Friday, 29 April 2016

Treasures of the Herbarium Collection

During my placement at the Discovery Centre I have been documenting the Herbarium collection donated to Leeds Museums by the University of Leeds. 

Conserving delicate plants

The herbarium sheets, cones and seeds that I am working with are stacked in groups by the species to which they belong and groups of species folders are then placed together into larger folders by genus. The genus folders are then sorted by taxonomic family. 

The sheets have been temporarily stored in plastic wrapping and so I am unpacking the bundles and re-storing them in new conservation-grade boxes. Some of the specimens have been mounted on newspaper like the one above and you can see how the paper has become discoloured over time. I will have to re-mount some of the specimens on to acid-free paper to preserve them for the future.

Why do we preserve herbaria?

Herbaria are important for studying plant taxonomy, studying geographic distributions and in cataloguing the flora of a certain area. 

Pressed plant specimens
(Osmunda regalis)
Having a large collection from a single area can help us to understand the natural distribution over which plants grow and can provide a historical record of plants that have become extinct in one area. This information helps environmental scientists who track climate changes and human impact on the local species.

This example I found in the collection is Osmunda regalis a species of deciduous fern collected in York in 1877. If you look closely at the handwritten note above the label, in 1927 (forty years later) 

'In spite of reports that Osmunda was all gone from Askham Bog, I am glad to learn that it still survives on one spot, in small quantity….but strictly preserved.'

Another note below this says 'Happily increasing by protection 1936!'

This Osmunda regalis (above, left) is a perfect example of herbarium specimens being used to keep track of plants over time.

(Antirrhinum Majus)

Pictured above is Antirrhinum majus, collected by Ida M. Roper in 1829. These plants were often called ‘snapdragons’ and were thought to have supernatural powers to provide protection against witchcraft. This is probably because when the flowers die they leave behind seed pods that look like skulls. This specimen has some interesting newspaper clippings that show these macabre seed pods.

Finally, these are my favourite specimens found so far in the herbarium collection. I think they are beautiful and delicate, they could almost have been painted in watercolours. 

By Gemma Bailey, Herbarium Work Placement Student, University of Manchester

Friday, 22 April 2016

The Mystery of the Dinosaur Bone in a Rock

Something new turned up in Conservation needing cleaning for the up and coming ‘There’s a Dinosaur at the Museum’ display, (30th May to 6th June at Leeds City Museum).  It looked like a rib in a piece of stone, but was covered with a heavy layer of sooty deposits, that made it look black. We believe it came from a large reptile, possibly a dinosaur, but it has not yet been identified.

Image of partial rib in blackened rock.
Before Conservation

The rib was acquired in 1866, so it is not surprising over the years it has acquired a layer of industrial pollution. It came into the Conservation Studio looking very indistinct and not very exciting. As you can see in the photograph you can make out the rib but that is about it. After a quick inspection to see if there were any obvious breaks or damage, we decided to steam clean it with our new steam cleaner.

The Cleaning Process

We use a dental steam cleaner with deionised water. This is water that has had the impurities filtered out, a bit like the filter jugs that you can get for your own kitchens, but a bit more refined. We can adjust the pressure coming out of the nozzle so can do very fine cleaning. Steam cleaning is one of my favourite jobs, as it can be really satisfying. This one turned out to be very satisfying indeed!

Half Way Through

Image of rib partially cleaned, half black and half cleaned.
During Conservation

In the photograph above you can see a half cleaned and un-cleaned section. As you can see the dirt layer lifts of very easily without damaging the underlying surface. The oval shapes beginning to be seen just under the rib are fossilised sea shells. It took a couple of hours to clean this up, including the back. Sometimes if fragile paper labels are present we have to protect them otherwise they would be obliterated.  

The Final Stage

Cleaned rib showing more detail and fossil sea shells.
After Conservation

As you can see from the last picture the finished article looks radically different from the first time it came into Conservation. The removal of the surface deposits, which are most likely industrial and quite acidic in nature, will ensure the continued longevity and enjoyment of this object. We can also see that part of the end of the rib has been damaged but is still partially preserved in the matrix of the stone. Additionally, the sea shells will help our Geologist to date the rib more precisely and hopefully help to identify the dinosaur.

Cleaning can yield up more information, protect an item by removing harmful industrial deposits and enable you to see more of this dinosaur.

Find out more about the forthcoming 'There's a Dinosaur in the Museum' display on our What's On website (opens as new link).

