Dinosaur Eggshibition!

It’s been a while since I last wrote much on my blog, apart from the regular Friday mystery object. Mainly that’s because I’ve been busy getting to grips with a new collection at the Grant Museum of Zoology, where I am now the Curator. Just before I left my previous job at the Horniman Museum & Gardens I curated an exhibition that has a nice Eastery link (which will become apparent), that I thought might be worth writing about.

The exhibition is a touring show developed under the title Hatching The Past, which was brought to my attention by palaeontologist, science blogger and old friend Dr Dave Hone who’s a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London. I went to the Città della Scienza in Naples with some colleagues from the Horniman to take a look (which is an interesting story in its own right, since the main part of the museum had been burned down by the Mafia in 2013).

Despite the suboptimal exhibition space in Naples (thanks to the fact that the building it was meant to be displayed in was a pile of charcoal), the quality of the science, the objects in the exhibition and the vibrant and exciting artwork by the awesome palaeoartist Luis Rey made it well worth considering for the Horniman, which tries to get in a blockbuster temporary exhibition every year.

This exhibition focuses on the eggs, offspring and parental care of dinosaurs. A family focus is right up the Horniman’s street, and that’s what led to the change in the exhibition title, to bring more focus on that family element, without losing sight of the DINOSAURS!


Star of the exhibition

Of course, making an exhibition intellectually fit into a museum takes more than just changing the name, so the temporary exhibitions at the Horniman include objects from the permanent collection, with links to activities and other content. So while working out my notice from the Horniman I was feverishly selecting objects and writing text to help build that link before I left.


It has to be said that seeing members of the public engaging with your work is incredibly satisfying, so when the exhibition opened in February I was delighted to see people reading my text and really getting interested in the objects I’d picked to tell the story of parental care in living animal groups.


I was also keen to take the opportunity to help the Horniman build closer links with one of their patrons (and a living legend for pretty much every naturalist out there), Sir David Attenborough, who kindly agreed to loan the Elephant Bird egg he found when filming Zoo Quest in Madagascar. This for me is the ultimate version of an egg hunt.

Have a great Easter weekend – I hope you get all the eggs you could ask for!

#TwitteratiChallenge Museums Bolt-on = #MuseumTwitterati

I love social media. In particular I enjoy using Twitter because it provides me with a wonderful opportunity to engage in dialogue with interesting and knowledgeable people who have helped me develop in my profession, and I hope that I have been able to enrich other people’s experience in turn.

It was therefore a real pleasure to have been nominated by Katie Hobbs for the #TwitteratiChallenge, which was originally started by @TeacherToolkit to “recognise your most supportive colleagues in a simple blogpost shout-out. Whatever your reason, these 5 educators [museologists] should be your 5 go-to people in times of challenge and critique, or for verification and support“.

Note that I have slightly tweaked the focus of the challenge from the original – it’s such a nice idea that I think it’s worth borrowing (stealing?) for the museum sector. To help prevent the original intent of the challenge (i.e. finding helpful educators) from being diluted, I’m going to suggest that a new/additional hashtag be applied – so witness the birth of #MuseumTwitterati!

This is quite timely, as I recently attended the NatSCA conference, which was called Museums Unleashed and it focussed, in large part, on the role of social media in the museum profession.


As new tools are introduced, we need to be willing to give them a go, to see if they can be used to improve how we work. But Twitter is no longer a new tool.  It has proved its worth as a way of communicating and I see it rapidly becoming as important for museum professionals to use as email (although there are still a few people in the museum sector who haven’t quite got to grips with email yet).

For colleagues who are just starting out on Twitter, the #MuseumTwitterati hashtag may provide a helpful trail for identifying good people to follow.

Subversive as always, I’ve tweaked the original #TwitteratiChallenge rules, and simplified the ‘What to do’ section:


  1. You cannot knowingly include someone you work with in real life (ex-colleagues are fine, it’s a small sector and we’d run out of people in no time otherwise).
  2. You cannot list somebody that has already been named if you are already aware of them being listed on #TwitteratiChallenge or #MuseumTwitterati (sorry Jan Freedman)
  3. Copy and paste the ‘Rules’ and ‘What to do’ information into your own blog post and be sure to cite @TeacherToolkit since they came up with the idea.

What to do:

  1. Within 7 days of being nominated you must write your own blogpost identifying the top-5 museologists that you regularly go to for ideas, support and challenge. Share this on Twitter using the hashtag #MuseumTwitterati and tag them in – they are thus nominated.
  2. If you do not have your own blog, write your list by hand or on a computer, take a photo/screenshot and upload it to Twitter, tagging the people mentioned (yes, you can do that) and using the hashtag #MuseumTwitterati – they are thus nominated.

