Adjusting to Anthropology

It’s been quite an adjustment over the past year, as a zoologist, to suddenly find myself working in an anthropology collection. I’d be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about the various cultures and peoples of this world, and would probably struggle to point to the places that many of our objects come from on a map.

But what I’ve discovered is that I love objects, no matter what they are. I may not always appreciate the anthropological significance of the objects we work with, but I love their artistry and ingenuity, being able to examine their construction and compare them with objects of a similar function from all over the world – our collections are stored systematically by type rather than geographically, so I get to compare the incredibly varied forms of charms used to ward off sickness, and the striking similarity in the design of mole traps from different countries. It turns out there are many ways to fight disease, but only one way to trap a mole!

And my work is not completely divorced from my subject specialism – a huge proportion of our anthropology collection is made from animal materials, and I am learning a huge amount just from examining them under a hand lens. I can now confidently distinguish bone from ivory or antler, identify worked horn, claws, teeth, sinew and baleen (which I was surprised to learn was historically used quite commonly in North America to make fishing lines!), and I am constantly amazed at the infinite variety of forms these materials can take at the hands of a skilled craftsperson.

Plus, there can’t be many workplaces in which a debate about the best method of trapping a giraffe is considered perfectly normal staffroom conversation!

I love my job.

Showing Off

It seems I’m a glutton for punishment! Despite my general dread and fear of public speaking, I’ve signed myself up for next’s week’s Museums Showoff event in Camden on the 14th May – an evening of comedy and wonder in which 1o people get up on stage and are allowed to talk for 9 minutes each about museum-related things. I will be doing a run-down of some of my favourite things that we’ve found in the Horniman Museum‘s stores so far during the Anthropology collections review.

This time the venue is The Black Heart pub (next to Camden Town station). Doors open at 7pm, show starts at 7.30. I should hopefully be on in the first half. It should be a good night!

The March of Progress

The review of the museum’s Anthropology collections continues apace. We have seen many thousands of objects already, and this week we finished one room of the store*

*Ahem. That is, we finished the food-related items in one room of the store. As we are moving through the collections thematically, rather than starting in one place and just doing everything, I think it will be a long time before we actually finish finish any one area. However, this still represents significant progress, as we have done the objects relating to food processing (cutlery, strainers, graters, corers, chopsticks, teapots, frying pans, ovens (yes, we have a couple!))… It was very satisfying to be able to put the last ‘Bay Completed’ label up, having started the room working on spoons several months ago!

Next the Food & Feasting team will move on to objects relating to hunting, trapping, and fishing, which should be interesting. We have a LOT of beautiful fish hooks. And arrows. Many arrows. Meanwhile, the team exploring Magic & Religion (which I moved back down to yesterday) is working on objects to do with religious and seasonal festivals – easter eggs, christmas decorations, corn dollies and the like. Yesterday I found an adorable Christmas tree decoration made of silver cardboard in the shape of a mouse wearing a dress! And a Polish dough figure of a farmer surrounded by geese, representing the new summer (which you can see on our Tumblr page). I even had a go at making some salt dough figures a little while ago, inspired by the amazing dough animals we found in the collections. Mine weren’t quite as good as these, but it was fun to try out an old craft. It’s amazing the things you learn working in a museum!

Mutants and Mongrels

On Saturday I spent a sunny morning with the lovely folk of the London Bird Group (part of the LNHS) out at Walthamstow reservoirs, looking at female ducks.

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Why female ducks, specifically? Because they are much duller than the showy males, and are often overlooked. They are also sometimes harder to identify due to their drabness, especially from a distance.

The first ducks we saw were pochard. The males have grey bodies and very distinctive bright red heads, while the females are a much more muted grey-brown mottled colour. We also had the privilege to spot teal, goldeneye, goosander, gadwall (at a great distance!), tufted duck, and of course the ubiquitous mallards.

Except that there was something different about some of the mallards at Walthamstow…one of the first birds we saw was very dark brown, with white on its head and breast. This sparked a debate about whether it was a hybrid, or just an odd colour mutation. Later on we also saw another duck with this colouring, as well as one with the normal green head but an unusally dark brown body. I did a little Googling on the subject when I got home (as you do) and it turns out that, while mallards can and do hybridise with a whole range of other duck species, the birds we saw are actually examples of what are often referred to as ‘manky mallards’: the colourful result of wild mallards interbreeding with domestic ducks (which are the same species). This sort of thing seems to go on a lot, and it’s possible to see mallards with all sorts of interesting colouration due to genes introduced from the different breeds of domestics. We speculated that the dark brown ducks with the white bib that we saw were probably females, while the green-headed, brown-bodied bird was clearly a male.

The hybird/colour morph debate continued as we carried on walking and began observing geese. Both greylag and Canada geese can be seen at Walthamstow reservoirs, and there is clearly some interbreeding going on between these two species:

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The bird on the left is a standard Canada goose. His friend on the right, however, is brown, with orange legs and an orange-black bill. He has the dark neck of a Canada goose, but clearly owes much of his colouration to a greylag parent.

For comparison, these two chaps are greylags:

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But, again, there’s something slightly odd here. The one on the right has some white on the face and a white ring around the eye, which is absent on the normal goose to the left. It’s possible that this is a hybrid greylag x greater white-fronted goose, but then again it could just be an interesting colour morph! Without DNA from the birds it is very hard to tell which is the case.

We also saw other interestingly-coloured geese that were leucistic (reduced pigmentation caused by a recessive allele), including a Canada goose with speckles of white on its head and neck, and another with an entirely white head (but we only saw it from a distance, so it could also have been a hybrid!).

