Trace through objects: Research journey at the Natural History Museum
Behind the scenes | human narratives
Whilst researching skill sharing for a London Museum Group and Guardian blog [links to follow soon], Louise Tomsett, Curator Mammal Group, Zoology Department, Natural History Museum told me the story of herself through an object: an urban fox:
‘I am often asked which object would embody me if I were a specimen?
I can’t answer that because each specimen is unique in its own right, has its own story and history and represents a certain species from a certain locality at a certain time in history. I don’t feel a ‘link’ as such to any particular specimen. As a curator I am here to maintain the collection during my career and to endeavor to play my part in preserving it for the future. Not an answer to your question but I would say that what I find interesting is the story an object tells…I find it fascinating learning about the animal itself and how it functions. I also find the story of how it came to be in the collection fascinating. That’s the other side of the collection, as well as looking at the science aspect, there’s the historical narrative of the journey of how it came to be here and that of the people who collected it. There are objects that have been on voyages, and you just think here I am holding this in my hand and how on earth did this object manage to survive? Objects have survived shipwrecks, conflicts, politics, been transported in various ways across oceans, deserts, forests, passed from one collection to another and so on. Often their story is not recorded but sometimes how they actually ended up in the collection are fascinating stories. Then, if you consider all the people who have studied an object over the years and all the kind of hands it’s been passed through…..
Foxes in store…taxidermy specimens were specifically prepared for exhibition so people could relate to the animal and although because of the preparation process they have limits on the type of scientific research that can be carried out on them, they are still scientifically valuable and also provide insights into associated information such as famous taxidermists and techniques used at that time.
One modern example I can relate to is actually a dead fox that I picked up outside the museum. Sadly it had been run over and I saw it as I was coming to work one day. The fox was on the pavement and two chaps who were renovating a building nearby were standing around it talking. I saw it and thought ‘I’m going to have that for my collection’, as you do. So I went up to them and said ‘Are you doing anything with that?’ They looked at me very strangely so I quickly explained, ‘I work in the Museum and I’d really like it for my collection’ . My sanity no longer in question, the renovators kindly gave me some gloves and a plastic bag so I picked up the fox and carried it back to the Museum and prepared it as a skin and a skeleton. Curators are always on the look out for new additions.
Funnily enough there are relatively few British mammals in the collection as most of the large collecting expeditions went on abroad. This is often the case in terms of species close to home and I’m trying to build this part of the collection up when I have the opportunity.
So each specimen has its own story although most of the time it is not recorded as a narrative. It’s only when you have an enquiry that you may piece together the information. Maybe somebody has a relative, a great great grandfather who donated a specimen and then you hear that story; ‘he was in India on an expedition and a lion was attacking them so they had to defend themselves by shooting it, transported it back by pack-horse and decided to donate it to the collection.
‘My’ fox is now in the collection and has actually been studied.
Louise with the Queen’s Gate urban fox – his fur is darker and has a frosted appearance compared to a rural fox from Scotland that is orange in colour [you can see an example of a rural fox in Louise’s hand].
We need reference material for comparison when identifying a species and you can only do this when you have a range of examples of the same species from different localities. There is often more variety within a species than you may think.’
With thanks to Louise Tomsett for this story.