Integrated Pest Management

Yesterday I had a really enjoyable day of pest management training at Manchester Museum.  Led by Jane Thompson Webb from Birmingham Museums, we had a general introduction to Integrated Pest Management (IPM).  After an explanation of which pests were likely to eat what in a collection, the environments in which they thrive and the telltale signs they leave, there was a practical session identifying pest damage and likely culprits from examples Jane had brought along.  These included actual William Morris wallpaper eroded by silverfish, damage by case-bearing clothes moths and webbing clothes moths , wool eaten by carpet beetles, and a comparison of damage by woodworm and death watch beetle as well as rodent damage.

We then heard about how to prevent pests by managing the environment, and, when pests are present, where to look for likely causes and what to do about it.  In the afternoon we paid surprise visits to offices, stores and galleries to evaluate the spaces in relation to pest management.  It really brought home how vulnerable the collections are, and how important it is for everyone in the Museum to be aware of their role in monitoring all areas and keeping them clean and tidy.

Not a pest.

More a pet than a pest.

In June I did some insect trap checking with Manchester Museum’s Preventive Conservator Abby Stevens, starting off in the Herbarium where I’m currently based.  It was a real eye-opener being shown all the hidden drains, ducts and large spaces running the length of the rooms behind the wall partitions where the roof slopes down in true Hogwarts style.  It is a time-consuming job checking the traps, logging what is caught, marking catches on the traps and relaying, or replacing if necessary.  The location of the traps is marked on a map.  The numbers of each species are monitored for trends.  When the number of a pest gives cause for concern, Abby works with the Curator or manager of the area to deal with the population and its cause.  I’m looking forward to investigating other areas in the Museum and their associated pests (or hopefully the absence of them) with Abby in her quarterly checks and gaining further valuable experience in IPM.

Insect traps are placed on the floor against the wall.

Sticky insect traps are placed on the floor against the wall, where pests like to be.  The traps are used to monitor the insect population.


Documenting the Leo Grindon Herbarium collection

Following on from my work on Ash trees, my next documentation project in the Herbarium has been some further work on the Leo Grindon collection of cultivated plants.  As mentioned before (see post of 13 June 2013), this is the third largest collection in the Herbarium with approximately 10,000 herbarium sheets.  Currently the information on the database is largely restricted to a record of the number of Herbarium sheets that are physically stored within each genus folder, where they are located in the Herbarium and accession information about the donation of the material.

Manchester Museum, along with many others, uses KE EMu, a collections management system for ‘natural history museums, cultural history museums, art museums, herbaria, botanic gardens, archives and special collections’, to quote KE software who developed it.  EMu stands for Electronic Museum.  (Other collections management systems are available.)  At Manchester Museum, all objects are recorded on this database, whichever collection they belong to.

The ultimate goal is to have an EMu record for each herbarium sheet documenting as much information about it as possible including its taxonomic name, where the plant came from geographically, what are its attributes (leaf, stem etc), accession information  and most importantly, an individual record number.  Further  information can be added about the validity of the identification, previous names used, what conservation had been undertaken, any multimedia records, loans, what events/exhibitions it has been used in and so on.

To immediately try to enter all this information for each herbarium sheet would mean that most of the collection would be uncatalogued (and therefore inaccessible) for a long time, given the manpower available to complete it, so the process of attaining this goal is broken down into more achievable stages.  Much of this work is carried out by a team of dogged volunteers.

1. The first stage, which has been completed for the Leo Grindon collection, is to ensure each genus is recorded on the database as a bulk record  – giving the number of sheets of plants and their location in the Herbarium as well as accession information about the donation of the material.

The unsorted folder for the genus Delphinium, containing 70 herbarium sheets of mixed species.

The unsorted folder for the genus Delphinium, containing 74 herbarium sheets of mixed species.

2. The next stage is to go through each genus folder in turn and list on paper record sheets the separate species contained within  along with limited specific information about their physical location within the Herbarium, geographical locations the plants came from where known and accession information.

3. This information is then entered from the record sheets onto the database.

In the Leo Grindon collection, I am working on these last two stages simultaneously to gain a greater familiarity with the process and the foibles of the database.  First I’m physically separating the sheets of a genus into species, putting these in separate card folders and ordering them alphabetically.

Sorting a genus into species folders requires a very long bench!

Sorting a genus into species folders can require a very long bench!

Then, working directly from the herbarium sheets (rather than the paper record the volunteers use) I create on the database a bulk record for each species which specifies the number of sheets of that species, and other information from the sheets.

This is where what is a fairly tedious job becomes interesting.  The plants themselves are interesting, often beautiful or curiously weird, some retaining glorious colours; and the information on the sheets is often handwritten by the collector and can give fascinating insights into their personality, occasionally including letters between the collector and the Herbarium.