By Emma Bowron, Conservator

Thursday, 21 April 2016

Behind the Lines - new First World War poetry exhibition

I love war poetry, from Wilfred Owen to Rupert Brooke, so when I was given the chance to put together a small, portable exhibition on war poetry from the Leeds Museums and Galleries collections, I jumped at the chance. From deciding which poems to include to receiving the final proofs from the designer, it has been an extremely valuable experience that I have truly enjoyed and one that would not have been possible without Leeds Museums.

There are a variety of authors from different walks of life and backgrounds within the Leeds collection and it was difficult to narrow the selection down to just four pieces. I settled upon a poem written by an unknown author which details the rigours of training to become a soldier, two poems written by Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson who was a Captain in the West Yorkshire Regiment and one written by Dorothy Una Ratcliffe who was the Lady Mayoress during the First World War.

Poets from the home front to the trenches
I chose four poems because I wanted to look at the difference in tone and content from the start of the war through to its end, as well as considering the view of those on the home front and those in the trenches. The first poem written by an unknown author provides a comedic look at the process of training, but this is contrasted by the evocative descriptions of the realities of warfare, written by Eric Fitzwater Wilkinson in his pieces Twentieth Century Civilisation and To Glory. Both of these pieces are entirely different to the work of Dorothy Una Ratcliffe. She looks at the war as it comes to an end, what the aftermath is and how the women who were left behind can cope with the loss.

A wealth of war poetry
Of course there is so much more poetry to explore in the collections, and there are several pieces which I could not fit into the exhibition that I wish I could have done, such as Division Forty-Nine which was written by Pte. Alfred Calton who worked with the West Yorkshire Field Ambulance during the war. His poem describes the first time the Germans used phosgene gas against the Allies.

Hopefully the poems in this exhibition will give everyone a glimpse into what the mood was like for different people in Leeds from 1914 all the way to 1919, the changes in attitude and the varied experiences among the population.

Borrow the portable exhibition
If you would be interested in borrowing these panels and displaying them free of charge; or if you would like to know when and where they will be displayed, please get in touch with us at and keep an eye out on the website!

By Laura Varley, First World War Project Placement Student.

Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Eggy Oddities: Why Kiwis Produce Massive Eggs

Generally in the natural world the size of one’s offspring correlates with the size of one’s self. Elephant babies are huge and mouse babies are tiny. The bigger the bird the bigger the egg or the bigger the egg the bigger the bird…depending on which came first! Of course nothing in nature is that simple and so there are a few exceptions to this rule.

Kiwis are the smallest of the flightless bird group, ratites. However, their eggs are the largest relative to body weight of any existing bird. To put this into perspective, the average kiwi weighs just 2500g and an average kiwi egg weighs a massive 371g. This is 15% of a kiwi’s body weight. In comparison an ostrich weighs around 100,000g and lays an egg weighing just 1314g.  This is only just over 1% of the ostrich’s body weight (Figures taken from Amadon, 1947)

Despite the horror inducing image of producing an egg this size, kiwis are highly productive and an average adult female will produce one of these giant eggs every year (McLennan et al. 2004). Females produce these eggs at little additional energetic cost. Half the energy needed to produce them is obtained from stored energy reserves (McLennan et al. 2004) rather than the bird desperately having to forage for food during egg development. Furthermore when the egg hatches the female still needn’t panic about providing for her young as the kiwi egg contains an unusually high yolk content (65% (Piper 2007)) which can sustain the chick until it is able to forage for itself. 

The greatest benefit of producing such large eggs is that they hatch into highly precocial young. This means kiwi chicks hatch fully feathered with open eyes and within a week are able to feed themselves (McLennan et al. 2004; Frances and Larter 2011). Being precocious helps young to evade predators. However, before mammals were introduced to New Zealand kiwis had very little problem with predation. 

Nocturnal predator species such as owls were only as large as 600g and therefore too small to prey on even young kiwis (McLennan et al. 2004). In modern days despite being nocturnal, well camouflaged and elusive kiwis are still preyed upon by introduced mammals including rats and stoats (Attenborough 1998; Frances and Larter 2011). The large and strong egg of the kiwi protects the chick as they are too large and heavy to be broken by rats (McLennan et al. 2004). Despite these adaptations smaller kiwi species are preyed upon for the first four months of life before outgrowing their predators (McLennan et al. 2004). 

Although there are some clear benefits of producing such enlarged eggs the true reason why kiwis exhibit this level of parental investment is unknown, but given the choice it’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t prefer the parental life of our humble domestic chicken. 

