Centenary of The Natural History Museum

London Newspaper Group — CN/WPN 04-12-1981

A hundred years of zoology, entomology, palaeontology, mineralogy

By Christopher Long

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The massive entrance to the Natural History Museum is only the tip of an iceberg.

Celebrating the museum's centenary this year, museum staff opened their departments to members of the press on a series of 'open days' in order to show us that what we see in the displays and the seemingly endless galleries is only a fraction of what goes on behind the intricately carved facade.

In fact the museum is a scientific institution and about 80 per cent of its budget goes on scientific research behind the scenes. Over 300 staff including zoologists, entomologists, botanists, palaeontologists and mineralogists are constantly at work.

Millions of specimens of animal and plant life, meteorites and fossils are carefully catalogued and preserved in what must amount to miles of mahogany cupboards and cabinets.

The volume of insects such as beetles alone is far beyond the human brain's capacity to envisage. But, when one bears in mind that the vast collection has been amassed from the original collection in Montagu House, Bloomsbury and from the other collections of 19th and early 20th centuries, it is amazing that despite time, wars, financially difficult times and the vast constant stream of new material entering the museum each year, so much has been preserved so efficiently by so few. An example of the problems presented when looking after such a massive collection occurred during the Second World War.

The war caused a depletion of the Department's staff so that by July 1945, thirteen of the twenty five Technical Assistants and clerks had been seconded to the Armed Services or to war work.

"We are packing all our spirit types for evacuation to some caves just now so all our time has to be devoted to that," replied one member of the also diminished scientific staff to a correspondent. The Keeper was soon able to report to the Trustees that "... type specimens in spirit were removed from all Sections of the Department in the autumn of 1941 and deposited packed in wooden boxes and sawdust in a disused hearth-stone mine at Godstone, Surrey."

The evacuation of the estimated 43,000 bottles presented particular problems. It had been the usual practice to fix paper labels on to the outside surfaces of specimen jars.

This procedure was a continuation of the method of labelling that had been used at Bloomsbury although the damp of the spirit-rooms there had destroyed many of these bottle labels necessitating "... adopting the plan of painting the labels in oil colours".

Some Sections, however, had taken the precaution of inserting labels, written in spirit-proof ink, or in pencil, inside the jars before despatching them for evacuation. This proved time-consuming as in one Section alone it involved two officers sharing the copying of over 3,000 labels.

Such expediency was justified as it was soon discovered that the labels on the jars and boxes exposed to the damp air of the mine were quickly attacked by mould and the collection had to be overhauled and many labels repaired.

Types and other valuable specimens of mammals and birds were sent to various locations including Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire and Hampshire. The packing of these large collections, in which the Museum's Housemen played an important part, would not easily have been accomplished without the generous loan of large numbers of boxes from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Many of the remaining specimens in the Department and galleries were transferred to safer quarters within the Museum. The fish spirit collection, for example, was moved from the top to the lower floors; and the bottles were pushed to the rear of the shelves and secured by lengths of stout string.

It took five weeks of tortuous work to get the collections out of the mines and back to the museums in 1945.

The post-war growth of the Department has been matched by an increase in 'technical' staff. In June 1947 the Department employed 15 officers belonging to the Scientific Officer Class and a total of 26 represented the Experimental Officer, Assistant (Scientific), Attendant and Taxidermist Classes.

By January 1960 the complement of the Scientific Officer Class had risen to 24 and that of the Experimental Officer, Assistant (Scientific) Classes to 42, whilst in 1972 the department had a complement of 34 belonging to the higher grades of Senior Scientific to Deputy Chief Scientific Officer (the latter grade being represented only by the Keeper) and 50 officers belonging to the Scientific Assistant to Higher Scientific Officer Grades.

Between 1956 and 1957 it was again necessary to move a part of the spirit collections to allow additional metal shelving to be installed on the mezzanine floors in the Eastern part of the Spirit Building Storerooms. A major reorganisation of the molluscan shell collection took place in 1961/62 and the entire molluscan wet collection was moved out of the Spirit Building and rehoused in the SW Corridor during the late 1960s.

Between 1972-1974 the whole of the bird collection was moved to the new Sub-Department of Ornithology at Tring in Hertfordshire and in 1979 a valuable collection was moved to its new storerooms at West Ruislip.

During the last 100 years curating methods have not changed significantly. Industrial methylated spirits (IMS) has replaced the spirits of wine previously used. IMS is the general preservative used throughout the Department for liquid preserved specimens although much of the coelenterate collection is stored in diluted formaldehyde, whilst newer preservatives based upon a propylene phenoxetol (less volatile than alcohol and less objectionable to handle than formaldehyde) are used for storing large fishes.

Storage of these large, wet, preserved specimens still presents problems.

Space in the department is now very limited and the large slate storage tanks (holding more than 600 gallons of preservative and in which large fishes and small cretaceans are stored) are no longer obtainable. Containers made from Alkathene and fibre-glass must now be used for these purposes.

The conventional pen has been replaced by a modern form of stylograph for writing the parchment bottle labels in permanent spirit-proof ink. The traditional 'crystal' museum jar with hand-ground stopper ceased to become available some years ago and alternative types of containers had to be found.

A plastic-capped jar with a double seal is now used for storing small specimens and various types of polythene containers are employed for medium-sized specimens.

The typewriter has now replaced the pen for many clerical tasks and the visual display unit of the Museum's computer has made its appearance alongside the more conventional card indexes and registers. These enable staff to locate the whereabouts of specimens and to find information for answering enquiries.

The diversity of research that the department now offers is reflected in the broader range of curatorial work performed by staff in the ASO-HSO Grades. 'Curatorial' duties now include operating data-retrieval systems, culturing various invertebrates and even sub-aqua diving in addition to the more traditional jobs of dispatching loads of specimens, incorporating new collections, preparing and maintaining study material and making routine identifications.

Conducting visitors to and from the various Sections of the Department and attending to their requirements is still an important part of the work of junior grades but staff are no longer required to undertake the task of 'watching' or 'attending' to the blinds.

The long-term results of that 'beneficial change', made by the Trustees in the new Museum that relieved 13 attendants of their gallery duties for working on the collections, is seen in this exhibit. It shows that the staff employed for curating the world's largest zoological collection undoubtedly require, as Albert Gunther remarked a century ago, "... not only skill in manipulating specimens, but considerable knowledge of the collections..."

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