Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Blind botanists, Iraqi mulberries and the Cowthorpe Oak

During my botany internship at the Discovery Centre I have been working on the collection of Mr John Grimshaw Wilkinson (1856 - 1937). This contains many samples of plants from the Leeds area, as well as others from around the world. Some of the most interesting examples include twigs from what was the largest oak in England, at Cowthorpe, near York, and two Mulberry samples from Basra, Iraq. I find these items interesting because each is accompanied by an old photograph, so it is easier to imagine exactly how the plants would have looked when growing, and what kind of places they grew in. It is also interesting looking at the work of John Wilkinson because he had a difficult life but was still extremely accomplished.
Wilkinson started his working life as a grocer, however, after a severe illness left him blind at the age of 22 he went on to become a well-known and respected botanist, identifying his samples through touch and smell. According to a friend of his, his usual method of identification was to lick the edges of leaves to check their shape, which can't always have been a pleasant experience. He was also known for his excellent memory and advised on the planting of several parks in Leeds. In 1915 the University of Leeds awarded Mr Wilkinson an honorary Msc degree in recognition of his work. Mr Wilkinson lived in Leeds for his whole life but the collections in the Discovery Centre show a wide range of contacts from across the world including Iraq, Canada and Australia. Even as someone who doesn't really know a lot about plants, I find it inspiring to think about how much effort Mr Wilkinson must have made in order to overcome his blindness and build such a large and varied collection.

The object to the left is a sample from the famous Cowthorpe Oak which was about 20m in circumference. There are even records of 70 people (mainly children) fitting inside the hollow of its trunk at one time, although some must have sat on each others' shoulders to fit in. By the 1800's the oak was already in decline but there are records that in the early 1700's the branches spread to cover over half an acre (about 1/4 of a full-sized premiership football pitch). The sample in our store was taken by Mr Wilkinson on 1st August 1916, although it has since died completely. In the photograph below it is just possible to see Mr. Wilkinson standing in front of the tree. The branch supporting beams shown in the sketch can also be seen.  

The Mulberry samples to the right were collected in Makina Masus, Basra, Iraq in 1918 by H. Whitehead (Bsc) and sent to Mr Wilkinson. Whitehead was obviously also a keen botanist as he is mentioned as a collector in several botanical journals such as the Kew Bulletin (1957, 12:2). British troops were posted in Basra to protect oil supplies during WW1, although we do not know whether Whitehead was there with the armed forces or independently. The attached photograph presumably shows the area they were picked from. These are just a few examples of items with interesting back stories, but it is amazing how the little clues scattered throughout the Wilkinson Collection build up to form a picture of the friendships and acquaintances of one man, and how his work was known across the world in the days before instant communication.

Posted by Clare but written and researched by Kim Hemming (biology intern, Summer 2011) who worked diligently on the wonderful herbarium collection held at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Volunteers' Tea Party at Leeds City Museum

At Leeds Museums and Galleries we have around 80 volunteers giving their time to help us across our nine museums and galleries sites.

Our volunteers help with lots of different tasks such as cleaning and caring for the objects, repacking and sorting, researching objects that we don’t know very much about, supporting the commercial team to keep the museums shops stocked and helping us at special events.

Based on the current number of volunteers we have and the hours they give to the service we think that our volunteers will have contributed around 10,000 hours to our service in this year alone and completed a lot of work that we wouldn’t have been able to resource without their precious time and hard work.

Every year in June ‘Volunteers Week’ celebrates the work volunteers do right across the UK. During this years ‘Volunteers Week’ we held a Tea Party at Leeds City Museum as a small thank you for all of the hard work our volunteers do. Many of our volunteers came along for a lovely lunch, a massage/alternative therapy session, a fun quiz and a special invitation only guided tour of the museum!

Volunteers had the opportunity to meet with volunteers and staff from our other sites and chat about their different roles over lunch and a cuppa!

Thank you to all of our hardworking volunteers for the work you do and for making our Volunteers Week celebration a success.

We hope to see all of our volunteers together again at the Christmas party.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Conservation...the final frontier.....to boldly treat objects no one has dared treat before.....

