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.









Boxing clever with migrating birds


Yellow-crowned Amazon, Amazona ochrocephala.

The Natural History collection stores at Gallery Oldham are in the basement of an empty building which is to be redeveloped, which means the collection has to be moved elsewhere during the process (see previous post).  Part of the bird taxidermy collection has already been rehoused in new storage boxes.  My task on this placement project was to produce a more accurate estimate of storage requirements for the remaining approximately 450 specimens, so funding can be sought.


Part of the current storage of bird taxidermy and on the left, examples of the boxes to be used.

In 1988* 849 specimens of 321 species were recorded in the collection. ‘These are mainly mounts, but also included are 30 study skins.  The collection contains at least 125 foreign species while about 83% of the species regularly breeding in Britain are represented.  At least 20% of the specimens originate from the Oldham area.’

Patricia Francis, the Exhibition and Collections Co-ordinator,  estimates the collection now contains about 1000 bird specimens including 40 – 50 assorted parrots, parakeets, cockatoos and hummingbirds which were obtained under sad circumstances when brought into the country in consignments  for the pet trade.

The birds had been largely physically stored in groupings outlined in The Kingfisher Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe by John Gooders.

Patricia chose a box brand offering a useful range of dimensions, transparency, strength and ease of handling. They can be used on side or end to provide further options.  Appropriately labelled, these will provide not only for safe transfer, but also future storage of the collection.


I was also asked to calculate storage allowing for the future mounting of unmounted specimens, which was a tricky requirement.


What will be in the next box?  Many boxes had been sealed for a number of years.  This is a mixture of birds perched on twigs and unmounted birds.

The dimensions of each specimen or group were recorded in a spreadsheet, along with information on taxon, unique identification numbers, mount type and current location.


The longest box dimension was 61 cm. Quite a few obviously weren’t going to fit!

Once all the information was entered, it was sorted, within the overall Gooder groupings, by family, genus and species so that birds could be allocated to boxes taxonomically.  Where necessary, grid diagrams were used to see what would fit where and a final report provided of the estimated numbers of boxes of different sizes and costings.

It was a useful experience in project planning and implementation – the project took 28 hours over 5 days (spread over a number of weeks).

I’m grateful to Patricia for this opportunity to work at Gallery Oldham and  to work with this amazing collection.

I’m looking forward to visiting the forthcoming Gone Fishing exhibition at Gallery Oldham in December, and seeing other aspects of the collections – particularly the 1930s Mallinson’s fish and chip range!

*Oldham Museum – The Natural History Collections: S. J. Hayhow (1988).

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