So here is my selection, which sadly omits a lot of fantastic people who I engage with regularly about my specialist interests, but who are not really museum professionals per se (people like Jake, Ric and Ben). There are also a lot of notable absences because I work with some excellent Twitterers (Tweeters? Tweeps? Whatever – check out this #TwitteratiChallenge post by Rupert Shepherd who is one of them, and he lists most of the others):

My #MuseumTwitterati

Mar Dixon (@MarDixon) – Doyenne of digital media for the museum sector. Trendsetter and maverick empowerer of the people, who has probably done more to unstarch the undies of the stiffest museum staff through the innovative Culture Themes than anyone could have imagined possible.

Erica McAlister (@

Mark Carnall (@mark_carnall) – Incisive and provocative natural science curator, with a playful sense of humour and a passion for Lego.

Tincture Of Museum (@TinctureOfMuse) – Another Lego lover, museum volunteer and a passionate advocate for access in museums, with a special insight into autism.

Nicholas Poole (@NickPoole1) – Trend tracker, strategist and big picture thinker. Tweets to share nuggets of museum management gold.

Apologies to many of the other fantastic people I engage with on Twitter who didn’t make the list – nothing personal, since I used commun.it to help me decide; it’s a very useful tool for managing your online community!

International Museum Day: why are museums important?

Today is International Museum Day, which provides a nice opportunity to share some thoughts on why museums are important for society.

Museums are a source of knowledge, enjoyment and inspiration

The first point is that they contribute to the economy – in the UK tourism is a significant contributor to the economy, accounting for  9.0% of GDP, so tourism is big business. Why do tourists come to the UK? Because we have things they want to visit of course – things like museums. 32.8 million tourists came to the UK last year and they made 21 million visits to the 16 DCMS sponsored museums. It’s probably not unreasonable to say that an estimated 64% of tourists to the UK visit museums as part of their experience, bearing in mind that there are around 1,800 accredited museums in the UK, there’s a pretty good chance that the total number of tourist visits to museums in the UK is quite a bit greater than that 21 million.

recent report on tourism by Deloitte recognises this and explicitly states:

The supply side offer of tourist infrastructure also extends to attractions, and standards in this area can have a significant influence on the appeal of the overall tourism offer of the UK. Some of Britain’s most well-known attractions have long suffered from inadequate infrastructure, such as parking, visitor centres, and museums and educational facilities. It will be important for Britain to maintain and improve in this infrastructure as competitor destinations invest in infrastructure which may risk diverting visitors away from the UK.

In addition, museums generate revenue at a more local level, attracting visitors who need to eat and drink, or buy things from museum shops, like greetings cards, plastic dinosaurs and copies of brilliant books like Jake’s Bones.


Museums aren’t just scrounging from the government, they generate revenue and contribute to the local and national economy

Beyond the immediate economic argument, museum collections provide a physical record of the life and culture on our planet, both past and present. They provide the hard evidence to recognise and describe the different species on Earth and they provide a historical record of how things once were, for comparison against the present, helping us to better understand change and make better predictions for the future. So museums can help us shape a better future by understanding the past and present.

Museum collections document the amazing diversity of life and the diversity of human material culture

Part of this role is fulfilled by making collections accessible to the public for their information, education and entertainment (because entertainment helps us learn too – I’m a big proponent of informal learning). However, there is also a need for research that feeds into academia and the informing of local, national and international policy decisions.

Even research that doesn’t seem to have immediate practical application is useful for testing ideas, exploring human creativity and gaining a deeper insight into other people’s minds and cultures. This sort of work may not rock the world of politics or science, but it can be effective for engaging the public and encouraging a deeper interest in topics that have a benefit to society that, at least to my mind, stretches far beyond the outcome of the X-Factor finals or which minor celebrity is divorcing which other minor celebrity.

Museums are there to nurture, support and inspire a fascination with the wider world, and really that’s why I think they’re important.


I’ve already posted a teaser about my mermaid research, but now I’m pleased to say that the academic paper is available in the Journal of Museum Ethnography, no. 27 (2014), pp.98-116.

©Horniman Museum and Gardens & © Heini Schneebeli

We had hoped (and we asked) to make the paper open-access, as one of my co-authors is based at the Wellcome Library and the Wellcome takes open-access seriously and provide funds for making research freely available.

But alas our request seems to have been missed or ignored. I’m not hugely surprised as the Journal is published by the Museum Ethnographers Group, which is a Subject Specialist Network (SSN) run by volunteers and the systems are simply not in place for organisations like that to adopt new publishing models quickly and easily.

