The most insulting letter I ever had!

by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant, and Kiah Conroy, placement student from Oxford Brookes University

James Charles Dale (1791-1872) was a pioneering English naturalist who devoted most of his life to entomology. Dale’s specimen collection and archive represent a unique historical record of the insect fauna of Great Britain and everyday life in the 19th century. Originally housed in more than 30 cabinets in the Museum’s entomology department, the Dale collection contains many notable specimens, including the world’s oldest pinned insect and several species now extinct in Britain.

Dale was also a prolific writer and the Museum archive holds his notebooks, manuscripts and around 5,000 letters from over 250 correspondents. They form one of the most important historical legacies left by any British entomologist. The individual letters were numbered by Dale and tied into bundles relating to the correspondents. While the bundles were great from an organisational point of view; in terms of long term preservation and accessibility this wasn’t exactly ideal. We were lucky enough to have a placement student from Oxford Brookes University who helped facilitate the first stage of reorganising the letters and rehousing them to ensure their longevity. Kiah shares her experience of working in the archives:

During my placement at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History I was working in the Library and Archives department. The work I did whilst I was there consisted of helping sort through the letters of entomologist James Charles Dale. This was a huge opportunity for me because I had never worked with archival materials before and it was something I was hugely interested in. Some might say archiving letters can be boring, but sometimes you stumble across really interesting finds. For example, when I was working on the letters I found one that Dale had addressed as ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ This is fascinating because his letters gave an insight into the relationships he had with fellow entomologists.

James Charles Dale (1791-1872)

The letter Kiah describes was from Reverend Henry Burney, an amateur entomologist who corresponded with Dale between 1837 and 1847. Although the correspondence is one-sided since we only have Burney’s letters to Dale, it is clear the two had a falling out over money which Burney owed to Dale. As Kiah was rehousing the letters she noticed that the correspondence between Dale and Burney became increasingly tense.

Dale had a habit of annotating many of the letters he received and his annotations on Burney’s letters are curt and cold- he was clearly unimpressed that Burney took so long to pay him back- culminating in his final comment that this was ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ Oh, the drama of the 19th century!

Along with archiving the letters, I also learnt how to catalogue archive material to a high standard as well as learning how to put the James Charles Dale Letters into the museum’s collection management database Emu. This was the most challenging aspect for me, because I had no idea how intricate museum databases could be. Luckily, the whole Library and Archive team were very supportive and showed me the steps. Overall, I really enjoyed my time at the Natural History Museum and I am very grateful I was given the chance to work there.

Digging in the archives

by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archive and Library Assistant

Working day in, day out in the Museum of Natural History’s archive, we like to think we know a lot about our collections. The truth is, with the sheer number of items in our archive and the many nooks and crannies which exist in a historical building, we sometimes need some help rediscovering items in our collections. One such item is the engraved trowel used to set the Museum’s foundation stone.

The Earl of Derby lays the foundation stone at the 1855 ceremony. Engraving from Illustrated London News.

The story began when we received an enquiry from a museum enthusiast in America. He had read an article from an 1855 edition of the Illustrated London News, about the foundation stone ceremony. This was the moment that construction began on the Oxford University Museum, as it was then known. It seems that a small trowel was used as part of this ceremony. The article describes the trowel as follows:

The trowel, which is of silver and bronze, is highly finished, and novel in form. It is enriched by an engraved Gothic pattern on the upper, or silver, side. It was made by Skidmore, of Coventry, who has contracted for the foliated wrought-iron work which will decorate the quadrangle of the building. The trowel bears the following inscription-

Oxford University Museum. Chief Stone laid 20th June, 1855, by the Right Hon. Edward Geoffrey Earl of Derby, Chancellor; Thomas Deane, Knt; Thomas N. Deane, and Benjamin Woodward, Architects.

Look carefully at the engraving from Ilustrated London News and you’ll see that children were also involved in the ceremony. They were likely to be Sarah and William Acland, the two eldest children of Dr. Henry Acland, who was instrumental in the founding of the Museum:

The trowel, borne on a cushion by two interesting children (the son and daughter of Dr. Acland), was then handed to the Earl.