The project which is re-constructing the Hinton House state bed to its original "angel" tester configuration is not over yet, but the end is in sight, and the combined efforts of various skilled people have started to coalesce in to what the state bed expert Annabel Westman reckons to be the most exciting and ambitious bed restoration project to have taken place in many years. I am making the last major wooden components, the carved feet, that will be covered in the same crimson velvet that features on the outer valances, cornices and curtains. I am using limewood (Tilia species *), which has ideal carving properties, easy to work, and close-grained. The lime tree that the timber is from was felled on Temple Newsam Estate over 10 years ago, and I have had several planks of it air-drying since then. Carving of such heavily 3D, essentially sculptural work, has been new territory for me, and like everybody involved with this project, I have learned a lot, not the least of which is the importance, in sculpting/carving from a solid, of first making a maquette in something pliable, such as clay, in order to arrive at the design, or something close. A big thank you to artist Catherine Gray for taking me in hand on that. Moreover, I owe a lot to a previous generation of curators, such as Christopher Gilbert, Anthony Wells-Cole and James Lomax, for an extraordinary leap of faith in appointing me to help look after the heritage assets at Temple Newsam, and for great leadership afterwards. If I have achieved anything worthwhile in my career as a museum professional, it is to them that I largely attribute it. Someone else to acknowledge and thank is the late Sir Yehudi Menuhin, whose book Unfinished Journey had quite a marked effect on my own journey. A few words about his trusteeship of West Dean College, and the college itself, was enough for me to research this institution, and end up studying there.

The accompanying exhibition on beds and bedding, which will open late in 2011, will be a worthy addition to the lexicon of ground breaking Temple Newsam exhibitions on country house themes. As the project nears its completion it is worth reflecting on the efforts of the previous generation of curators to whom Temple Newsam House, as a great museum of decorative and fine art, owes its existence. Make it so.

Posted by Ian Fraser

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Victorian Astronomer’s Chair

In the Library at Lotherton Hall is a strange chair with a long, narrow, curved back made out of a single piece of wood. The supporting frame is so low that it almost scrapes along the ground and the back is at a delirious angle somewhere between 33 and 45 degrees. So what is it? It looks too low to be a nursing chair - how would the unfortunate nurse get out of it? – and it doesn’t seem to have anything to do with books and reading. The only clue is a metal disc which is fixed to the inside of one of the legs with a die-stamped inscription. It reads W.CALLAGHAN REGISTERED LONDON JAN.15 1873 23A NEW BOND STREET. William Callaghan was an optician who practised in London and his name appears in trade directories between 1866 and 1892. The label tells us that he patented this design in 1873. Was it for his patients to sit in? Hardly; it would have been very difficult to examine them in that position. Much more likely it was for gazing at the stars. William seems to have had a sideline in optical equipment which he probably did not make himself but sold from his premises.

The chair has always looked a little out of place in the library. If only Lotherton had an observatory - but it hasn’t and the Gascoigne family who lived here don’t seem to have had any interest in stargazing. The chair is so interesting and unusual that we couldn’t possibly just leave it in store. Perhaps if we had a telescope to show alongside it…?

Every bone tells a story

My name is Janet Fletcher, the Osteoarchaeologist in the Lifelong Learning Centre at the University of Leeds and I am working, with my colleague Debbie Hallam, on the unprovenanced human remains collection at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre. In early July I also had help from an ex student of mine Emily Marlow, who is now doing her PhD at the University of Manchester and who wanted access to skeletal material to provide data to test her theory about biometric sexing techniques.

I still need to analyse a few boxes but to date the skeletal material has been very interesting and despite lack of provenance there are some interesting stories to be told about the lives of the individuals studied. There is evidence of trauma, cultural modification, disease, lifestyle and activity-related pathologies. One individual in particular exhibits the marks of interpersonal violence and is proving to be a sad and moving case study.

All of the material studied has the potential for integration into community-based learning activities and the next step is to discuss the development of sessions to introduce the stories of the past populations of West Yorkshire to those living here today. I am looking forward to it.

Above: The facial reconstruction of Nesyamun, the Leeds Mummy, on display in Leeds City Museum.

Author: Janet Fletcher, Osteoarchaeologist, Sept 2011.