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What would you do if you had a year to identify and evaluate the contents of your natural history collection? A quarter of a million specimens spread over two sites, that’s an average 2 minutes and 6 seconds per specimen. If you must insist on eating, sleeping, travelling from one site to the other… that time per item rapidly dwindles.

These are the issues facing the Horniman Museum’s Russell Dornan and the Bioblitz team. Despite his daunting schedule Russell still found time to come and talk to us for three hours. That gives the PubSci audience a collective value of 85.7 museum specimens. I’m very flattered by that!

The issues that face the Bioblitz process are numerous: in the liquid stores you have a giant fan running in the background that prevents you thinking when it’s on and stops you breathing when it’s off; Elsewhere, the drawers and storage units are packed together so tightly that you cannot reach some specimens for the layer of other specimens in front of them.

Other challenges include: trying to read the handwriting of the naturalists; trying to match specimens to documentation where the two haven’t been kept together; gathering information scattered across multiple databases; organise regional data where half the entries refer to the old name of the country; and so on…

The Horniman staff are a knowledgeable bunch but the total breadth of knowledge required to identify the value of the whole collection requires outside wisdom. Independent adjudication is a very good idea, I wish more people did it in other industries. Coordinating visits from outside experts so that you make the most of their limited time is another challenge in itself, especially when multiple collections share the same storage space. Nevertheless their input is well worth the effort. Horniman curator Paolo Viscardi said he learned more about reptile identification in the day and a half of Colin McCarthy’s visit than he could have learned with months alone amongst the reptile bones.

In some cases the value of the specimen can be quite ordinary but the way in which it was prepared gives it historical value. An example of this are the “double preps” – specimens with the outer skin layer on one side and the skeleton on the other. These are an 18th Century German preparation technique and there are 18 of them in the Horniman Museum, including Patches & Persephone the double prep dog & cat respectively. If you know of a larger collection of them than this, please let me know.

The Horniman Hornbill on its T-shaped perch tells of its uniquely French preparation, while the lollipop birds are quite amusing. More on those in my future post on structural colouration.

Sometimes fakes become more historically valuable than the genuine specimen too: the Precious Wenteltrap, for example, is a tightly spiralled mollusc whose shell is almost paper thin. In life it is kept in shape by its soft organs but, once dead, becomes increasingly fragile. Fakes made of rice paper were rife until identification and preservation techniques of the real thing improved. Now, due to their highly edible nature, the fakes are very rare & worth more than a real Precious Wenteltrap.

All in all a great talk and I look forward to seeing more from the star specimens in the future as they are digitised and uploaded.

I hope to see lots of you at next month’s PubSci. Until then, have a great month.

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