By Sarah Burhouse, Zoology Project Placement Student

Amadon, D. (1947) An Estimated Weight of the Largest Known Bird, The Condor, 49 (4), pp. 159-164. 
Attenborough, D. (1998) The Life of Birds. Great Britain: BBC Books.
Frances, P. & Larter, S. (2011) The Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Birds. London, UK: Dorling Kindersley Limited. 
McLennan, J., Dew, L., Miles, J., Gilingham, N. and Waiwai, R. (2004) Size matters: predation risk and juvenile growth in North Island brown kiwi (Apteryx mantelli), New Zealand Journal of Ecology, 28 (2), pp. 241-250. 
Piper, R. (2007) Extraordinary Animals: An Encyclopaedia of Curious and Unusual Animals. USA: Greenwood Publishing Group.

Friday, 15 April 2016

No Happily Ever After - Nursery Rhymes and Political Cartoons

As a placement student at Abbey House Museum, I get to spend my time looking through their fantastic collections. I’m currently helping develop some initial ideas for an upcoming exhibition on Fantasy and Fairy Tales. Everyday I’m surprised by what I find here at Abbey House, and today I’m excited to share one of those discoveries.

One of the things that surprised me during my research is how characters, settings and stories from fairytales never stay where they’re supposed to. They’re forever popping up in unexpected places. One place I kept encountering them over and over again is within political cartoons. When we look at these cartoons, the well-known stories from our childhoods come back to help us understand the adult world we’re now part of.

(This photograph was taken for Leeds Museums and Galleries and is licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA)

One of my favourites (pictured above) is taken from a publication called The Political Drama. It shows the French King Louis Philippe I, dressed to the nines in royal garb and … shaped like an egg. He’s sitting on a wall and his across his stomach reads ‘A Rotten Egg’.
We’ve probably all heard politicians and public figures described as “rotten”. However, the use of the Humpty Dumpty story tells us a bit more about the artist’s opinion of the King. Across the bottom of the page a rhyme reads “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, should Humpty Dumpty have a great fall, not all Europe’s armies, and double ten-score could put Humpty Dumpty up as he was before”. 

After the abdication of Napoleon, Louis Philippe returned to France from exile – in 1830 he was declared the new King of France. However, the reference to Humpty Dumpty in this cartoon reminds us that things, once broken, are not easily mended. The Bastille and the guillotine – great icons of the anti-royalist French Revolution – loom over King Louis’ reign. Can things ever return to normal after such a great fall, the cartoonist asks? 

By Anna Turner, Work Placement Student at Abbey House Museum

Friday, 8 April 2016

Store tours at Leeds Museums Discovery Centre

Last April I began working as a Volunteer Tour Guide at Leeds Museums Discovery Centre.

Every Thursday at 11am and 2pm I tour this purpose-built store highlighting objects from our social history, geology, world cultures, archaeology, natural science and dress and textile collections. This is where we store, protect and care for the one million objects (approximately 95% of the city's museum collections) that are not currently on display at any of the city's nine museum sites. The tours are open to everyone, we just ask that you phone or email to confirm your place. I think this might be the most exciting building in Leeds.

Having learnt the tour script I was encouraged to explore the store and add in new objects of interest. This is ongoing, adding in the new stuff. The discovery is constant and being able to talk competently and enthusiastically about many things is the best kind of challenge. We walk the tours with a set route yet a flexible itinerary of objects because as a working environment, the objects can change location. The other thing that changes is you, the visitor.  

I had the privilege of shadowing a tour by the World Cultures Curator Antonia Lovelace and saw how her ease with the visitors allowed their interests and stories to shape the experience. This liberated me from my detailed script. I learnt to prioritise the visitor over the objects, less time speeding from object to object and more time allowing the objects to work as little connectors, go-betweens of human experience. Facts and information resonate at every shelf, every box; the trick is to allow conversation too because then the knowledge sharing becomes extra-ordinary.

Visitors often ask “What is this?” but the store really opens up when visitors talk about objects that they recognize and have knowledge of. Every object is recorded on our museum database but inevitably many lie unseen or unnoticed. The more visitors that come, the more objects awaken. The more conversations we have, the greater the democratization of our knowledge and the more able we are to celebrate our communal value. Talking is good, come and join the conversation!

How to find the Discovery Centre:
Leeds Museums Discovery Centre is located on Carlisle Road, 1.5 miles south from the city centre, near Leeds Dock and the Royal Armouries Museum.  

Get in touch:
For more information about visiting our store, please contact us on 0113 378 2100, email or visit our website.

