Saturday, 26 April 2014

Collections through Cake: Butterfly Taxonomy

Rebecca, one of our awesome Curators of Natural Science, is on maternity leave. Just because you have small people, d​oesn’t mean you are excused from #MusCake duty! She made this fantastic offering of taxonomic butterfly cakes:

Taxonomy is the practice and science of the classification of things or concepts. Biological classification is based on characteristics derived from shared descent from common ancestors.

As the definitions imply, taxonomy can be something quite hard to explain, yet is fundamental to how we understand our world. Rebecca handily used cake as a medium to clear it all up! 

Some explanation: Latin is the language of Science, all new animals are given a Latin name which describes their characteristics. This is called binominal nomenclature. The name shows the genus and the species i.e. we are Homo sapiens (of the genus homo and the species sapiens). All these cakes are Laganum* (genus=cake) papilio (species=butterfly).
The eagle-eyed will have noticed that these Laganum papilio are all different. On the left we have the subspecies vanilla and cocoa (we enter trinominal nomenclature now!) – they are the same, but different. For example, the Amur tiger is Panther tigris altaica, whereas the Sumatran Tiger is Panther tigris sumatrae – both tigers, but of different subspecies, in this case due to their geography.

But what would happen if Laganum papilio vanilla had little caterpillars with Laganum papilio cocoa? Because they are subspecies, they are able to breed, and so we move to the cakes on the right. Here the X shows that they are hybrids! So Laganum papilio vanilla X L. p. cocoa is a mix of characteristics between a vanilla butterfly cake and a chocolate one.
*As it is a name, the first letter is capitalised. It is also traditional for taxonomic names to be written in italics.

By Curator Lucy Moore

Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A mountain of bird eggs: Unpacking the collection

I dedicated much of my year as a Biology Curatorial Trainee working on the bird egg collection at Leeds Museum Discovery Centre after it had been left packed up following the move from the old store. You can read an introduction to this project in my previous post. My first task was to unpack the specimens to improve their storage and see what we had.

A lot of the eggs had been removed from cabinet drawers and individually bagged up and put in cardboard boxes. I also discovered recently bagged up specimens still in their original makeshift containers, such as shoe boxes, cocoa boxes and cigar cases, including one with late 19th century newspaper as padding (see image). 

Removing them from these tight confines dramatically improved the storage of these specimens and reduced the risk of damage. There were also specimens that hadn’t yet been removed from partitioned cabinet drawers, often lined with deteriorating, highly acidic (sometimes pink) cotton wool. I individually bagged up these specimens so they were no longer in contact with the acidic lining and could be separated out when later rearranging the collection. I kept any data with the newly bagged specimens. 

Some specimens didn’t need unpacking as they were stored in individual glass-topped boxes, which offered the best possible storage for the collection. The specimens were laid into the drawers within the racking (see right).

As I unpacked these boxes and drawers, I stumbled across lots more boxes of specimens that I knew would require a bit more work. It was at this point that I realised what I had let myself in for and was glad I enjoyed pair matching games. The boxes contained large poly bags each filled with an assortment of eggs. I could tell by collector marks on the eggs that some of them belonged together.

I spent many days matching up specimens (see left) including some that had been in separate bags and could well have been stored separately for years. These specimens were also laid into the drawers.

I really enjoyed the unpacking phase, even when having to match up mountains of mixed eggs. It was actually quite therapeutic and satisfying being able to unite specimens and reinstate clutches of eggs. 

Being the first person to look over the collection as a whole was quite a privilege. I got to see all of the great specimens we have including the largest egg, from an elephant bird, to eggs from endangered and extinct species, such as the Passenger Pigeon. I was also able to uncover the quirky specimens and reveal for the first time the unique stories behind them.

By Kirsty Garrod, Biology Curatorial Trainee

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Collections through Cake: Axe Hammer Heads

Kat, Curator of Archaeology, recently made these fantastic axe hammer cakes for our #MusCake escapades. They were dark chocolate and orange – as you’ll see, basically interpreting the Bronze Age through the medium of the Jaffa Cake.

The axe hammers that Kat modelled her cakes on date from the Bronze Age (2500-1500 BC). The example below comes from Wike, near Leeds. The axe hammer head is teardrop shaped and is made from sandstone.