I should know, as I am involved in a couple of SSNs and I know how much time and effort goes into producing a Journal and I know how core the Journal is to the running of an SSN – it’s seen as a benefit of membership and therefore giving away the content freely is seen by some as devaluing membership.

At the SSN I am most involved in (the Natural Sciences Collections Association – NatSCA) we make all of our Journal articles freely available, but only a year after publication, so there is still a benefit to joining (among other benefits of course!).

I may not be able to legally share the final version of the paper with everyone, as I don’t hold the copyright, but I hold the copyright of the earlier drafts, so here is an earlier draft of the paper if you want to get the gist of the mermaid research.

I won’t go into detail here about the contents of the paper, since I’ve been busy writing for other blogs where I look at different aspects of mermaids:

how to make a mermaid is explained on Henry Nichol’s excellent Guardian science blog Animal Magic;

why Henry Wellcome may have collected mermaids is explore on the Wellcome Collection’s blog;

an accessible summary of the mermaid research on the Horniman merman is available on the Horniman website,

and there is a nice blog by Vicky Pearce on the Horniman blog.

Hopefully this mass of mermaid information will inspire discussion, where I really hope to find out about more mermaid specimens and stories.

If you have any information, thoughts or questions please either use the #mermania hashtag on twitter or leave a comment below. Enjoy!


The Mermaid

As you may already know, I’ve been doing a lot of work on a mermaid specimen in the collections of the Horniman Museum & Gardens over the last few years.

The upshot of all that activity is that I have a paper written in a journal that will be hitting the bookshelves any day now. As you may have heard me say before, the specimen is not made of a monkey attached to a fish – I know that after undertaking painstaking examination of the specimen using CT scanning equipment and DNA sampling and good old fashioned anatomical investigation.




Instead it appears to be a real creature of uncertain taxonomic affiliation. The teeth suggest a link to the Wrasse family, the tail to the Carp and the torso to no known living group, so I have designated this specimen as the type for its species and have named it Pseudosiren paradoxoides. Full details can be found in the paper which is due out next week in the Journal of Museum Ethnography – I’m so excited!


Today is #MuseumSelfie day as part of #MuseumWeek, so here are few selfies of me trying to recreate the look of specimens from the Horniman’s natural history gallery.






Utterly ridiculous, but fun nonetheless. If you have some similar selfies why not link to them below in the comments section? After all, I don’t want to be the only one looking silly!


11 questions to a museum blogger for #museumweek

Twitter has provided some great opportunities for sharing blogs, photos and other interesting content relating to museums. If you’re interested in museums, from either a personal or professional perspective, you should definitely try using twitter.

This week is #MuseumWeek, which provides me with an excellent and relevant excuse for being tardy in responding to Jack Shoulder’s 11 questions to me, which he shared last week on #MuseumBlogs day.

1. Who are you and what do you like about blogging?

I’m Paolo Viscardi, curator, bonegeek and staunch advocate of museums and science. Blogging for me is something that I don’t really enjoy doing, but I really enjoy the outcomes, when I feel like I’ve shared information, ideas and some of the good bits of my amazing job.


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

Last year I published a post called Atacama ‘alien’ mystery is no mystery, which wasn’t directly about museums, although they do get a mention. It’s had around 45000 views so far, with almost 14000 of those on the day it was posted. There have been 136 comments, not counting the offensive or trolling ones I deleted. It was a controversial post in that it challenged some very odd ideas, that some conspiracy theorists seemed to take quite seriously, without applying much critical thought.

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

Back in 2011 there was a lot of hype about a prediction of the Rapture (the ascent to Heaven in advance of the end of the world) by evangelical Christian Harold Camping. I had a lot of fun writing the post Jesus disappointed by Rapture flop, which took the position that the Rapture had actually  happened and only one person ascended, who wasn’t even a Christian. Since most of my posts are observational or factual it made a nice change of pace and gave me a chance to play with ideas.

4. If you could go behind the scenes of any museum, which one would it be and why?

Most of my museum experiences involve going behind the scenes. I rarely go to see exhibitions and I’m usually visiting other museums in order to meet other curators, or to do some research. I’ve not yet been to the West Coast of America, but if I ever make it over there I’d love to get behind the scenes at the Page Museum at Rancho La Brea to take a look at some of the amazing fossil mammal material they have in their collections.

Smilodon at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. Image by Dallas Krentzel

Smilodon at the Page Museum at the La Brea Tar Pits. Image by Dallas Krentzel

5. If you could interview anyone, anyone at all, for your blog, who would you talk to and what would be the first question you ask them?

I’m interested in observing the physical world and trying to understand it, so I’ve never considered doing interviews. I suppose I could interview other scientists, but I’m not really a natural people-person and I would struggle to know what to ask!

