Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Wild Eider Ducks!

(Flock of Common Eider Ducks (Somateria mollissima) seen on a recent trip to Iceland).

We have a few specimens of the Common Eider Duck in the collection and they are an interesting bird.
They breed in Arctic and northern regions and the females line their nests with the soft down feathers from their chests as it is very warm and has excellent insulating properties. After the ducklings have fledged the down from the nests can be harvested and goes to make highly prized eiderdown duvets, pillows and coats - it is so highly prized that it is worth more than its weight in gold.

(Male Common Eider Duck (Somateria mollissima) in Leeds Museums & Galleries collection).

Common Eider Ducks eat crustaceans and molluscs and particularly favour mussels, which are eaten whole and then crushed in the gizzard. The first (bad quality) picture was taken right next to a rocky shore and soon after nearly the whole group dived at the same time whilst foraging under the water.  Females usually return to the same place that they were hatched and they sometimes lay eggs in the nests of related individuals, whilst after hatching ducklings may be looked after in a crèche. Their call has been likened to that of old women gossiping!
(Male Common Eider Duck (Somateria mollissima). Image taken by David Iliff at the London Wetland Centre in Barnes.,_London_Wetland_Centre_-_Diliff.jpg)

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Cute Cat - A Chinese Inkstone

This unusual cat shaped ink stone was donated in 1993 by a Mrs Mae-Fun Chen, who was moving from Knaresborough to the seaside in Essex. Her father was an art collector, who had a shop called the 'Chinese Art Gallery' and when he died in 1967 she selected this ink stone, amongst a few other items, to keep. It is currently on show in the China Cabinet display at the far end of the Servant's Quarters at Lotherton Hall.  

On the back of the inkstone is an inscription which has now been translated by Estelle Wu     (吳瑞珍), as part of her internship with Leeds Museums and Galleries this year. (Where X is written this means the character was hard to decipher). The colour on this photo has been altered to maximise the legibility of the characters.

When it nods its head with comfort
The head is like a tiger and in sunny day is like a cat
And its eyes are like a mynah
They move quickly and have meat as their meals
Thirty thousand and fifty catalogues about Confucianism
It is wide and changeable, imprisons some mouse
Helping someone behind the scene
God asks us to have leisureful lives
Zha-Shan (a mountain in Huian County, Fujian province, China) inscribed

Searching for this mountain in combination with the word inkstone on the web brought up the name Huang Kehui 黄克晦 (1524-1590), a poet, painter and calligrapher in the Ming Dynasty. This poem is very similar,  in the first and second lines, with one by the poet Xu Wei 徐渭 (1521-1593), who lived around the same time. So presumably Huang took some part of Xu’s work to make a new poem of his own.

Below is Xu’s work:
Name: 徐渭 Xu Wei
Topic: 端石螭硯銘 The inscription on an ink stone with a dragon

When dragon nods its head it looks like tiger
And the eyes of dragon are like mynah
It flies and moves fast, it has meat as its meal, it has ink as its drinks, can you hear its sound?

Do get in touch if you have seen another cat inkstone as cute as this one!

Sunday, 10 November 2013


Many people will have been wearing poppies lately and on Remembrance Sunday they are at the heart of our commemorations. At Leeds Museums & Galleries we are working hard on a programme of commemoration for 2014-18, but until then here is a quick look at some of the historical poppies in our collections

The poppy has a long cultural history.

Beginning with the botanical, we have several different poppies in our herbarium collections. This one was gathered from allotments at the back of Newlaithes Gardens in Horsforth in 1959. The petals are still so red!

Moving back in time, our oldest object that features a poppy is this lekythos (jug) from the late Bronze Age in Cyprus. The 'belly' of the jug is meant to look like the seed-head of the poppy - there are groves that mimic the seed-head. It is very small so may have been used to prepare sleeping draughts from raw poppies, with the shape echoing the ingredients.

Moving forward to Ancient Rome, this dupondius (coin) dates from 41 AD and shows the goddess Ceres sitting, holding two poppies in her out-strectched right hand. Ceres is the goddess of the harvest and the poppy is one of her emblems, because they grew commonly in amongst fields of grains, like barley. Even with industrialised agriculture today, you can still see poppies growing amongst wheat around harvest time.

In Victorian England, poppies become a popular motif for a wide variety of objects, including textiles and porcelain. Popularity at this point had much to do with the influx of new varieties of poppy that were developed by Victorian horticulutralists. Victorians also popularised the idea of a 'Language of Flowers' and that each one had its own meanings. 
  • Poppies in general referred to: Eternal Sleep, Oblivion, Imagination
  • Red Poppy: Pleasure
  • White Poppy: Consolation
  • Yellow Poppy: Wealth, Success
This tea service dates from 1880 and features red poppies across it - it's always possible some poppy-seed cake was served from it too!

After the First World War, many people noticed that battlefields in France were covered with poppies - they do grow well in disturbed ground. However it was the poem 'In Flanders Fields' that appeared to make the use of them in remembrance so widespread. This cross dates to just after the First World War. It is an unprovenanced item - so we don't know how it came to be in the collections - however I think that makes it all the more poignant.

If you have a story to share, or would like to get in touch about our First World War programme, please contact

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Decent photography, making your collection look good

(Professional photographer Norman Taylor taking pictures of a mounted Dipper (Cinclus cinclus)).

We regularly hire Norman to come in and take pictures of our specimens. Sometimes these pictures are for an exhibition or display in the galleries, other times it is just to have a good visual record of our collection so that it is easier to identify things quickly when looking though our database. There are occasions when researchers want to see a picture of a specimen before they come to visit to see if it displays the characteristics they are looking for, or because they can get the information that they need just from the image, saving them a trip. If, for whatever reason, the specimen was lost, having a visual record of it means you still have valuable information on its appearance; this could be sent to the Police if it was stolen or at least give an idea of scale if it was destroyed in a fire. When an object goes in for conservation treatment to be cleaned or repaired then it is always useful to have before and after photos, then you have a record of what has changed/improved in appearance. If the specimen is sent out on loan you always take a picture to be sure that when it is returned it is in the same condition as when it left, as it is the responsibility of the person/organisation you are lending it to to look after it and keep it safe.