Touching the past: how natural history collections and their collectors are a curator’s friend

Collections tell the most amazing stories about the world around us, both past and present, and so too do the people and characters that collect specimens and minerals

Museums are stuffed full of specimens. Trays upon trays of delicately pinned insects fill cabinets. Drawers upon drawers filled with shimmering minerals pack cupboards. Boxes upon boxes store fragile pressed plants. Each individual specimen is a record of that one moment in time, allowing us to see into hsitory and discover which creatures and plants were around in the past

Researchers use the collections to help our understanding of changes in the environment, species diversity, and a plethora of other reasons. Artists visit museum collections for inspiration for their next piece of work from intricately detailed copper plate prints to more abstract works. Schools and universities use collections to help support subjects that are being taught, silently inspiring the next generation of scientists.

The skull of a hyena (pictured main image) is not only beautiful to see up close, but can be used by researchers to study muscle attachments; artists like to use skulls to study shadows; and school groups can learn about carnivores, herbivores and omnivores.

It’s not just the objects themselves that can inspire. The collectors have their own story to tell. And it is these stories which help bring museum collections alive.

If you ask any museum curator about their collections, they will immediately start to talk about one of their favourite collectors. Quite naturally, the curators will sneak in quirky little anecdotes: such as how Mr Jack Spittle was collecting specimens on his honeymoon, or how Gertrude Benham travelled around the world eight times. We talk about collectors as if they are dear friends. The stories we tell show that these collectors were people. People just like you and me.

The formidable Gertrude Benham (1867-1938) travelled eight times round the world and climbed more than 300 mountains of more than 3000 metres. (Image © Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

For someone working in a museum, discovering the people behind the collections increases the respect for their collections: the meticulous labelling; the perfectly pinned specimens; the detail and love in their work; the families they had and the lives they lived. In every museum, curators get to know the collectors in intimate detail. I have lost count of the amount of times I have shrieked embarrassingly loudly for joy when I have just discovered a fun new piece of information about one of our collectors. No doubt, curators across the world are letting out high pitched gasps of joy as they read this.

One of the most exciting moments, which turn my legs to jelly and cause me to splutter out nonsense in a ridiculously excited way, is meeting a relative of one of our collectors. This may sound bonkers. Perhaps it is. To us museum curators, the collectors are our heroes: they spent so much time putting together amazing collections, and museums would be a lot emptier without them. Meeting a relative of one of our collectors is like meeting a relative of Harrison Ford or Shania Twain.

Some years ago, I was honoured to meet the grandson of George Carter Bignell, one of our entomology collectors. Bignell collected a huge number of moths, butterflies, wasps, bees, ants and parasitic wasps during the late 1800s and very early 1900s. At 89 years old, David Hodge was a wonderful, energetic and enthusiastic character, full of passion and curiosity about his family history. It was a pleasure to spend time showing David his grandfather’s collection. Each drawer was opened with pride as David’s early memories of his grandfather filled the store room just like his specimens did.

A very excited curator standing next to George Carter Bignell’s great-grandson, Alan Hodge in the middle, and Bignell’s grandson on the right, the wonderful David Hodge. (Image © Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

David kindly donated a bound herbaria of seaweeds and plants, collected by Bignell, and used by David’s mother as a nature book as she was growing up. David and I even wrote a short article together about Bignell’s life and his collections.  His daughter and her daughter have since been in to visit.

Sadly, David passed away a few years ago. His visit to see his grandfather’s collection will always stay with me. It was wonderful to see how this incredible 89 year old beamed with boyish excitement as he explored his grandfather’s legacy.

Recently, the sister of one of our large mineral collectors came to visit the collections. I met Sarah at a mineral show in Sussex five years ago. I didn’t get the chance to get her contact details, but luckily last month she got in touch. Sarah is the sister of Richard Barstow, a mineral collector and dealer who passed away at just 35 years old in 1982. Plymouth fundraised to buy the collection in 1986, and it’s the most beautiful collection of minerals of the South West, showing the rich and stunning geological history.

I spent a good few hours with Sarah opening wooden drawers and peering closely at the beautiful minerals. She smiled at each mineral I placed in her hands. “He would never let me near his collection when he was alive,” she quipped.

Sarah Barstow with one of her brother's specimens in the store room. (Image © Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

Sarah told me tales of Richard in his youth. They grew up in North Wales, and she remembers how he was always outside exploring. He didn’t go to university or finish any A-levels, and after working for an insurance company for two years, left because he was bored! He longed to be outside, exploring quarries and old mine sites. And he did just that, making an incredible career out of what he loved.

A specimen in a museum gives a unique glimpse at the diversity of life and history of our planet. It’s the people who collected them that can bring a grey mineral or a parasitic wasp alive. These people were incredibly meticulous, and perhaps a little obsessive, but hearing first hand stories from their relatives is an amazing personal touch which enables curators to learn more about our heroes. Through them, we are able to touch the past.