objects this month are a flame safety lamp and lamp check that were used by William Targett (c.1890-c.1986) of Pontypridd. He worked at Albion Colliery then Abercynon Colliery, and was a shotsman at some point. In 1947 the family moved to Somerset where he worked in a glue factory. The lamp is a Cambrian No. 9 flame safety lamp - No. 30, and was made by E. Thomas & Williams Ltd. of Aberdare in the early 20th century.

 

The lamp check dates from the same period and is stamped with the company name Albion Steam Coal Company Limited and the lamp number ‘2379’.

 

You can read this article to find out more about ‘Colliery checks and tokens’.

To see further examples from the collection check out the 'Images of Industry' site where there are more images of checks and tokens in the online catalogue.

 

 

Also this month we were donated an interesting metal roundel decorated with the house colours of the Reardon Smith Line. The Reardon Smith Line was founded by Sir William Reardon Smith. He was born in Appledore in 1856, and started his seagoing career at the age of 12. In 1905 he decided to go into ship owning, and set up W.R. Smith & Sons Ltd. His first ship was the S.S. CITY OF CARDIFF. Her master on the maiden voyage was Captain John Smith (Sir William's elder brother), with his son Harry Smith as Second Officer. By 1922 the company had 39 ships.

 

The metal roundel was originally attached to the left hand door of the main doors to the company’s office in Devonshire House, Greyfriars Road, Cardiff. This office opened in 1960, and so the roundel will date to then. The Reardon Smith Line Plc. Annual reports from the late 1970s to early 1980s featured the doors on the front covers. This example is from the 1984 Report of the Directors.

 

You can read about Sir William Reardon Smith, and his links to the National Museum of Wales here.

 

 

Finally this month, we have acquired a small collection relating to the mines rescue service in Wales. This consists of a jacket worn by Henry David Nichols who worked for the Mines Rescue Service in the 1960s. He was awarded this trophy for 15 Years Service with the Mines Rescue Service in 1972. The collection also includes a Mines Rescue Service commemorative trophy awarded to ‘Nick’ from Crumlin Mines Rescue Station, and a general Mines Rescue Service National Coal Board badge showing a man wearing breathing apparatus.

 

 

Mark Etheridge
Curator: Industry & Transport
Follow us on Twitter - @IndustryACNMW

In the summer of 1951, a large-scale quilting exhibition was staged at St Fagans as part of Wales’ contribution to the Festival of Britain. Billed as ‘the largest, most comprehensive and the most interesting of its kind ever staged in the Principality’, the exhibition organised jointly with the Monmouthshire Rural Community Council showcased the work of 60 contemporary quilters, alongside historic examples from the Museum’s collection and private owners. The Banqueting Hall – a vast pavilion-like structure in the grounds of St Fagans Castle – provided a dramatic setting for the display, the likes of which had not been seen at the newly-established Museum before.

Call for entries

Although the exhibition ran for little over three weeks (16 July – 18 August), it was the culmination of months of planning, led by Mr D. L. Jones of the Welsh Rural Industries Committee. In keeping with the Museum’s founding principle of inspiring a new generation of makers, the show included daily demonstrations and prizes for the best contemporary work on display. In February of that year, a final call for entries was published in the Western Mail:

Although we have received a record entry for the National Quilting Exhibition… it is not too late to receive further entries… Substantial prizes and certificates of merit will be awarded to successful candidates, and it will undoubtedly provide an excellent opportunity for Welsh quilters to show our oversees visitors that they still possess the skill of their forebears in this one remaining traditional needlecraft.

Competition

The work submitted for the exhibition included large and small quilts, cot covers, bonnets, dressing gowns and dressing jackets. In total, 65 original, hand-quilted pieces were chosen for display by the selectors. The judging panel included Mavis FitzRandolph who, under the auspices of the Rural Industries Bureau, had been instrumental in setting-up quilting classes in the industrial heartlands of south-east Wales during the 1920-30s Depression. The aim of the scheme was to revive and improve the standard of Welsh quilting, therefore enabling young women in economically deprived communities to earn a living making by hand. Many of those who won prizes at the 1951 exhibition were taught to quilt under this scheme, including Irene Morgan of Porthcawl - one of the best quilters of her generation. Originally from Aberdare, Irene began to quilt in the late 1920s and subsequently became a nightclass teacher in the Bridgend area, until the onset of glaucoma stopped her from stitching in the 1960s. Her prize winning certificates from the 1951 exhibition were donated to the Museum following her death in 2000.

The future - Gweithdy

Emulating the spirit of the 1951 exhibition, exciting plans are afoot here at St Fagans. A new gallery called Gweithdy is currently being built in the Museum's grounds which will be a celebration of making by hand in Wales through the centuries. As well as having objects on display including several quilts and other textile crafts the new gallery will be designed very much like a workshop, with spaces for people to have-a-go at making, and to enroll on craft courses. Needless to say, we are all hugely excited about this development – a new chapter in our history as a Museum which, we hope, will inspire the makers of the future.

 

 

 

 

I’m finding it hard to believe that the St Fagans Food Festival will be soon upon us – where has the year gone? Last year, we asked you to tweet your favourite family recipes to us. We had an amazing response, thanks again to all who took part, enabling us to create a lovely exhibition at Oakdale Workmen’s Institute over the Festival weekend.

As part of this year’s Festival, we’re launching a digital version of Welsh Fare, a collection of traditional recipes collected by Minwel Tibbott. When she started at the Museum in 1969, the study of traditional foods was a very new research field. She realised very early on that the information would not be found in books and she travelled all over Wales in order to interview, record and film the older generation of women. They recalled the dishes prepared by their mothers, and their memories harked back to the end of the 1880s.

With the digital version, not only can you read the recipes, but also hear the women explain the processes and see them prepare the dishes. We’re also keen to add to this collection, and as the Great British Bake Off fever grabs us once again, we’re asking you to share with us your favourite family recipes. We’d also like to add to our images of people feasting - people enjoying your showstoppers, a family celebration or a gathering of friends.

Tweet recipes, images and information to @archifSFarchive or post them on the St Fagans Facebook page using the hashtag #Ryseitiau #FoodFestival. Another option is to bring them along to Oakdale Workmen’s Institute during the Food Festival and we’ll scan them. All the recipes and photos, as well as last year’s collection will be uploaded on to the People’s Collection Wales.

For the latest on this project, follow tweets by @archifSFarchive and @SF_Ystafelloedd and the hashtags #Ryseitiau #Food Festival #WelshFare #AmserBwyd.