Collectors & Collections
A 13th Century guide to the heavens
Ioannis de Sacro Bosco [c. 1195 –c. 1256] was a scholar, monk and astronomer [probably English] who taught at the University in Paris. In around 1230 he wrote this authoritative medieval astronomy text Tractatus de Sphaera [On the Sphere of the World]. It gives a readable account of the Ptolemaic universe[the universe according to the Hellenistic astronomer Claudius Ptolemaeus in the 2ndcentury AD] that went on to become required reading by students in all Western European universities for the next four centuries. Though principally about the heavens it contains a clear description of the earth as a sphere and its popularity shows the nineteenth-century opinion that medieval scholars after this date thought the Earth was flat as a fabrication [Wikipedia].
This copy [photographed here] is dated 1577 and forms part of our Vaynor Collection; this consists of a number of 16th and 17th century astronomical works, including several of the writings of Galileo. The collection was formed and donated by John Herbert James of Vaynor [which is just north of Merthyr Tydfil].
The condition of this book is excellent; the paper is bright and unmarked, robust to the touch and all the little volvelles [rotating paper wheel charts] still work perfectly.
It is bound in pure white vellum [calf skin] as are the majority of the Vaynor astronomical books which I always think gives them a very "celestial" look.
A recent purchase and what a cracker! This manuscript diary is titled Tour of Wales and the Marches beginning on 22 August 1827 and consists of 55 pages of exquisite handwriting and ink sketches presumably by Eliza Rand. We say presumably as she hasn’t acknowledged herself as the author but as one of the only two females on the tour, she mentions her sister Georgiana on p. 32, so it’s a simple enough process of elimination. The account of the tour includes several pen and ink drawings, including a view of the Havod Arms, a harper at Abergele and Beddgelert church. However, of most interest is a drawing of their guide at Cadair Idris, Richard Pugh, posing in front of his cottage, with staff in hand, wearing a goatskin 'mountain dress' and sporting a headress of goat's skull and horns! This was the traditional costume of the Welsh guides [believe it or not] but depictions of it are very rare indeed.
We hold a good selection of 18thand 19th century tours of Wales as they are an invaluable resource of historical information. Many of them are filled with comments and anecdotes on everyday subjects such as chosen routes; care and maintenance of coach and horses, conditions of roads, personalities met en route, quality of inns, descriptions of architecture and [of course!] the weather. For example, this particular diary ends with a summary of the places visited, the number of horses used and the number of turnpikes.
The launch of 'Wallace 100'
On the evening of Thursday 24th January I was fortunate to be invited to the Natural History Museum in London. The event was for the unveiling of a portrait of the intrepid explorer and brilliant naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace by comedian and fellow naturalist Bill Bailey.
The painting was donated to the NaturalHistoryMuseum in 1923 to mark the 100th anniversary of Wallace's birth but was moved in 1971. It has now been restored and returned to its original position on the main stairs of the Central Hall, near to the Charles Darwin statue.
The unveiling of the painting also marked the official launch of Wallace100 and the Wallace Letters Online website, both of which are part of the celebrations for this year's centenary anniversary of Wallace's death.
Some famous names of the natural science world were in attendance at the launch including Sir David Attenborough, whose hand I got to shake!
A number of organisations in Wales, including Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, will be joining the Wallace 100 celebrations. The museum is planning a number of activities and events to run alongside our exhibition planned for later this year. Keep an eye on our website for further information.
We have completed our work on the Wallace Palms!
Over recent months, botanical conservators Vicky Purewal and Annette Townsend have been carrying out painstaking work on a series of eleven historical palm specimens. They were collected around 1850 by the renowned British naturalist and explorer Alfred Russell Wallace (1823-1913) during his travels in the Amazon. Wallace is best known for his studies on evolution, which helped trigger the publication of Charles Darwin’s ground breaking research ‘Origin of Species’.
The Wallace palms reside at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the curators there requested that Vicky and Annette, who are specialist conservators in botanical collections at AC-NMW, carry out the necessary conservation work. The specimens are over 150 years old and had to endure adverse conditions in the hold of a ship, and then later to contend with soot and pollution from Battersea Power station. The palms were understandably very fragile and in need of plenty of careful cleaning, re-structuring and repackaging so that their true splendour could be appreciated by all. The palms have been re-housed in custom made boxes so that they can travel back to Kew safely and are also now fit for display.
You will be able to see the palms for yourself on display at AC-NMW in Oct 2013, as RBG Kew will be loaning some of the collection for our Wallace’s bicentenary exhibition and celebrations.
Describing new worms
Natural History Open Day.
During half term we held a Natural History open day in the main hall at National Museum Wales, Cardiff. It was a great opportunity for us to chat to visitors about our work and show them parts of the collections not normally seen by the public.
The day had a Halloween theme, and visitors had the chance to engage with a wide range of material from the collections. This included solving a ‘murder mystery’ in the herbarium, comparing our UK bats to the size of the largest fruit bat or studying closely a bedbug!
It was a busy, but fun day for all the staff involved. Look out on the website for the next open day.
Old Bones for a New Exhibition
More than 20 years ago the Museum was donated a large research collection of animal bones. This had been put together by a veterinary scientist, Dr Barbara Noddle. The collection mainly consists of sheep, goat and cattle bones from many different breeds.
