A look at the Alfred Denny Museum of Zoology

(Click on images to enlarge.)

If you’re looking for somewhere to while away an hour in Sheffield, I can highly recommend this collection of biological specimens at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at Sheffield University.  It’s open to the public on the first Saturday of the month, when bookable hourly tours are run by student volunteers.  Our group of about 10 were given a brief introduction by Zoology students Chloe and Merryl, then allowed to wander and ask questions.


There was no chance of getting bored given the small scale of the collection and the huge variety of specimens. My family (a 10 year old, a 2nd year university student and 3 parents, one a natural history/museum nut) found plenty to keep us all thoroughly occupied, interested and drawn from one cabinet to the next. For some visitors half an hour was plenty, while we had to be politely edged out of the door with the lure of a look at the Sorby slides when the hour was up!


The collection includes fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals and arthropods, represented by skeletons, spirit specimens, taxidermy and pinned insects.  The specimens are arranged systematically by Phyla in the 15 cases and there’s a useful plan in the Museum Guide provided.


The room is not much longer than this, with cabinets around the walls too. These beautiful cabinets were transferred when the museum moved from its original location in Firth Court.


Photo: Heather Miles

‘Half-specimens’ show the animal’s inner workings.


Observational skills were encouraged.


Wonderful to see a Manitee skeleton.


Photo: Heather Miles

Part of the amazingly preserved and unique collection of slides of marine organisms prepared by Henry Clifton Sorby in the early 1900s.


Photo: Heather Miles

All the specimens are clearly identified by labels, but sadly we were told much of the information associated with them has been lost, so our guides couldn’t tell us much about where they came from, apart from a story about the porpoise being barrowed up from the fishmarket in Sheffield!

Although the museum was only opened to the public in 2012, it’s been a teaching resource for over 100 years and is used with undergraduate courses on biodiversity and evolution.  As with most museum collections, what’s on show is a fraction of the whole and we were told further displays are in development. The museum’s curator is Prof. Tim Birkhead.

The department also runs a ‘Be a Scientist for the Day’ programme.  This offers primary students the chance to work in the labs to find out what it’s like to be a real biologist and to explore the museum. There’s plenty of information about the collections on the Museum website, worth looking at before a visit.


‘Ugh! I don’t like the crinkly bits!’ Joe Young, age 10.









Exploring Arbor Low with a new digital trail

Arbor Low henge

Arbor Low stone circle

I took advantage of the beautiful weather at the weekend to test out one of 4 digital trails Buxton Museum are currently piloting as part of their Collections in the Landscape project.  The apps offer trails based around Buxton Waters, Stories of Shopping in Buxton 50 years ago and a Dovedale family activity trail, but I was particularly keen to try out their Arbor Low digital trail.

Buxton Museum & Art Gallery have used a Stage I Heritage Lottery Funding to explore digital access to the collections, inside and outside the museum, bringing together the landscape and the archaeological and geological artefacts found in them.  The digital trails are still in the pilot stage and the Collections in the Landscape team have used Collections Ambassadors, Twitter and Facebook to spread the word, get people involved and elicit feedback.

I was interested to see what information had been provided about the history of the construction and later excavation of Arbor Low and nearby Gib Hill and how this information was presented.  As a young child, I lived in Middleton-by-Youlgrave only 2 miles down the road, and although Arbor Low was a very familiar place to me I knew very little about it, except that it had been excavated by Thomas Bateman among others, who had lived at Lomberdale Hall, between Middleton and Youlgrave.

The site is set high on the limestone plateau, and as Dr John Barnatt, Senior Survey Archaeologist for the National Park, explains in the audio, it can be seen from a long way away, but is hidden when nearby until the entrance is reached, deliberately enhancing its mystery.


The app provides a tour of 5 stops which visitors can either view on a map or as a list, and access in any order.  Clicking on each stop provides a choice of audio commentary, or detailed text illustrated by photos and drawings of excavations, finds and people.  In the audios Dr Barnatt expresses articulately the fascination of the sites for both archaeologists and the general public, talking about how Arbor Low was probably used by the people who built it and later visitors to the area; why the architecture of the monument was deliberately dramatic;  what we know about the barrow and the finds (including human remains), and what that means the site might have been used for, and the excavations of Gib Hill.  I learnt the stone circle was built between 2500 and 2000 BC, around the same time or slightly later than Stonehenge.

There was some variability in signal strength, but I found, having explored the app before my visit and again afterwards, in its current state of development, it successfully answered questions raised during the visit, and brought the human element to this a dramatic, ancient monument.


Walking across the field from Arbor Low to nearby Gib Hill.


Lichen growing on the fallen stones.

11 questions to a museum blogger for #museumweek




Here’s my response to a chain blog set off on #museumblogs day last week, into which coils I have been inveigled by Paolo Viscardi.

Here are my answers to Paolo Viscardi’s 11 questions to me  in this #MuseumWeek.