6. What is your earliest museum memory?

This is a question I’ve (sort of) answered for Meet a Museum Blogger on Museum Minute a while back, so I’ll repeat that here:

“Seeing the door into the Palaeontology department at the Natural History Museum in London (the one next to the Megatherium specimen) is one of the clearest memories from my childhood – it was at that point I realized there must be people working behind the scenes in museums and that I could be one of them.”

Megatherium at London NHM. Image by Ballista

Megatherium at London NHM. Image by Ballista

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

Apart from the Horniman, which I visit every week day for work, the last museum I visited was the Città della Scienza (Naples Science Centre) at the start of March. That was a scouting trip for a potential temporary Dinosaur exhibition for the Horniman. I was impressed by the museum’s tenacity in the face of outright criminal assault, following an arson attack a year ago to the day of my visit, that razed the main museum site to the ground

8. Share a museum selfie?

I hate taking selfies, but since they’ve become so popular I was persuaded to take one with the Horniman Walrus – just awful…

selfie with walrus

Since then I’ve taken a lot of selfies, and thankfully I’ve managed to look a bit less smug in those…

9. If time and money were not an issue, which museum in the world would you most like to visit?

As someone with a soft spot for Smilodon it would have to be the Page Museum!

10. Which museum do you think more people should know about?

The Horniman is a pretty small museum that does some pretty big things, but I know that outside the museum sector we’re not as well known as we could be. That said, I love the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL and the Natural History Museum in Dublin – two of my favourite places that shockingly few people seem to know about!

I do think that all museums deserve to be known about though, which is why I’ve been working hard with colleagues at the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) and a variety of partner organisations (like the NHM and Linnean Society) to get a better idea of what museums are out there that hold natural science collections. At the moment the project is in its early days, but we’ve developed a crowdsourced map of UK natural history collections that you can see – and add to – on the NatSCA collections pages.

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

“Rat poo”. It’s a surprisingly common search term too, with almost 400 people finding the site through some variation on that theme. I suppose that’s what happens if you show people pictures of rat poo though…


On that somewhat unsavoury note I will pass on the baton to some more museum bloggers:

Here are my questions for Jake, Claire and Russell:

1. Who are you and what do you blog about?
2. Why do you blog about museums?
3. And which post on your blog was the hardest to write?
4. Which is your favourite museum?
5. Do you think you’ll still be interested in museums in 20 years time?
6. What is your earliest museum memory?
7. What was the last museum you visited and what did you see?
8. Share a museum selfie?
9. If you could build a museum, what kind would it be?
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.

What is a curator?

What is a curator?

Every so often I’ll meet someone who asks me what I do; this draws the response “I’m a natural history curator”*. Sometimes I will then be faced with the dreaded follow-up question “what does that mean?”

I hate it when this happens, because the curatorial role involves lots of different things and it can be hard to summarise them in any kind of concise and intelligible way. Different museums expect different things from curators, which will usually depend on the rest of the staffing structure. So when I answer I can only really answer for myself and what I think MY curatorial role entails.


The most obvious responsibility is “curating collections”, which is not actually an explanation in any meaningful way. To curate more or less means to “take care of”, but these days the museum sector has become professionalised and there are other specialists who take on much of the duty of care; conservators, collections managers, documentalists and so on.

What I bring to the care side of things overlaps with these roles, but my spin is to bring subject specialist knowledge to the mix.

This allows me to help other departments by providing them with useful information. For example, non-specialist staff will largely have to go by what’s written on an object label, whereas I am expected to check that information and challenge old taxonomy and misidentifications. I may also provide additional or new information about objects by researching their history or identifying parts of their composition.

A nice illustration of this can be seen in these two objects – one from the Horniman Museum & Gardens‘ Anthropology collection (top) and one from the Natural History collection (bottom):


The Natural History specimen had originally been mislabelled by the original supplier as the skull of an Andean Condor from Bolivia, which I had spotted and corrected to Lappet-faced Vulture (a species from Africa) after a bit of research. The Anthropology specimen was originally identified as being an  ‘eagle skull’ charm from Nigeria and it was simple to provide a more detailed species identification after having done the work on the Natural History specimen.

This sort of fact-checking and enrichment of data is essential for museums if we are to provide an accurate, reliable and authoritative resource for our audiences.

The same need for fact-checking also applies to quality television programmes, so it is perhaps unsurprising that museum curators will often be involved in documentaries, either as a presenter (like George McGavin or Richard Fortey), an expert that gets wheeled in to provide context (I think all curators have done this!), or as a shadowy figure behind the scenes baby-sitting an object or advising on content (I was scientific advisor for Ben Garrod’s excellent Secrets of Bones for example and I have fond memories of fiercely guarding an Indian Elephant leg at the filming of the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lecture “Why Elephant’s Can’t Dance“).