When it was donated the collection was in a poor state and required extensive conservation and curation. Today it is now housed in over 600 boxes at our offsite Collection Centre at Nantgarw, and a database is available on the website.
Over the years the Noddle Collection has mainly been used in zoo-archaeological research – this is the study of animal remains found at archaeological sites. However parts of the collection will soon find their way into the exhibition limelight!
From the 13th October ‘The Wolf Inside’ exhibition opens. This will be looking at animal domestication, focusing on dogs but also exploring other animals such as sheep and chickens. And this is where Barbara’s collection of old bones finds a new use. We are using a range of skulls from the collection to show some of the diversity found in the different breeds of sheep. A range of these skulls have been checked over and polished up ready for public display.
Along with the skulls there will also be a whole range of animal specimens on display from the museums collections, many of which we haven’t had the opportunity to bring out for many years.
The exhibition runs until February next year.
Self Assembly of a Victorian Oven
Working for Amgueddfa Cymru as part of the conservation team at the National Collections Centre, Nantgarw, certainly has its challenges. This was definitely the case when we received a request from the Historic Buildings Unit based at St Fagans - National History Museum to help assemble an oven. I assumed this would probably involve a few screws and washers, and just a few hours’ work.
I remember the lorry arriving at Nantgarw with two large pallets on board. One contained burnt, broken and whole pieces of mainly cast iron components from the old oven; the second pallet held the components of the new oven. Even at first glance, there appeared to be far more pieces of the newly cast material. With the help of photographs taken of the old oven before dismantling all the parts were laid out, matching old with new; it took me three days!
The oven had been removed from Llwyn-yr-Eos farmhouse at St Fagans which dates from about 1820. The building had been closed to the public for conservation work to be carried out; this provided an opportunity to replace the late Victorian oven, which was definitely the worse for wear.
After identification came assembly. I decided to start by making two new mild steel inner walls. This was done with the help of Len Howells, the fabricator at Big Pit - National Coal Museum. These would then act as a framework to which I would attach the new oven parts.
The old oven components were fastened together using rivets, large and small, both dome and flat head, and machine screws. As the new oven was made of new cast iron, which is very brittle, I was naturally very apprehensive about using a hammer to carry out any riveting, especially as some of the pieces were only a few millimetres thick. I also took into consideration the fact that they were very costly to produce! I decided to address this problem by manufacturing artificial rivets. This was done by using the lathe to machine the heads of bolts. I ground the cutting tool to the exact shape of the dome required. The flat head rivet was cut using a normal cutting tool.
The bolts now had threads, but with rivet heads. The pieces that needed riveting would be held together by having a clearance hole drilled into the top plate and a tapping hole drilled into the piece to be fastened to it. When a thread needs to be cut in a hole a tool called a tap is used; this process is referred to as “tapping a hole”.
Every component of the new oven came without holes for the relevant fastenings, so measurements of every hole had to be taken from the old pieces, some of which were broken, and transferred to the new. Once this had been done, the dummy rivets were screwed into the tapped holes, the parts were tightened together and the excess thread then cut off.
Turning to the machine screws, I managed to source sufficient examples with slotted countersunk heads and a Whitworth thread. The Whitworth thread was created by Joseph Whitworth in 1841 after standardising a number of contemporary threads and was known as the British Standard Whitworth thread, BSW for short; it was only superseded by the metric thread in the early 1970s. Modern-day machine screws would have been incongruous to the oven, with their hexagonal head slots and metric thread.
Using these fastenings, the new oven was methodically assembled and fully constructed in the workshop at Nantgarw. It was then taken apart and secured onto a pallet, which the Historic Buildings unit then collected. It is now back in place in the farmhouse and has already baked a few loaves!
So a task which I thought might mean a few hours’ work involved the building of an oven comprising 94 separate parts, the drilling and tapping of 132 holes and machining of 88 bolts to look like rivet heads eventually took me five weeks…..so much for a few hours work!!
Phil Tuck, Conservation Officer, Dept. of Industry, Nantgarw.
Within the groundwater in the rocks below our feet is a hidden world where living animals can be found. It’s a secret world that is difficult to study, and frequently forgotten as it is out of sight. In the UK these groundwater dwelling animals tend to be made up of crustaceans (which includes familiar animals such as crabs and lobsters), and range from tiny microscopic copepods to ‘larger’ shrimp like animals.
Recent survey work by Lee Knight, a freshwater ecologist, and Gareth Farr, a groundwater specialist with the Environment Agency, has found some new species to the Welsh fauna. This has included the first records for the very small amphipod Microniphargus leruthi which has now been found in a number of sites around South Wales.
Recently I joined Gareth on some fieldwork around the Bridgend area to collect some voucher specimens for the museum collections. On this particular trip we found two species not represented in the collections (and shown in the pictures). Both of these are termed ‘stygobiont’ animals, which means they are permanent inhabitants of underground environments. As a result they are characteristically white and eyeless as an adaptation to life underground.
So why does it matter that we learn about such animals and their environment? Understanding biodiversity is always important. Our whole way of life is underpinned by the environment through the food we eat, the water we drink, to the resources we use. In the case of these groundwater animals if the groundwater they live in gets polluted, then this affects not only these animals but us through contaminated water supplies. Thus even these small blind beasties have an important role to play in the sustainability of our environment.
Collectors & Collections