The article does not say what happened to the trowel so our enquirer wanted to know; did the trowel end up in our archival collection or does it sit in the void under the stone?

Details from the Museum’s wrought iron roof decoration. Both the metalwork and the trowel were designed by Francis Skidmore.

As far as any of the Museum staff were aware, there was no trowel in our collections. With little to go on, we momentarily put the enquiry to one side and hoped for some good luck. The rediscovery came by accident just one week later, as we were rearranging boxes in the archive to make additional room for art storage. The trowel was spotted at the top of a box of items that had yet to be sorted and catalogued. With the recent enquiry on our minds, we recognised the trowel from its description and instantly knew what a special find this was.

Danielle Czerkaszyn holds the newly-discovered trowel. Her next challenge is to track down the missing silver handle.

Our enquirer was pleased to hear of the trowel’s rediscovery and thrilled to know the part that his enquiry played. Without his curious question, we might not have recognised the trowel for what it was. The trowel is now undergoing conservation treatment and cataloguing, and as an important part in the history of the Museum, it will hopefully be on display in the near future.

The Museum archive and library is open by appointment to anyone who would like to visit, and we welcome enquiries at library@oum.ox.ac.uk.

A moving story

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For the past nine months there has been a lot of moving going on around here. Imagine moving house endlessly for weeks on end, but where your house is full of bones, insects, fossils, rocks, and weird and wonderful taxidermy. And the location of everything has to be precisely recorded. The museum move project was a bit like that.

Project assistant Hannah Allum explains…

The museums are migrating, we declared in May 2016. And so they have. The first major stage of the stores project has been completed. After we had created inventories for the largely unknown collections held in two offsite stores, the next stage was to pack them safely and transport them to a new home nearer the museum, a job which demanded almost 70 individual van trips! We now have over 15,000 specimens sitting in vastly improved storage conditions in a new facility.

A miscellany of boxes for a collection of shells
A miscellany of boxes for a collection of shells

Let’s revel in some numbers. All in all there were over 1,000 boxes of archive material, mostly reprints of earth sciences and entomological research papers; over 1,300 specimens of mammal osteology (bones); and more than 1,000 boxes and 650 drawers of petrological and palaeontological material (rocks and fossils).

Some of the more memorable specimens include old tobacco tins and chocolate boxes filled with fossils and shells; a beautifully illustrated copy of the ‘Report on the Deep-Sea Keratosa’ from the HMS Challenger by German naturalist Ernst Haeckel; and the skull of a Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus), complete with armour-plated scute carapace.

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The skull and carapace of a Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus)

There were also a few objects that have moved on to more unusual homes. A 4.5 m long cast of Attenborosaurus conybeari (yep, named after Sir David) was too large to fit in our new store and so made its way to another facility along with a cornucopia of old museum furniture. A set of dinosaur footprint casts, identical to those on the Museum’s lawn, have been gifted to the Botanical Gardens for use at the Harcourt Arboretum in Oxford.

And last but not least, a model of a Utahraptor received a whopping 200 applications from prospective owners in our bid to find it a suitable home. After a difficult shortlisting process it was offered to the John Radcliffe Children’s Hospital and following a quarantine period should soon be on display in their West Wing.

Footprint casts, attributed to Megalosaurus, queuing for a lift to Harcourt Arboretum. Credit: Hannah Allum
Casts of footprints by made Megalosaurus, queuing for a lift to Harcourt Arboretum. Image: Hannah Allum

Fittingly, the final specimen I placed on the shelf in the new store was the very same one that had been part of my interview for this job: The skeleton of a female leopard with a sad story. It apparently belonged to William Batty’s circus and died of birthing complications whilst in labour to a litter of lion-leopard hybrids before ending up in the Museum’s collections in 1860.

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The sad story of a performing leopard

Though the moving part of this project is now complete there is still plenty of work to do. We are now updating and improving a lot of the documentation held in our databases, and conservation work is ongoing. The new store will also become a shared space – the first joint collections store for the University Museums, complete by April 2018.

To see more, follow the hashtag #storiesfromthestores on Twitter @morethanadodo and see what the team at Pitt Rivers Museum are up to by following @Pitt_Stores.