Nest of the European Hornet (Vespa crabro)

This intricate piece of natural architecture is a superb example of a nest of the European Hornet (Vespa crabro). Although for many finding a specimen such as this in the attic would hardly be a welcome discovery, Mr and Mrs Skinner of Shrawley kindly donated this vacated nest to the Worcester City Natural History Collection, allowing its delicate structure to be carefully preserved and displayed from time to time.

The overall population of European Hornet colonies tend to be proportionately smaller than wasp nests, however this is still a substantial size, measuring around 50cm across with individual hexagonal cells much larger than ones created by wasps.

They begin with the work of the lone fertilised queen hornet, who creates the first layer of papery cells and lays an egg in each one. The first generation of female hornets continue to forage and build the rest of the nest.

There is a lot of variation in appearance between nests of this species of hornet, as the insects use a variety of materials available to them at the time of building. Whereas wasps prefer hard woods, hornets content themselves with soft or decaying wood, often mixing it with sand or soil and cementing it together with saliva, resulting in a coarse, yellow, papier-maché appearance. If you look closely, you can see striped lobes which are the results of the work of individual hornets’ work, with colours varying due to the different types of trees and wood collected.

Garston Phillips

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Conserving the Clifton Mammoth Tusk

a large curved tuskThe excavation of a woolly mammoth tusk by Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service at Clifton Quarry, just south of Worcester in March 2016, has led to conservation work to ensure its long-term protection.

Specialist conservation work on the mammoth tusk was very generously funded by Tarmac who own and work Clifton Quarry. The tusk was waterlogged when found so it was dampened and covered in plastic to ensure that it dried out slowly, reducing the chances of splitting and delamination which can occur in waterlogged specimens.

Once it had dried, the surfaces of the tusk were gently cleaned and strengthened. A second phase of conservation work was required a few weeks later as the tusk adapted to the environmental conditions at Worcester Art Gallery and Museum.

Between 2017 and 2018, thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Worcestershire Archive and Archaeology Service (WAAS) in partnership with Museums Worcestershire will bring the Lost Landscapes of Worcestershire back to life, with events and exhibitions celebrating half a million years of the area’s history, from the time our ancestors arrived until the end of the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago.

The nearly-extinct Grayling Butterfly

A museum tray of butterfly specimensThe Grayling Butterfly was a common sight in Victorian Worcestershire. Nowadays the native species, Hipparchia semele can only be found living in a small area on the eastern slopes of Malvern’s North Hill, and preserved in the Worcester City Museum collection.

The Grayling needs certain environmental conditions to become active and start feeding, reproducing and defending its territory, which includes warming up to 32 degrees C by basking on rocks in the sunshine.

These beautiful specimens which came from the Walter Sanders Collection, which would quickly deteriorate if exposed to light for periods of time, are in excellent condition and were collected before the First World War. After this period records became few and far between and the butterfly’s numbers plummeted.

Mel Mason, West Midlands Butterfly Conservation Rep. said: “The species has struggled to survive changes to their natural habitat over the past century. They are extinct in many neighbouring counties including Warwickshire and Gloucestershire and are now unusual to spot inland.”

“We are working closely with Malvern Hills Conservators to monitor the species and restore grasslands containing fine grasses such as Sheep’s Fescue to encourage it to return.”

 

Thanks to Mel Mason of WMBC for his research on this topic.

The Big Cone Pine, or “Widow-maker” tree

web-pine-cone-c-museums-worcestershireThe Coulter pine or Big Cone Pine (Pinus Coulteri) is a tree native to the coastal mountains of Southern California & Northern Mexico. The species was discovered in 1832 and named after the Irish botanist Thomas Coulter. It is quite rare in the wild but it can be found in arboretums & parks even here in southern Britain.

The cone it produces is the heaviest of any pine, weighing up to 5kg (11Ibs) and covered with hook-like tips on the end of the scales. With this in mind, the tree is often referred to as the “widow-maker”! Foresters, grounds men and owners alike are advised to wear hard hats whilst working under them.

Our particular cone comes from the collection of H R Munro, a former forester of the Witley Court Estate who in 1948 donated his cones, wood samples & fungi to Worcester City Museum.

Garston Phillips

Porcelain Bird Sculptures inspired by Museum’s Collection

Boehm of Malvern was a company formed to manufacture fine bone china and porcelain, opened by Helen Boehm in 1971. Whilst visiting London, Helen Boehm had heard about the high quality of English porcelain and discovered the work of former workers at Royal Worcester Porcelain who had formed Cranleigh Art Ceramics.

A studio in Tanhouse Lane, Malvern was set up, amalgamating Edward Marshall Boehm of Trenton, based in New Jersey, USA, with Cranleigh Art Ceramics to form a new company which Helen would finance and manage the sales for.