This sheet is signed Leo H Grindon bottom right in August 1836.

This sheet is signed Leo H Grindon bottom right in August 1836.

Handwritten note from the sheet above.

‘Delphinium consolida  Branching Larkspur …

…Deriv. of name:  from δελφιν a dolphin, because either the unexpanded flower buds or the nectaries are thought to resemble that fish….

…The expressed [?] juice of the petals, with the addition of a little alum, makes a good blue ink…

…The seeds are acrid and poisonous’

I hope he didn’t find out the seeds were acrid by doing a taste test!

The information on the sheets is also very variable – sometimes just the genus is given, others are extremely well-documented with the name of the garden a plant came from, the owner of the garden, the date, the type of soil and so on.  Many have the most meticulously executed paintings and illustrations attached as well as article cuttings and texts.  The illustrations bring to life the faded colours of the dried plants.  Nowadays photographs can be provided, but the drawings show detail a camera can’t always capture in the field.

Some of the Delphinium species particularly have kept their colour.  These sheets have paintings attached and show the variety of information provided.

Some of the Delphinium species particularly have kept their colour.  Two of these sheets have paintings attached. There is quite a variation in the information provided.

When this process has been completed, the species folders can then be revisited to review the taxonomy and further refine the information provided.

The collection is filed according to a classification by Messrs Bentham and Hooker and so does not start at A, but instead box 1.1 is Clematis in the Ranunculaceae family, which is where I started.  As someone had already worked through parts of that cupboard in a patchy way progess was fairly quick at first, but it soon slowed dramatically when I reached virgin territory.  Constant vigilance for pest damage meant the odd break to put sheets in the freezer.  This project really is a good way of learning the ins and outs of the database, the nitty gritty of adding  a new taxon, location or locality; and the process has sparked useful discussion with Curator Rachel Webster about effective use of resources and available manpower; taxonomy, and the effect of updating a taxon has on its searchability.

My aim was to complete the Delphinium folder by the end of last week but I hit a purple patch (appropriately) and completed it on Wednesday,  however there is still plenty to go at…

74 sheets into 32 folders will go - Delphinium folders labelled with species and EMu number.
74 sheets into 32 folders will go – Delphinium folders labelled with species and EMu number.

Week 7 round-up

Just a quick update on my activities last week.  I’ve blogged separately about the education session I observed on Monday – 99% Ape – and my visit to the Natural History collection store at Gallery Oldham on Tuesday.  I’ve also been working on an ongoing botany project documenting the Leo Grindon collection in the Herbarium (blogging soon).

Some of the Delphinium species particularly have kept their colour.  These sheets have paintings attached and show the variety of information provided.

Delphiniums from the Leo Grindon collection in the Herbarium.

Wednesday morning was a training session on Equality and Diversity issues run by the University of Manchester.    Rather than training us  in legal detail, the session focused on raising awareness of issues that need to be considered during the recruitment process with regard to advertising posts, interviewing and outcomes.  I found it particularly interesting having been involved in that process in a previous incarnation as a Communications Manager in a large secondary school.  The session involved group activity discussing some example situations and feeding back to the meeting.

I’ve already taken advantage of other courses offered by the University – one on completing Risk Assessments and another on Safe use of Ladders and Steps, and there are several more in the diary.

I also spent time looking out Herbarium specimens from Siberia as part of the planning preparation for an exhibition proposed for next year.  This is being coordinated by David Gelsthorpe, Curator of Earth Science Collections, and Dmitri Lugonov, Curator of Arthropods.


Delphinium grandiflorum – labelled as being from Siberia.

On Friday, the lovely weather was perfect for an afternoon in the Museum allotment with volunteers Beryl and Scott.  We harvested the impressive crop of carrots shown below, planted some more along with some peas and gave it all a good soak in anticipation of a scorching weekend.

The 2 small plants at the front are beans I planted on 7 June!

The 2 small plants at the front are beans I planted on 7 June!

Interesting carrots!

Carrots – honest.

Saturday was also a busy day with a combined Community Archaeology  and History Project Open Day and Bioblitz in Whitworth Park.  Trenches had been excavated in the park during the previous week and tours were run for the public around the sites.  Finds were available to look at and discuss with members of the University Archaeology department along with some comparable Museum items from the excavation of a farm in the Manchester area.  For younger people there were ‘dig boxes’ and botanical craft activities

The Bioblitz included a bird and plant survey in the park carried out by The Grey to Green project, run by the Greater Manchester Record Centre and I helped out with a handling table of objects from the Museum.

Objects included a display of insects logged in a bioblitz at the park in 2011.

Objects included a display of insects logged in a bioblitz at the park in 2011.

A member of the public inspects Sinclair the fox.

A member of the public examines Sinclair the fox.