An Elephant leg that I had to babysit for 14 hours (with no comfort break) for the filming of a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture

I’m all for getting collections used like this, since I think that the real value of collections lies in their use. This may be scientific, educational or artistic use – it doesn’t matter which, as long as the use doesn’t significantly compromise the objects and contributes to a wider understanding or appreciation of the world. In some cases you can manage both – a project I’ve been involved in with fine art photographer Sean Dooley is a good example of this.

Another large part of what I do is science communication. Museums were one of the earliest methods by which the general population could access decent quality information about the wider world and, despite the rise of the telly, museums still serve as an important interface between the academic world and the public.

This means that I get to research topics (in varying amounts of detail) that are relevant to our collections and audiences and produce exhibitions, give talks and write articles communicating that research. Sometimes this will be somewhat on the dry side (like a methodological paper about measuring skulls), while other times it will be a bit more fun, like my stint as #ExtremeCurator:

For me science communication and museum advocacy goes beyond the museum walls and 9-5 working hours, so I also organise free monthly science-related events in a London pub, I’m a trustee of the Natural Sciences Collections Association, I do evening talks all around the UK, I tweet and of course I am a #MuseumBlogger here at Zygoma.

This last activity has been both hard work and incredibly enjoyable. The hard work comes from the discipline required to organise and write a weekly blogpost, while the enjoyment has come from the fantastic community that has developed around the Friday Mystery Object posts (which have now been running for about five years). I’ve found that my knowledge has increased a huge amount and I’ve been able to encourage and help support other people in their interest.

My favourite example of this is Jake, who has been reading my blog since he was seven! Now he’s twelve and has already published an incredible book on bones that I was lucky enough to be able to help with. It’s the unexpected things like this that make blogging so worthwhile and which make my job the best job in the world!


*my job title is actually “Deputy Keeper of Natural History”, but that’s a term even less familiar than “curator”.

Friday mystery object #217 answer

Last Friday I gave you this lovely skull to identify:


I chose it because it was being used for an interesting project by a student at UCL, involving 3D surface laser scanning of the specimen to identify landmark characters of the skeletal structure of the faces of this family of primates:


This is a specimen that we actually have a fair amount of information about. It’s a male Grey Gibbon Hylobates muelleri Martin, 1841 collected before 1909, from Melian on the Hanta River in North Borneo. So of all the suggestions, Crispin (@brainketchup) was the closest (with agreement from henstridgesj) when he suggested White-handed Gibbon.

It turns out that this skull also has a taxidermy skin associated with it (which Jake has mentioned before), which shows a common feature of taxidermy specimens where the skull has been prepared separately – it’s mouth is stitched shut:


This makes for slightly dodgy taxidermy, but at least it means the skull is available for future research, instead of being stuck in a specimen intended mainly for display.

The skin of this specimen has also seen recent use, but for art rather than science. Artist Paul Robinson has used it as the basis of this somewhat freaky, but striking piece of work:

GIBBON by Paul Robinson

GIBBON by Paul Robinson

It goes to show that specimens in museums can find themselves being used in all sorts of interesting ways. To my mind this is really what museum collections are for – being used by people.


There are some great resources online for finding images of comparative material for skulls, but the postcranial skeleton tends to be quite badly represented online even for common species. I’d love to change that, but it’s a big challenge for one person.

Paramastoid process of Pig (Sus scrofa)

Paramastoid process of Pig (Sus scrofa)

That’s why I’d like to set up #bonegeeks on Twitter (and maybe on other social media as well). The way I see it, people who have access to skeletal material could easily take snaps of bits of postcrania from known species (preferably with something for scale) using their phone and share the image to Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook with the name of the species and the bone (and perhaps where the specimen is held).

With the #bonegeeks tag it should be easy to collate images and hopefully start building up a comparative collection of images to make identifications easier.

It could start with a bone of the week to get the seldom depicted bones better represented and I’m sure #bonegeeks would be willing to respond to requests if there were particular bones that someone wanted to see.

I wonder if this could work… shall we give it a go and find out? Please add your thoughts on this idea in the comments section below or on Twitter using the #bonegeeks hashtag.

Oh and here’s how the idea got started: [View the story “#bonegeeks” on Storify]

World Rhino Day

Today is World Rhino Day. It is a day for raising awareness about the threats to the future survival of the five species of Rhino in the world today.