The walk may have begun as a guide to identifying much-ignored female ducks, but the reservoirs’ more unusual feathery residents added some extra interest to the day!

It’s like 10,000 spoons…

…OK, 10,000 might be a bit of an exaggeration, but we do have a LOT of spoons in our collection! And over the past several weeks I’ve seen most of them. We are currently reviewing the anthropology collections of the museum (which involves checking the documentation of the objects and photographing them), and doing so thematically – the first two themes that our teams are looking at are Magic and Food. I am currently on the team looking at food, and what did we find in Bay One, Shelf A? Spoons. Lots of spoons, from all over the world (but with a bias towards Africa, which must reflect the interests of some of our past collectors/curators. Or perhaps spoons are more heavily used in Africa than elsewhere? I’m not an anthropologist. Or a cutlery expert. Theories on a postcard, please!).

And I’ve been surprised at how interesting it has been…some of the spoons aren’t much to look at, but some of them look like this! We took so many photos of this spoon, and still they don’t quite capture the intricacy of the carving or the glory of the whole object. These two little beauties from India are also some of my favourites. They are made of brass, with scorpion-shaped handles! They are both different as well – one has his legs bent under him so that he stands up, and the other has his tail raised to strike!

When we have time, we’ve been trying to put some of our favourite things on the museum’s new(ish) Tumblr page for all the world to see. It’s been quite popular so far, and it’s been fun to see the reaction to our objects. We’ve seen some wonderful spoons made of animal materials (the ones involving animals are always my favourites!) including antler, horn and bone this week, which are quite stunning. I will try to get some images of them up on Tumblr soon.

I feel like I’ve used the word ‘spoon’ too many times in this post. But I’ve lost the ability to talk about anything else now – I am immersed in a world of spoons (at least until we finish the next couple of shelves and get on to knives…)

A World in White

Real snow is something of a rarity in London. So when it does come, it always seems to come as a surprise. It has been snowing steadily all day; small, fine flakes that don’t loook like much, but that, if given enough time, can transform the world into a blanket of white. I decided to go for a walk in the snow this afternoon, so I put on my trainers, walked out the door…and on discovering that I was standing in ankle-deep snow, went back inside and changed into my wellies.

I wandered across Peckham Rye Common, amused by all the giant snowmen that were in the process of being erected – and demolished – and into the park, to see how the birds were faring in this chilly weather. Quite well, as it turns out. The usual contingent of mallards, coots, moorhens, tufted ducks and Canada geese were well fed, and had been joined by a large number of black-headed gulls, a stately grey heron, and an opportunistic robin.

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While the birds on the pond are being taken care of by kindly locals with bags of grain and bread (although bread is actually not good for most birds), some other birds are clearly struggling…most sources will tell you that you would be very lucky to ever catch sight of a woodcock on the ground, but yesterday morning there was one in my tiny urban scrap of garden! I’m asuming that it came from Peckham Rye Park, as there is a wooded area there, but it must have been hungry to start foraging in a space as open and dangerous as a garden. Luckily for the woodcock, the cat didn’t even notice it was there, and it soon flew off again (EDIT: I’ve been informed by a bird expert that the woodcock may in fact have flown all the way from Russia before landing in my garden!).

I took lots of photos in the park. Here are just a few of them:

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Fun With Fluids: Days Three & Four

Yesterday was a slightly slower day than intended, but I did manage to finish preserving both the frog and lizard and get them into their final solution of 80% IMS, and then mounted the frog on his backplate. Which was an odd experience – I took textiles GCSE, but it did not prepare me for threading a frog! With a very large, curved needle and monofilament thread. He did look good when he was finished, despite still being a little crunchy – the rehydration process didn’t seem to have much effect on his appearance.

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At the end of the day I managed to prep the jar and glass backplate for the harbour crabs, so that I had everything ready this morning to crack on with mounting them. Tying them to the backplate was a fairly quick job, but then came the harder task of reattaching the stray claws and legs with glass needles. I first had to decide which crab which limb belonged to, and then exactly where each limb should go. It took quite a long time, but I got there in the end!

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There are still a few more limbs missing, but they weren’t in the jar with the specimens so must have been lost long ago. Once in their nice new jar, though, the crabs looked much happier.

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Sadly, by the time I’d finished mounting the crabs, and had sealed the jars of my finished specimens, I didn’t have time to finish the lizard. I had the jar prepped, and all ten holes drilled in the backplate, but I didn’t have time to mount it. One of our conservators has offered to finish it for me tomorrow, and I left her with the worst diagram of a lizard ever drawn to show her how I had planned to pose the lizard, which I hope will help her to sew him to the backplate in the right position. He’ll probably end up looking much better than if I’d done it!

Poor little Varanus waits patiently for a new jar

Poor little Varanus waits patiently for a new jar

There has been a huge amount to take in this week, as there are so many different processes involved in restoring dried-out specimens, and I’m now quite exchausted. But I am really pleased with the results of my specimens, and I’ve learned a whole host of new skills that I feel confident I could put to good use in the future if someone put a shrivelled specimen in front of me.

If you have wet-preserved specimens in your collection that you don’t know what to do with, or don’t think you can rescue, I’d highly recommend going on Simon’s fluid preservation course – I was amazed at how well all of the specimens we worked on this week came out. They all started as dry, sad-looking husks, and by the end of the week most of them looked ready to go on display!

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAChameleon, octopus (named Little Chulhu) and sea slug, prepared by Gina