Collectors & Collections
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.
St Fagans Collections Manager - FIRST BLOG!
My name is Dylan Jones and I am the Collections Manager at St Fagans:National History Museum. Apart from being responsible for the documentation at St Fagans I also look after the fishing and hunting collection which will be the main focus of my first blog. It will cover the work / preparation for the fishing weekend at St Fagans later on this month.
Follow the blog as I finalise details for the weekend which will include Karl Chattington, Coracle maker from the Cynon Valley, lave netsmen of the Severn estuary demonstrating their unique fishing skills and Hywel Morgan giving a demonstration on fly fishing. For the first time around the Netshouse we will also be preparing and cooking fish. I hasten to add it will not be me cooking!
Karl is no stranger to St Fagans and over the years he has been a popular attraction on site demonstrating his coracling skills on the ponds at Easter and in the summer months. Karl was part of the Welsh contingent that attended the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington DC in 2009. It was at this particular festival Karl constructed a Tywi coracle within two weeks of the festival – no mean achievement considering the lack of tools / weather conditions. Karl’s exploits at the festival can be read in a later blog.
I have already received some good news a few weeks ago with Martin Morgan, Secretary of the Blackrock Lave Net Fishermen Association confirming the presence of the fishermen at the festival. Good news indeed as the netsmen are very popular and informative. Beside showing the lave net Martin and his brother Richard will also bring with them fishing traps known as putchers and a putt which were once used on the Severn estuary until quite recently. Keep reading the blog to learn more about these hardy and unique fishermen.
Follow me on Twitter @CollectionsSF
The Buddhas are as many as the sands of the Ganges River: Carved inscription at Baodingshan, Dazu, AD 1177-1249
May 2010. I’m standing next to the largest head I’ve ever seen. Carved in sandstone and painted, it belongs to the vast reclining Buddha at the heart of the Baodingshan cave temple. Baodingshan, ‘Summit of Treasures’, is the most impressive of the seventy-five rock-carved temple sites that make up the Dazu World Heritage Site in south-west China. 10,000 individual figures populate its 500m-long tree-shaded sandstone cliff, all carved between AD1177 and 1249.
The experience is overwhelming. I’m astonished by the sheer ambition of this Buddhist complex, by the sophisticated imagination that planned it, by the skills of the artists that fashioned it. I’m here with colleague Steve Howe to plan an exhibition of Dazu carvings at the National Museum in Cardiff early in 2011, and I’m wondering how we are going to convey the magic of these places to our visitors.
This visit to Dazu was my first time back in China since working there in the mid 1980s. China had changed hugely, of course, and the pace of change is as breathtaking as the ferociously spiced Sichuanese food (the best in China, in my view) which our generous hosts pressed on us at every opportunity. The most important things, however – the sociability of the people, their rightful pride in a distinguished cultural heritage – remain undimmed.
Our week’s work with colleagues at the Dazu Rock Carvings Museum developed a warm and trusting friendship, along with the realisation that we had an opportunity to create something really special back in Cardiff. Dazu, after all, represents the last great flourishing of the cave-temple art form and its treasures of Song-dynasty (AD960-1279) sculpture had never been seen outside China before.
Back in Wales, the whole exhibition team rose enthusiastically to the challenge and, under serious time pressure, captured the serene drama of visiting a rock-carved cave temple. The exquisite beauty of the carvings, something both spiritual and deeply human, shines out. From a number of favourite pieces, I would highlight the meditating figure of Zhao Zhifeng, the designer of the Baodingshan complex, and, in complete contrast, the charmingly characterised family group from a tomb complete with serious father, delighted mother and two naughty children. Pride of place, though, goes to the central Sakyamuni Buddha, whose authoritative dignity greets visitors to the exhibition and provides a profoundly spiritual focus for the whole experience.
I was particularly pleased to see the delight of our Chinese colleagues at the results, but equally so to see the enthusiasm of so many visitors of all kinds, whether people from Cardiff or China, specialists or local school children. If the multitude of Buddhist figures and schools of thought, and their interweaving with Confucian and Daoist ideas, all seem like too much to grasp, not to worry. Just enjoy the spectacle and take heart from another Dazu inscription that expresses the essential simplicity of Buddhist thinking: ‘to know clearly means that there is nothing to know’.