Rhino trophies - image taken from bushwarriors.wordpress.com

Historically Rhinos have been hunted for their horn – which has been made into trophies in Europe, into high-status jambiya handles in Yemen and into intricately carved libation cups in China.

Today, despite the fact that Rhinos are protected by international law, which makes it illegal to trade in modern and unworked antique horn, there is an active black market for Rhino horn in parts of Asia (mainly in Thailand, Vietnam, China).

This market is mainly driven by demand for horn used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), particularly following recent (totally spurious) claims that it can treat cancer (N.B. it was never used as an aphrodisiac in TCM).

In reality the horn has no more health benefits than cow horn or even fingernails, since it is composed of the same material – keratin. Unfortunately this fact has done little to stop the demand for illegal Rhino horn.

Actually, much of the demand is probably artificial, driven by wealthy businesses stockpiling horn against future shortages as Rhinos disappear (as identified in this report on Taiwan from 20 years ago). Their actions have made the average Rhino horn worth more than a 24-carat gold ice-cream cone filled with the highest grade cocaine.

So far this year 287 Rhinos have been illegally killed for their horn in South Africa alone – a figure closing in on last year’s all time high of 333. Many of these Rhinos have died from the process of having their horn removed using a chainsaw, which cuts through the flesh and bone of the end of the skull.

On top of this bloody harvest, the demand for Rhino horn has led smuggling cartels to seek alternative methods of getting hold of horn. 

These have ranged from using Thai prostitutes to pose as legal game shooters (I kid you not) to acquiring historic horn through a legal loophole

The biggest surprises came in a sale of rhinoceros horn carvings, in which 30 lots, estimated at $3.9 million, sold for $30 million. (example of black market influence on Rhino horn value in art sale, from The Telegraph, 31st May 2010)

When it was noticed that Asian buyers were paying well over the odds for antique Rhino horn the loophole was closed, but by then historic horn had become well established as a commodity and therefore attractive to the criminal element involved in the Rhino horn trade.

This led to several thefts of horn from South African museums in 2010 and European targets started being hit from February 2011. Since then there has been a spate of 30 or so thefts of horn from museums, auction rooms and historic houses around Europe. These thefts have led many museums, including the Horniman, to take their Rhino horn off display and move it into secure storage.

The Natural Science Collections Association (of which I am a committee member) has provided some guidance to museums about Rhino horn in collections and somehow I’ve found myself giving interviews to the Museums Association and the BBC about this issue.

In the face of all the depressing Rhino horn developments over the past couple of years, it’s been heartening to see politicians and even Traditional Chinese Medicine educators backing the moves to dispel the myths about Rhino horn as a cancer medicine.

I must also admit to having a (slightly guilty) sense of schadenfreude when I think of the nasty chemicals that have been used to treat Rhino horn in museums over the years (including arsenic and mercury).

Risks aside, there are still rich people who will naively use ‘medicines’ that they don’t understand, but which they put their faith in anyway (Elle Macpherson for example).

So the situation looks bleak for the future of Rhinos, unless misinformation about medicinal effects of their horn can be overcome and the demand for illegal horn removed.


Pdf fact sheets on all 5 Rhino species from http://www.rhinoconservation.org:

Friday mystery object #87 answer

On Friday the mystery object was provided by Mark Carnall, the curator of the newly reopened Grant Museum of Zoology:

It’s not been an easy one to work out – I thought it was part of a fish skull when I first saw it and comments have ranged from a squashed frog to Yoda’s foot.

The closest suggestions came from Jamie Revell, Steven D. Garber, PhD and Helen (sort of…), this is the  Continue reading

Ask away!

Today is Ask a Curator day on Twitter, which opens up the opportunity for a Q&A session with curators from museums around the world. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out – after all, I run this blog as a window into the world of my job as a Natural History curator and I have been involved in the excellent Ask a Biologist since its inception. The idea of engaging the public with what I do is something I have invested significant amounts of my free time to and my employer, the Horniman Museum, has always been supportive of.

I do feel that I have been a bit remiss in these activities over recent months as I’ve been tied up with lots of other things – not least my core work of curating the bone collections in their new store at our off-site Study Collections Centre. However, I hope to be back on track soon, with more regular posts here and more frequent input on Ask a Biologist.

For today, let’s see how Ask a Curator works. Here’s the hashtag to see what other people have been asking museums around the world. If you want to ask a question of someone at the Horniman (including myself and James of Answers in Genius) then click the link below.

Have fun!