It was also the weekend of the launch of the summer season at the Whitworth Art Gallery with a 65 hour continuous performance by Nikhil Chopra, as well as an open day for University staff involving the curators in running tours of the museum, so there was lots going on and a lot of people took advantage of the glorious weather to visit the park.

Natural History collection stores at Gallery Oldham

On Tuesday afternoon I took a tram trip to look round the Natural History collection store at Gallery Oldham.  I was interested to compare the collection with that at Manchester Museum, to discuss how the collection was curated, and to see how it is used both for research and in exhibitions and events.

The collection store is currently in the basement of the old Library across the street from the Gallery.   Patricia Francis, the Exhibition and Collections Co-ordinator, explained that it is proposed to develop the old library and art gallery on Union Street into a Heritage Centre using Heritage Lottery Funding, which will stand alongside Gallery Oldham, the Library and Lifelong Learning Centre.

Patricia was preparing to move the stores out of the building while the refurbishment was carried out.  Part of the collection of birds and mammals had been boxed in plastic storage and funding was being applied for to get more storage boxes.  When completed, the Natural History and Social History stores will be in the basement of the new centre.

A large portion of the extensive bird collection came from Werneth Park.  This included many cases of tableaux which were originally displayed stacked together.  Most of the displays were broken up except for a large sea cliff modelled by Fred Stubbs, complete with vegetation and birds (all suitably bagged) still in situ, which Patricia hopes to renovate.  There is also an impressive pair of golden eagles with rabbit and a pair of great bustard, now extinct in the UK.  Patricia is currently working to put the birds into a logical sequence in store and when the centre is complete, hopes to  recreate a gallery with a traditional Victorian feel using many of these items.

There is a lovely collection of bird eggs displayed in drawers of round ‘nests’ and a separate booklet containing the reference information.  It includes an important collection of cuckoo eggs showing their adaptation to various hosts.  Patricia said she would be reluctant to have eggs on display for fear it might encourage people to collect them.

A collection of beautiful parrots was obtained from birds which died when brought into the country in consignments  for the pet trade.  This information only came to light when Patricia tracked down the taxidermist.

The Herbarium has about 10,000 plant sheets.   Specimens are loaned out when requested and information the researchers feed back adds to the value of the collection.  Much of the material was collected by James Nield, a local printer and founder of the Microscopical Society, who gave over his business to his sons when he was 50 and devoted his life to his collection.   Along with plants he collected is his pamphlet  ‘A fortnight in the Grampians’ (July 1876)  and the herbarium sheets of the plants he found on his trip are available to look at in the collection.

We looked round the spider spirit collection, and collections of beetles, butterflies and moths.  As well as scientifically laid out and labelled specimens, some of the cabinets contain drawers laid out for ornamental display, the unlabelled specimens being chosen for their colour, size and symmetry, and some which were local to the area provide a fascinating snapshot in time.

The stores hold a geology collection of about 1000 specimens  which was re-sorted during the 1960s into what was, at the time, modern storage.  Patricia would like to be able to get metal storage for the collection.  (The acquisition of suitable storage is the dream of every curator I speak to!)

Surprisingly, storage conditions are fairly stable considering the store is in the basement of a huge empty building.  The space is cramped and there are issues with lighting but Patricia found that there were very few problems with pests.

The CALM database is used to catalogue the collection and it is also used by the local historical society which is a really useful link, providing information about the history of the specimens and collectors.

It is obvious that Gallery Oldham is proud of being a resource for the community and of reflecting the community.  Items from the Natural History collection are on show in the new permanent exhibition ‘Oldham Stories’.  Until 13 July there is a touring exhibition Worn to be Wild  of costumes by Kate Plumtree inspired by wildfife and the evolution of fashion.  Patricia has provided an added dimension to this exhibition by the inclusion of appropriate taxidermy specimens from the collection displayed side-by-side with the costumes modelled on those animals.  This has given the exhibition its very own ‘Oldham’ flavour.

99% Ape

On Monday afternoon I sat in on a Year 10 education session on human evolution titled 99% Ape and run by Dr Emily Robinson.  This is a new workshop aimed at KS3/4 and is being trialled free to schools whilst in development so it was a good opportunity to see this process in action.

The invitation to schools advertised the session as:

‘Where do we come from? How do we find out about our prehistoric past? Using replica hominid skulls, allow your students to get hands on and investigate the evidence for themselves to piece together the origin of our species.’

The 2-hour session uses objects from the collections to link into the Biology GCSE curriculum.

The class of 28 was taken straight to the Living Worlds gallery and asked to examine animal and hominid skeletons and come up with a similarity and a difference between them. There was a brief discussion of their ideas before heading down to the Discovery Centre for the rest of the session.  This activity worked well to immediately focus the students on the topic, introduce them to the collection and get them excited and engaged about the afternoon ahead.

