Oct 12 2017
Curator of Natural History Alistair McLean gives an insight into the development of the displays in our What on Earth! gallery at Weston Park:
As one of the curators to have worked on the refurbishment of Weston Park Museum a decade ago, the prospect of making enhancements what we’d done before was both exciting and nostalgic.
The Weston Park Museum - A Bright Future project provided a fantastic opportunity to build on the foundations laid down by the last major refurbishment, back in 2006. After ten years of visitor enjoyment and interaction, parts of the natural history gallery, ‘What on Earth!’ were certainly ripe for change.
Back in 2003, while developing the initial designs for the last major refurbishment, six thematic areas of Natural Science displays were planned. Ultimately, we felt that there was only enough space for five, so the difficult decision was made to cut out one of the areas. The cut area would have covered environmentalism and ecology. Although aspects of these themes were inserted into other parts of the gallery, I felt it was an important subject and one that our visitors would respond well to and should have a greater presence. Support from the Heritage Lottery Foundation made this possible.
With the development, the amount of space we had to play with in the gallery remained the same, but by taking a more flexible approach, our flag wouldn’t be nailed to the thematic mast in quite the same way as it had been; different subjects could be tackled as part of a regularly changing display program.
The main concept I wanted to explore in the new space was the plight of endangered species, exemplified by specimens from the natural history collections. It may seem odd to some to create a display about animal conservation by using taxidermy specimens of endangered species. Personally, I can’t think of a better use for Sheffield’s historically and scientifically important taxidermy specimens than to highlight the impact of humans on the natural world.
The older taxidermy in Sheffield’s collections, which includes the endangered and rare species, was collected before species conservation was fully understood and well before any kind of international protectionist legislation. All of the taxidermy specimens that were used in the display were, at the point of collection, relatively abundant, which in itself underpins the importance of the display.
The first task when developing this display was to create a list of every taxidermy specimen we have in the collection that is categorised by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) as endangered or extinct. Many of the specimens identified had been acquired by the museum over 70 years ago and were in need of some cleaning and repair. We engaged the services of specialist taxidermists, who were able to undo years of wear and tear. Cleaning also uncovered new information, particularly about a lemur acquired from a travelling menagerie called Bostock’s Jungle, in 1911. This had originally been identified as a Mongoose Lemur (Eulemur mongoz), presumably by the menagerie owners who had seen it alive. It was later re-identified as a Red-Ruffed Lemur (Varecia rubra) by a curator in the 1960s, which is how I’d intended to display it. Upon cleaning, it became clear that the lemur was neither of these species. In fact, its markings didn’t correspond with any known species.
Further research ultimately revealed that the lemur was in fact a cross between two species, most likely of Black Lemur (Eulemur macaco) and Crowned Lemur (Eulemur coronatus). A hybrid such as this wouldn’t have been appropriate to use an example of an endangered species. Hybridisation isn’t uncommon in captive bred animals, as this lemur had almost certainly been. It is far less common in the wild, and the IUCN don’t generally assess hybrids on their rarity.
On that basis, a different endangered specimen needed to be selected. A specimen of Variegated Lemur (Varecia variegate), was eventually chosen, but this was in far worse condition than the previous selection. The conservators worked nothing less than a small miracle to get it up to scratch. Their task was all the more difficult, as their techniques needed to prevent as much degradation as possible to the underlying biology of the specimen, such as the DNA or body chemistry, which would otherwise damage the scientific value of the specimens.
It’s very rewarding to see how all of the changes resulting from the Bright Future project have come together. Even after working at Weston Park Museum for the best part of 20 years, I still get a buzz from seeing visitors enjoying the museum (particularly the natural history gallery, for obvious reasons). Our new temporary display area is already enabling us to provide space for local groups to show off some of the things that they do. We’ve already seen a display on the wildlife of the River Porter, co-curated with the Friends of the Porter Valley. The current temporary display in this new area has been co-curated with Sheffield & Rotherham Wildlife Trust and details the Nature Counts project. Next year, we will be co-curating another display with Sorby Natural History Society, to commemorate their centenary. Watch this space.
Top: What on Earth! gallery at Weston Park Museum. Image © Andy Brown
Bottom: A North Island piopio (Turnagra tanagra). Image © Museums Sheffield
Going, Going, Gone display in our What on Earth! gallery at Weston Park Museum.