Ask a curator at the Horniman

Paolo’s Pest Post #1: Rats

Spring is in the air and the burgeoning of new life all around us is not restricted to daffodils and baby birds, it also includes some less welcome organisms. Working in a museum means you really need to be aware of pests. A serious infestation can reduce objects to piles of dust in a worryingly short time. Every museum has pests, as does every house – they are impossible to eradicate completely and it’s a waste of time trying since they are mobile and can reappear just a few days (or even hours) after you’ve just finished exterminating their predecessors. Pest populations require constant management rather than blitzkrieg if they are to be kept at levels where they don’t pose a problem. In museums this is called Integrated Pest Management (IPM), at home it’s called housekeeping.

The majority of IPM is making sure that there isn’t enough food lying around to provide pests with the rations they need to explore your museum or home. If the pests can’t find food, they have no reason to hang around. Most of the food that pests find will be in the form of small edible particles (crumbs from your lunch, hair, skin cells, dead flies, pet food, etc.). This means that foodstuffs should be restricted to easily cleaned areas that are separated from areas containing vulnerable objects. Regular cleaning also needs to take place everywhere to remove the accumulation of organic waste that constantly builds up. Sometimes this isn’t easy, especially when buildings have been designed without pest prevention in mind:

Security grill in front of a window, making the sill difficult to clean

Of course, our museums and homes also have a standing supply of food for pests in the form of taxidermy, wool, paper, wood, dried goods, carpets, clothes, etc. This is what we are trying to protect, so we can’t simply remove it all. Instead, we need to keep a lookout for tell-tale signs that pests are busy munching away at these items, so that particular infestations can be dealt with before they spread.

Vigilance is key – everyone working in a museum or living in a house should be aware of what constitutes a pest and they should know where to report any sightings of pests (be it to Collections Management, Facilities Management, Conservation, or mum/dad). Whoever is in charge of dealing with pests should also be making sure that they carry out a bit of extra work, either by using monitoring traps to keep track of pest distributions so hot spots can be detected, and/or by keeping an eye on windowsills – a prime location for spotting pests of the insect kind. It is also useful to keep an eye open for the little signs that pests leave lying around – droppings, frass and characteristic damage.

Although some pests may have had a population in your building for as long as you’ve been there (or longer), most will have found their way in more recently. Points of entry are varied and often uncontrollable (you can’t check the coats or bags of every visitor for hitch-hiking beetles and moths), but where possible there should be checks in place that reduce the ability of pests to get into a building. A quarantine area is ideal (dare I say essential) for controlling pests that can be transported on museum objects, but at home it may simply be a case of checking that your newly purchased bunch of flowers or bag of flour isn’t crawling with beetles.

Various holes, vents and chimneys are excellent entry points for pests so it’s good to keep an eye on them – block up the ones that don’t belong there (like broken windows or holes in ceilings) and make sure that the ones that do belong (like air vents and chimneys) are kept clean and, where practical, protected with a mesh on the outside.


Part of what inspired me to start writing this was an incident at home that Melissa and I recently dealt with. We live in a basement flat, which means that we are likely to have certain types of pest finding their way into our home quite easily. In this case it was one of the most unpleasant pests you can get – we had a rat in our kitchen.

We knew that there was a rat in the garden, because we had seen it before. In fact, we have an entertaining video of it chasing magpies right under the nose of a disinterested local fox one Sunday morning:

However, a rat in the garden and a rat in the kitchen are two different things. Rats carry a host of nasty diseases and they are incredibly destructive because of their droppings, urine and need to gnaw – rats gnawing wires are a common cause of fire. There’s some useful information about problems caused by rats here. Our rat appears to have entered through a hole in the wall that takes the waste pipe from our washing machine – unfortunately the hole is much bigger than the pipe and the rat must have squeezed through the gap, something that rats are very good at.

We had a suspicion that a something was amiss when Melissa heard rustling and caught movement out of the corner of her eye one evening. The next day I also saw something fleeing behind the fridge when I walked into the kitchen and I thought it looked a bit too big to be a mouse – I was also fairly sure I had seen a long scaly tail. That clinched it, so we immediately did a fairly deep clean of the kitchen and we cleared out all the boxes and bags crammed into our airing cupboard, which is in one corner of the kitchen. On removing everything from there I spotted that the insulation around the boiler had started being gnawed to make what looked like nesting material. There were also droppings that were too big for a mouse (between 10-15mm):

Rat dropping

Whilst clearing out the airing cupboard our unwelcome guest was spotted as it dashed for cover, reconfirming the evidence that it was a rat. Obviously we were not pleased. Once everything edible was secured in containers in upper wall mounted cupboards or hanging from wall hooks, we shut the kitchen door and hoped the rat would stay put until it could be dealt with. Fat chance – we found fresh droppings in the hall after the rat had squeezed under the kitchen door. Our deep cleaning had probably removed enough accessible food from the kitchen to force the rat to roam further afield.