Andrew Renton, Head of Applied Art, National Museum Cardiff
Face to face with the past - the redisplay of a Roman coffin
One of the most popular displays at the National Roman Legion Museum is a stone coffin that contains the skeleton of a Roman man. The coffin also contains the remains of grave goods that he would need for their next life, including the base of a shale bowl and fragments of a glass perfume or ointment bottle.
The coffin was found in 1995 on the site of a Roman cemetery just outside Caerleon. The cemetery is now part of the Caerleon Campus in the University of Wales, Newport. It has been on display in the National Roman Legion Museum from 2002, however in Summer 2010 we started working to redisplay the coffin in a fashion that is closer to its original form thanks to funding from the Friends of Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales.
Made from a solid block of Bath stone, the coffin dates to about 200AD. Since it is around 1800 years old the coffin wouldn’t be able to support the weight of its original lid which is in 2 large pieces. The sides and base of the coffin are being reinforced and the lid will sit on top of a Perspex cover with enough of a gap so that you can see the skeleton inside.
Further work will be done to find out more about our Roman man, who was about 40 when he died. Thanks to funding from the Roman Research Trust, Isotope analysis will be carried out on his teeth which should tell us where grew up and what sort of food he ate. We will also be trying to reconstruct his face so that we can produce a painted portrait of him using the same materials and techniques used by the Romans.
Follow our progress as work proceeds over the next year.
We aim to complete the redisplay by the end of 2011 when you will be able to come face to face with the past!
The coffin, skeleton and grave goods have been on display since 2002.
In that time it has become one of the most popular exhibits in the gallery.
Gaps in the coffin allowed visitors to push things into the display.
These are some of the things we found, not exactly the sort of thing our Roman would like to take to the next life.
Work begins. First the skeleton and grave goods have to be removed and stored safely.
While off display the skeleton will undergo further investigation in an attempt to find more about the man buried in the coffin.
All modern materials added to an object must be reversible. This makes it easier to remove restoration without causing damage to the original artefact.
Here a reversible barrier is being painted onto the coffin. This will separate the original stonework from the material used to fill gaps and level the rim.
Even the most awkward places have to be reached!
The lid of the coffin must have a level surface to sit on!
Unfortunately much of the original rim of the base has eroded so with the aid of foam, double-sided tape and the glass top of the original display as a guide, we hope to establish a new level for the coffin rim.
Layers of foam were stuck to the flat glass top. When the highest part of the coffin was reached this line was used as the level for the new rim.
Now for the fun bit� mixing up the fill material.
This material must work like a putty and set hard when dry. Also be safe to use in the open gallery and similar in colour and texture to the original Bath stone.
We went for a mixture of air-drying clay, sand to reduce shrinkage and give texture. Acrylic paint for colour and extra bonding. This was a bit of a messy job and it took a while to get the mix right!
Once the mix was ready the gap between the foam and the edge of the coffin was filled.
Being careful not to get excess fill material all over the stone.
Looks good, let�s hope the fill dries without to much shrinkage.
The colour of the fill is a bit light, not as golden as the original Bath stone. The Roman quarry for the stone is believed to be south of the ancient City of Bath. The stone is soft and easily carved when wet, but becomes hard on drying.
Inspecting the days work! Hopefully when the glass and foam is removed the fill will be nice and level.
The gaps in the side of the coffin have to be filled to prevent access to the skeleton once it is put back on display.
The glass top and foam are removed and the new rim revealed. The fill has dried much lighter than expected so will have to be painted to make it less obvious.
Most of the fill will be hidden by the lid which extends over the edge and down the side. This overlapping edge use to rest on a ridge that ran round the top of the coffin base.
Remains of this ridge can still be seen on the right hand-side of the image just below the fill.
The coffin was unearthed by a mechanical digger, which broke it into several sections. Most of the pieces were retrieved, but one area was so badly damaged no pieces survived.
Instead of filling the gap to complete the side, we decided to install a viewing window so small visitors to the museum can still get a good view of the skeleton inside.
The coffin is extremely heavy and could not be moved out of the gallery safely. Therefore, all conservation work has to take place in the gallery, which has been quite challenging at times.
If you are visiting and see us there, come over and say hello, we are happy to answer any questions about the project.
Collectors & Collections