A quick look at a timeline highlighting the recent emergence of life and hominids was followed by a brief introduction on how our ideas about evolution have been shaped by the evidence available.

Then it was straight into a practical session where students in groups of 4 or 5 compared a replica of a modern human skull to an actual skull of another animal.  Each group had a different animal (snake, polar bear, dog, chimp, albatross) and was asked to compare certain physical features and then feed back to the whole class.  The features included comparison of the brow ridge, angle of face, nasal ridge, size of brain case and foramen magnum (the large opening in the base of the skull through which the spinal cord passes to the cranial cavity and becomes continuous with the medulla oblongata).  Guidelines were given on the handling of the objects stressing that the replicas are also valuable items in their own right.  This culminated in the groups being asked to give a mark out of 10 for the relatedness of the animal to the hominid which Emily then compared on a phylogenetic tree.*  Using the information they had gleaned, the students could already make a fairly accurate stab at this.

In the next activity the animal skull was replaced with another hominid skull and students compared these to the modern humans skulls by taking accurate measurements between certain key points using calipers.  These results were plotted on a graph on-screen using a formula developed by Prof Chris Stringer of the Natural History Museum and the students results were found to correlate remarkably closely to a set of exemplar results, to give an indication of the relative age and likely relatedness of the hominids.

The final activity was for the students to position their skulls where they thought they should fit into a blown-up hominid phylogenetic tree laid out on a central desk.  This prompted much discussion about the reasons why a particular skull should go on a particular branch.

The students enjoyed the session and handling the skulls, and a significant number were very engaged in making deductions from the evidence in front of them.  Emily didn’t use all the material she had because the group arrived late and she wanted to include the trip to the gallery as the students could see how the spines fitted to the skulls and how this affected stance and mode of walking, considerations which were used later in the session.

It was valuable for me to discuss Emily’s thoughts on how the session went and what she might change based on the resources available, the time certain activities took and the needs and abilities of the particular group.  We also discussed limitations on resources with regard to copyright as well as the visibility and accessibility of some of the images, and the process of collaboration with teachers and other museums to ensure a fit with the curriculum.  The afternoon was valuable in helping me to think about the process of developing an education session.

*(A phylogenetic tree or evolutionary tree is a branching diagram showing evolutionary relationships among various species.)

‘ … Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain …’

No, not me weathering another Derbyshire winter, but a reference (care of Joyce Kilmer) to all the tree-themed activity in and around the Manchester Museum that’s been going on as part of the launch of the Collecting Trees exhibition (22 June – 6 October 2013).  This is funded by the British Ecological Society and part of their Festival of Ecology (15 Jun-4 Aug) taking place across the UK to celebrate their centenary.

My last post mentioned the setting up of the exhibition.  On Thursday the arrival of the lovely lynx, capercaillie and fighting stag beetles caused much excitement – a little late for the opening but well worth the wait and we all gave a hand to get them installed.


This heavy case required a 7-person lift and much pre-discussion, co-ordination and removal of light fittings (intentional obviously).

Stag do.

Stag do.

On Friday I put on a handling table for a Magic Carpet story-telling and activity session for under-5s using objects from the Herbarium.   The Trees exhibition space made a fantasy setting, especially decked out with rugs and draped material by Kerry Beeston who facilitated the session.  As well as a story session, there were activities, crafts and dressing up.  I used the objects to prompt conversations following on from the story.  These included pine cones, eaten and uneaten, open and closed, which were not too precious to be handled by little fingers; a lovely rattly bean from a Flame of the Forest tree (Delonix regia) and a coco-de-mer fruit.  Photos and more familiar beans were on hand to help the young and not-so-young visitors connect with these strange objects and the magnifying glasses were a big hit.


The magical Collecting Trees exhibition space.

The magically transformed Collecting Trees exhibition space.

The Big Saturday event the following day was very busy with stalls and activities in and around the building.

Jesper Lauder ran another Urban Naturalist walk around the environs of the Museum (see post of 2 June 2013) and, as for last time, I’d helped Curator Rachel Webster to look out some herbarium objects relating to herbal remedies to be available for the group to look at and discuss:

Comfrey, Rose hips and Lavender.

Comfrey, Rose hips and Lavender.

I manned another handling table and after the success of the Magic Carpet session I decided to use the same objects again, adding in a beautiful crown gall and a grey squirrel to vary the texture and range of interest.  I had great fun chatting with the visitors and the very knowledgeable contributors to the event.  I’m not sure why this might be but the majority of under-5s I spoke to thought pine cones were acorns!


My tree outfit.

Finally, I was asked to provide a photographic flavour of the event which was a great opportunity to have a nosy round at everything else that was going on – here’s my collage of the goings on.