Worldwide sales were quickly established, and many of the sculptures were inspired by flowers, birds and animals. Seeking inspiration for their designs, the model makers were regular visitors to Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum to study the taxidermy collection, and even borrowed specimens to take to their Malvern studio for examination.

This sculpture from the Worcester City museum collection depicts a pair of long-tailed tits perched among the spikey foliage of a gorse bush. It was originally listed as a 400 limited edition piece, but manufacturing costs were increasing and the company prizes quality over quantity, and therefore only completed 162 of these by 1976.

Garston Phillips

Secrets of the Museum Basement

2 spirit Jars containing a pig's head and a cat's paw

These two Spirit Jars were bought by Worcester Museum in the early 1900s from Edward Gerrard & Sons, a taxidermist and specialist in preparing animal skeletons for educational displays.

Gerrard was working at the British Museum in 1850 when he set up his business, which became a sizeable firm with an extremely diverse output, supplying schools with zoological specimens, as well as making educational anatomical models and even producing furniture made from animal feet, such as rhinoceros umbrella stands.

This hog’s head and cat’s paw would have been purchased to complement the specimens Worcester Museum already has in the Challenger Collection which were collected in the 19th century from some of the great ocean basins. They were on display for many years until the late 1950s.

The specimens were mounted on glass slides and preserved in surgical spirits, industrial methylated spirits or sometimes alcohol. These jars still contain the original spirit, which can dry out if the seals wear away. They have been injected with dyes to show up the veins, and are certainly not objects for the fainthearted.

There is more information about this fascinating business in Edward Gerrard and Sons, A Taxidermy Memoir.

If you would like to see objects such as these, look out for our behind-the-scenes tours on our events pages.

Supplied by Edward Gerrard & Sons, Natural History Studios, 61 College Place, London N.W., Naturalists & Taxidermists

The HMS Challenger Collection

web-hms-challenger-specimen-c-museums-worcestershireThe Challenger Collection is a range of important specimens collected in the 19th century from some of the great ocean basins. These were collected to investigate the physical and biological conditions of the seas.

HMS Challenger was a ship that set out from Portsmouth in December 1872, carrying naturalists, chemists and a vast amount of equipment in order to gather and process the specimens on board as they travelled. Before setting out the ship was altered to accommodate laboratories, drying facilities and chemical chambers in order for the scientists to conduct their work.

The scientists collected samples dredged from 360 stations, each station bearing a number to show the location. They also recorded depth, surface temperature and chemical composition of the sea water.

On the ships’ return, the specimens were handed over to the British Museum, who then distributed them to other museums around the country, in order for everyone to benefit from the information gathered. At Worcester Art Gallery and Museum we have around 23 of the specimens, some of whose locations are from the southern Indian Ocean and the Atlantic.

Recently, work has been conducted to bring the entire Challenger collection together online. An inventory was completed with images so that they are accessible to everyone who would like to see this wonderful collection in its entirety. You can view it here:
https://www.hmschallenger.net/home

 

Kerry Whitehouse

Behind the Scenes talks and tours 2017

garston-at-collections-centreIf you have enjoyed finding out more about our collections in storage and our curatorial expertise, you may be interested in booking onto some of our behind-the-scenes events. These take place at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum and at the Museums Worcestershire Collections Centre. The full listing for 2017 can be found here.

The first talk, taking place on 7 February at Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum, will be a highlight of the year as Garston Phillips, curator since 1969 and a mine of knowledge, shares some of his best stories.

Worcester City Art Gallery & Museum is also the site for our series of lunchtime talks about the collection, which take place on the second Tuesday of each month (except January). A pdf download (400kb) of 2017 bite-sized talks can be found here.

We hope you will be able to join us to discover more about the work we do!

Malachite encrusted with azurite

web-malachite-and-azurite-c-museums-worcestershireWorcester City Museum has a large mineral collection which includes around 2,000 world-wide specimens, mostly collected in the 19th century. It is one of the finest geological collections in the Midlands and of great importance. The collection represents Worcestershire’s comprehensive range of local varied, interesting and in some cases, rare geology. Some minerals are of economic importance but others are just beautiful objects due to their crystal form, shape or colour.
Here is one of the collection’s brilliantly colourful ‘treasures’ of bright green malachite encrusted with crystals of dark blue azurite. Both are carbonates of copper and are usually found in the oxidation zone of copper deposits. They were originally used as a copper ore before their ornamental values were discovered. Malachite was first used as a pigment during the Bronze Age in Egypt and is also a popular polished decorative stone due to its beautiful banding patterns. Azurite was important in the ancient East as a blue pigment in mural paintings and today remains important in paint production.

Rosemary Roden Bsc, Honorary Curator of Geology