The advantage of this was that it suggested the rat was hungry and that there was enough disruption from our activities to have forced the rat out of its comfort zone. That discomfiture of the rat was an important, since rats are neophobic – they don’t like new things in their environment. Reducing the available food meant that the rat was forced to explore further and by altering its environment (i.e. removing most of the cover it relied on) we were forcing it to deal with changes, which meant that it would probably become familiarised more quickly with the traps we baited and put down at around the same time.

We chose break-back traps over poison for several reasons:

  • some rats have learned to avoid poison (although some are also trap shy)
  • there is no control over where the rat dies, so it could expire in an inaccessible place and then stink the flat out for weeks while it decomposed, incidentally providing a source of food for insect pests
  • if the poisoned rat went back outside it could well be eaten by something else, which could be harmed
  • neither of us are happy having poison hanging around the house, particularly in case we are visited by friends and family with younger children
  • I have ethical concerns about the suffering an animal experiences before it dies – I think a quick death is preferable to a slow one, and I consider poison to be too slow

A good strong break-back trap seemed to be the best option, since there is greater control of where the rat is killed and a trap is far more easily disarmed and tidied up than poison – it’s also a quick death for the rat (though see below). Live traps can also be used, although for rats I think they are inappropriate since releasing a rat in a new location strikes me as being irresponsible to residents of the area in which it’s released, and it’s pretty stressful for the rat.

Glue boards are also available for trapping rats – these are obviously a slow way for the rat to die, unless they are checked frequently and you are willing to kill the rat yourself. We did use a sticky board under the kitchen door when it was shut (I had a rubber mallet ready to despatch the rat), but that was more as an effort to reduce the rat’s movements within the house than to trap it.

I should make sure I mention that break-back traps need to be checked regularly – sometimes they can go off without killing the rat, merely trapping it (and injuring it) and sometimes the bait can be removed or material from ratty activities can jam the mechanism, making it less effective. Although I was aware of this, I was a bit surprised when I first checked the trap and found a scouring sponge right in the jaws near the hinge:

The snap trap was initially baited with chocolate (rats really like chocolate), but that was switched to nuts and raisins as soon as I realised that bitter dark chocolate that we had in the house was probably not quite the sugary, fatty confectionery treat that a rat would be after. The change of bait seemed to work out well, because we had the rat in the trap a few hours later:

Since the rat was a bit crushed from the powerful jaws of the trap I decided not to bother skeletonising it or getting it taxidermied. Instead I checked the local council website to find out what their disposal requirement was – double bagging and putting it in with the household waste – so that’s what I did.

All in all an unpleasant business, but it only took two days from the first sighting for the rat to be dealt with. Our next action is to contact our landlord to get the hole sealed up properly and we will probably clear out the crumbs from the toaster and bread-board a bit more often, since that’s what the rat seemed to be subsisting on.

If you have a rat then I recommend that you clean and disinfect thoroughly, make food as inaccessible as possible (easier said than done since rats can get through tiny holes, climb well and gnaw through plastic, wood and even concrete with ease), check where the blighters are getting in and work out where they are going, so that you can take steps to stop them. Most councils offer a pest control service to deal with rats (often it’s free), so if you don’t feel up to dealing with the rats then you’re probably best off contacting them. That said, I personally find it’s more effort to deal with contractors in my home than it is to kill a rat.

Friday mystery object #15 answer

On Friday I gave you a palaeontological mystery object and asked you to choose what you thought it was from a poll:


As it turns out, you did pretty well, with 60% of you selecting the correct category (with a couple of you making comments which went into greater detail). The object in indeed a piece of fossil  Continue reading

Friday mystery object #8

Well, after last week’s impressiveness on your collective parts, I think I’d better step up to the plate and deliver something truly taxing. This one I guarantee you won’t get without some extra clues.

Here it is:

Scale in cm
Scale in cm

(click on image to enlarge)

It’s a tall order I know, but what do you think it is?

Put your answers in the comments section below and if you need some clues (or ask some sensible questions) I will respond accordingly.

Good luck (I have a feeling you’ll need it!)

Starkey’s manuscript malarkey

We just had our first taste of the ego that is David Starkey. My wife and I are museum professionals – we just watched Starkey’s series on Henry VIII and are both still reeling from the experience. The content relied on the normal soap-operatics one has come to expect from TV programmes featuring historical figures – in many ways it was actually pretty good, but the whole effect was somewhat spoiled by Starkey’s ham-fisted attempts at theatrics and his utter disregard for the historical evidence he insisted on over-handling – and by that we mean physically handling with the same ham-fistedness as demonstrated in his theatrics. Continue reading