By Pamela Crowe, Volunteer Store Tour Guide

Monday, 4 April 2016

Faces in Japanese Art

Looking at Japanese faces in the Leeds collections

Japanese Kokeshi dolls from the Leeds Museums
and Galleries collections
Woodblock print of Kokeshi dolls
by Kaoru Kawano

As a keen reader of Japanese manga and a fan of Japanese style, I was interested in looking at the range of masks and dolls in the Leeds Museums and Galleries collections.

I wanted to investigate how the different styles of faces varied in preparation for the ‘Making Faces’ workshop on 19 February at Leeds City Museum (accompanying the Changing Faces of Leeds exhibition, which is on until 5 June 2016).

Leeds Art Gallery has one Japanese woodblock print (pictured above right) by the artist Kaoru Kawano featuring the distinctive Kokeshi dolls, simple wooden dolls with a limbless turned wooden body and a spherical head. Kokeshi originated amongst the villages of rice farmers near Tohoko in northern Japan, and there is now a huge literature on them, as collecting them became a craze a few years ago. 

The face on this print has just a straight line for the eye line, and two dots for the nostrils. The few Kokeshi in the Leeds collections are quite small. My favourite set is a male and female pair, both nested dolls, as indicated on the box cover. They have high arched thin eyebrows, two simple lines for the eyes and a double red dot for the mouth.

Japanese No theatre mask, 1980
(Leeds Museums and Galleries)

No Theatre Mask (1980)

Compare the Kokeshi dolls with the face on the No theatre mask from 1980, representing a beautiful young woman. The eyes are narrow half-ovals, blackened with pierced pupils, the nose and mouth have a realistic modelling and the blackening of the teeth shows a traditional practice. 

High eyebrows were much admired and known as Hikimayu, Okimayu or ‘Skybrows’. Many geisha and upper class beauties would have their eyebrows shaved and then pencilled in to make them appear higher. By the Edo period this practice was restricted to married women, and in 1870 it was banned.

Kimekoni dolls

Kimekoni doll purchased
from Liberty's, 1980.
(Leeds Museums and Galleries)
Many modern Japanese dolls have just slightly high eyebrows, all pencil thin well-defined curves, rather than the Hikimayu. One of the best Japanese dolls at Leeds is this doll above, of a type called kimekoni, made of compacted sawdust, silk brocade and paper.

For years we thought this was a court servant doll, as displayed in wealthy homes at the Girls' Festival on 3 March. At the Girls' Day festival dolls are set up on a tiered plinth or set of shelves to represent the emperor and empress of Japan, their courtiers, servants and possessions. The Hina-Ningyo were seen as Yorishiro, a temporary resting placed for the imperial spirits to come down and bless the home. 

However, in Alan Scott Pate’s Japanese Dolls, The Fascinating World of Ningyo, we noticed that Scott identifies two dolls carrying pails, as the character Matsukaze, from the play Shiokumi.

Another kimekoni doll in Leeds (see below) has intriguing red hair. I discovered a very similar doll, described as a No theatre character called Sho-Jo, a young red-hair drunkard, as shown on the website

He is dancing with a big round wine cup in one hand and a wine scooper in the other. The actor is dressed in a richly brocaded stage costume and a long red hair wig.  Leeds has a technical series showing how the kimekoni dolls are made (above left), from compacted sawdust mixed with glue.                                 

In Japanese, 'Kimekomi' means 'tuck in' in Japanese. The clothes made of silk brocade are attached gradually. The doll's face is covered in highly burnished gofun (crashed oyster shell) and hand-painted artistically and the wig is made of artificial hair. One cannot tell from the length of the hair or the facial features, whether these dolls are male or female.  The red hair seems to be a symbol of spiritual power or special skills. Its really popular as an 'alternative' colour in cosplay and modern teenage fashion. 

Faces in Manga

Faces in Japanese Manga can also be semi-realistic, or very abstract. I picked out two new manga for the Leeds Museums and Galleries collections. They included Tokyo Ghoul 3, by Sui Ishida and Naruto 30. 

I love the ‘Naruto’ stories by the artist Masashi Kishimoto. Naruto is a ninja in training. We chose number 30 because we liked the image of the strong female protagonist, Sakura, with the black gloves and pink hair on the cover (pictured left). Her downturned mouth curve shows her grim determination. 

I have really enjoyed looking at all the different stylised faces in the World Cultures Collections at Leeds Museums and Galleries.
By Becky Stone (placement student)