1. Who are you and what do you blog about?

I’m Claire, HLF trainee curator in Natural Sciences at Manchester Museum.  I was frogmarched into blogging (and Twitter) by my supervisor, David Gelsthorpe, at the start of the traineeship but I’ve really enjoyed writing about what I’ve been up to. Although intended as a diary, I can’t blog as often as I should, or would like to, so I use it more to round off something I’ve been doing.  The traineeship has covered an overwhelming amount of stuff in the last year and I’ve not written about lots of it (stacks of drafts piling up!) but hope its of interest, particularly to anyone thinking of doing a traineeship.


2. Why do you blog about museums?

See Question 1!  But my role is changing, so that’s an interesting question I’m asking myself again right now.  To be part of the museum social media network is a major part of it.  Its a great way of getting an insight into other organisations, roles, different ways of doing things and opportunities as well as a fantastic supportive community.  A wider network that I didn’t foresee evolving connects with artists and those involved in environmental monitoring, recording and research, particularly through Twitter at the moment, which I want to explore more through people’s blogs – if only I could read faster!

3. And which post on your blog was the hardest to write?

I don’t know about hard, but one I was not at all happy with was the blog about my first week at the NHM – too much unstructured stuff, too many photos, not enough time and really, really tired!

4. Which is your favourite museum?

I’m not sure I’ve been there yet.  I enjoy being given a different take on familiar or not so familiar things.  I really enjoyed Chateau D’Annecy with Joan Fontcuberta’s mermaid excavation exhibit cunningly mixed in with a display about archaeological finds from the local lake community, an aquarium of lake life, and local natural history (including some very dodgily wired skeletons!).  Exhibitions of religious art and contemporary sculpture, as well as vernacular furniture provided a truly surprising and stimulating mix.


5. Do you think you’ll still be interested in museums in 20 years time?

Definitely!  I changed career to work with natural science collections, and do something that links to my ‘extra-curricular’ activities (developing my skills recording wildflowers and other wildlife to provide that all-important data for conservation).  In the very distant future I can see that taking me forward into a useful and active old age both inside and outside museums, now that we never have to retire!

And of course, there’s such a huge variety of collections that a museum visit is always a learning experience and a great antidote to lassitude and ennui.

6. What is your earliest museum memory?

A school trip to Romania in my teens, at the very dawn of the Romanian tourist industry.  Muzeul Satului (Village Museum) in Bucharest was and still is, since 1936,  an open-air museum of 272 farms and houses from all over Romania set in a large park, which I remember was very pleasant to amble about boggling at the sheer effort it must have taken to move all the buildings.


On the same trip we visited Castle Bran, linked with Vlad III (the Impaler), of which I have an impression of many turrets and unprotected stairs!  

7. What was the last museum you visited and what did you see?

Apart from working at Manchester Museum every day, the last museum building I visited was the collection stores for Bolton Museums Service.  This was a NWFed event  looking at building design for pest management and sustainable energy provision.  We saw a huge range of objects – radiograms and other furniture, stained glass windows, bicycles, a huge mill loom, geology, textiles and art works. Many of my sad photos are of environmental control systems, power perfectors, floor seals, racking and ventilation systems but here’s a frog collection in the spirit store:

20140317_145733 (1)

8. Share a museum selfie?

Bird hair day!  Beset by shiny new taxidermy for the impending ‘From the War of Nature’ exhibition.


9. If you could build a museum, what kind would it be?

Another corker of a question.  This is a bit weird, but when I can’t find anything, remember something or am fed up with the entropy of life, I consider running it (my life) like a museum, with a rigorously applied collecting policy where all the objects, people and documents that come into it are accessioned, documented, treated with huge respect, stored immaculately and can only be disposed of after great consideration.  I feel a novel in the style of J G Ballard coming on!

10. What is the most popular post on your blog?

Strangely, one titled  ‘ … Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain …’, can’t think why?

11. What’s the oddest search term that has led people to your blog?

They all seem fairly ordinary, except perhaps ‘stacked herbariums’ sounds a little dubious?  Perhaps herbarium is an unfamiliar word to some people.  As a fledgling blogger I’ve got a long way to go with content let alone optimisation of tags and categories!


Not sure if this is the best blog image, but these glass tubes turn cinchona bark specimens into iconic objects.

My turn to choose someone now ….

Here are my questions for David and Lauren :

1. Who are you and what do you blog about?

2. Why do you blog about museums?

3. And which post on your blog did you have the most fun writing?

4. What’s that blog you really would like to get round to writing?

5. Which is your favourite museum?

6. What is your earliest museum memory and what emotion did it inspire?

7. What was the last museum you visited and what did you see?

8. Share a museum selfie?

9. Do you think there will always be a need for museums?

10. What is the most popular post on your blog?

11. What’s the oddest search term that has led people to your blog?


And here’s what you have to do:

  • Answer the eleven questions – you can adapt them a little to fit your blog.
  • Include the BEST BLOG image in your post, and link back to the person who nominated you (that would be me, or this blog post).
  • Devise eleven new questions – or feel free to keep any of these ones here if you like them – and pass them on to how ever many bloggers you would like to.