What is amazing, is that we just don’t know if the term ‘axe hammer head’ is even correct. Some studies have shown that if the hole was used as a socket for a handle, the head would still be too heavy to be lifted and swung. They may have been used as a steadying tool for holding something in position.

More recent interpretations suggest that they might have had a ritual use. I (personally) like the idea of the hole being an area that you might look through! It’s all about interpretation… 

Another example from our collections (see right) was found near Morley, purely by chance! It’s on display in the Leeds Story Gallery at Leeds City Museum.

Keep your eyes peeled – you don’t know what you might find!

By Curator Lucy Moore

Wednesday, 16 April 2014

A look back at the bird egg collection project

Back in March 2012, I joined the Leeds Museums and Galleries team as a Biology Curatorial Trainee and was privileged enough to be given (near) free rein over the natural science collections, to improve my curatorial skills and knowledge of natural sciences while expanding my museum experience. One collection that needed some attention was the bird egg collection, so I worked on it over the course of my traineeship year.

I realise that more than a year has passed since I finished as a trainee, so you’re probably wandering what has taken her so long to blog about the egg collection project and why now? After all, I now have another bird collection - the skins - to worry about.

Well, this blog is long overdue and, given the seasonal nature of public engagement with the egg collection, what better time is there to do it than in spring, when birds will be laying their eggs? Also, as I get used to my new role, I often find myself thinking, what if the egg collection was already perfectly curated when I began my traineeship and I was given a completely different collection to work on, would I be where I am now? I like to think that my interest in the egg collection and my passion for this project helped me secure my current role.

Along with the rest of the collections, the egg collection was packed up and relocated from the old store to Leeds Museum Discovery Centre in 2007 and not much had been done to it since then. Boxes of specimens were still tied to drawers from being transported but at least there were drawers and plenty of new racking space to house the collection!

These cardboard boxes provided a very cramped and acidic environment, with such fragile specimens only being protected from overcrowding and high acidity by the poly bag packaging (see image). Should anyone have wanted to get to particular specimens to check for pests, damage or get them out for visitors to look at, it would have been a very time consuming process. All in all, this was a far from ideal way to store the collection and it was the poor conditions driving the work that followed.

By Kirsty Garrod

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

'Floreat, Loidis!' – The Leeds Children’s Day Marching Song

This song sheet was donated to the museum back in 2000 and I have been longing to hear it performed ever since. Once, when I took it out to a reminiscence group a gentleman suddenly sat up and started singing it from memory but there was no means of recording it on that occasion.

When members of Bramley Elderly Action and the Bramley History Society started to plan their display on Leeds Children’s Day for the Abbey House community gallery in the summer of 2013 they took great interest in the song. None of them actually remembered singing it when they attended the Children’s Day events as most had been at school after the war. Howev​er, members of the BEA Singing Group were up for the challenge and vowed to learn the song which they performed with gusto at Abbey House Museum on 25th March 2014.

The song was written and composed by J. Harley Stones of Saville Green Council School, Leeds and was printed for the Leeds Elementary Schools' Athletic Association by The Yorkshire Evening Post. The sheet music does not have a printed date, so we are not exactly sure exactly when it was written. The very first Children’s Day event was staged in 1922, but it started properly in 1930.

As a result of the publicity for the display, many people have contacted the museum to send copies of photographs and their memories. One gentleman contacted the Yorkshire Post to say that his mother remembered singing 'Floreat Loidis' between about 1930 and 1932, which has helped to narrow down the dates. He attended this performance and was able to take a recording home to his mother who is now housebound.

Also in the audience was a lady (maiden name Vera Stoney) who was crowned Queen of Leeds Children’s Day in 1939 and can claim to have held the title for seven years as the next event was postponed until 1946. She did not remember singing the song, so we know that it had fallen out of favour by then.

Watch the BEA singing group perform Floreat, Loidis! – The Leeds Children’s Day Marching Song (opens a link to our YouTube channel).

The BEA singing group did find the words rather old fashioned, but had great fun learning and performing them:

Floreat, Loidis! Is our cry, as we gaily march along. 
Our city’s honour we proclaim with voices clear and strong. 
Stalwart lads and lasses fair, we swing upon our way. 
Tribute to our dear city’s love on this Children’s Day.

The display about Leeds Children’s Day continues at Abbey House Museum until the end of June 2014.

By Kitty Ross, Curator of Social History