Still with me? This series is a step by step approach to the process of documenting natural history museum specimens in a cathartic attempt to explain the process to those who may wonder what museum curators do (some of the time) and in answer to the question, why isn’t your collection digitised yet? I’ve chosen Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s cephalopod collection to start with as a small subset of the zoology collections and one of the less well known parts of the collection. Part 1 looked at how we make a start from almost scratch. Part 2 dissected a ‘typical museum’ label and dipped a toe into some of the problems interpreting specimen labels. In this part, I’ve now added all the specimens I could find onto a spreadsheet and will start piecing together some of the overarching information currently entombed in data labels, apocryphal accounts of the collection and written documents.
Natural history specimens can come with a wide range of labels associated with them. Some are obviously recent museum labels that are easy to interpret but over the centuries multiple labels will have been glued, stitched or extremely loosely attached to specimens as they move from collectors to vendors to researchers and to other museums. Some of these labels are the only remnant of information which gives us an insight into a specimen’s history, information which has otherwise been lost. Without this history, important specimens can be overlooked and the use potential of specimens diminished because researchers often refer to collections based on their age and where they were collected.
Now let’s look at the range of labels found with specimens and begin to piece together what they may mean.
As I mentioned in the last blog post, natural history specimens don’t naturally lend themselves to being labelled in a convenient way. When it comes to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s cephalopod collections there are specimens preserved in a variety of ways from fluid preserved individuals, microscope slides sections, shells, beaks, eggs and even models. These have all been labelled in different ways and the collections managed separately and so labelling styles vary more across preservation than they do within it. So you don’t fall into a coma before reaching the end of this post, we’ll just be looking at the different kinds of labels that were found with the fluid preserved specimens in the collection.
Fluid preserved specimens
Fluid preservation is when whole organisms or parts of them are fixed and preserved in a fluid to prevent tissues from falling apart or being broken down by mould, bacteria, insects and if you are really unlucky rats and mice. By the nature of the preserving method, the preserving fluids are caustic or biocidal which is great for preservation but not so great when it comes to museum documentation. Fluid preserved specimens are normally stored in glass or acrylic containers which labels can be attached to, however, they need to be firmly attached and will be exposed to the environment and over time light, temperature, pollutants and handling makes labels fall apart or become illegible. Today we aim to put labels inside jars with the specimens but then you’ve got to use materials which don’t fade or break apart when submersed in formalin or alcohol. Depending on the specimen you’ve also got issues with labels obscuring what’s in the jar or rolling around in and underneath specimens so that they can’t easily be read. If you remember back to the Spectrum standard for marking and labelling specimens last time, breaking jar seals to fish (or cephalopod) around in a jar of formalin isn’t ideal for curators or specimens. Most natural history museums have got all these problems and more (see Figure 1).
A benefit of documenting all of this specimens at the same time is that trends in labels can be spotted which may be a clue in working out what they mean (or not). Labels come in all shapes and sizes and here’s a selection of some of the different kinds used in the OUMNH’s fluid preserved cephalopods.
Black printed number on brown label outside of jar with a 70’s number (Fig2A). These labels are found across the fluid cephalopod collections and across the invertebrate spirit store. There are multiple specimens numbered with the same number and the numbers range from 73 to 78. Some have handwritten letters after them, e.g. 77a. Nautiluses with this number are all numbered 73. but they don’t seem to be strictly taxonomic as there are octopuses, squid and cuttlefish with the same number. These numbers are found on specimens dating from 1872 to 1948. The numbers are too low for the 1836 Ashmolean catalogue and only appear on fluid specimens. There’s no mention of these numbers in the accession registers for accessioned specimens bearing them. For now they remain a mystery.
Number written on the surface of the jar in black marker (Fig2B). As these are written in black marker pen and obviously intended to be temporary my gut instinct is that these relate to some kind of inventory or audit of the collection. Numbers range from 1 up to 120 and are sort of in numeric order in the collections current arrangement. Another mystery numbering series.
Red tape (Fig2C). Here’s where a bit of sector knowledge helps, red tape or prominent red marks are (not quite exclusively) used in natural history collections to indicate that the specimen is a type specimen. One of the reference specimens used in the description of a new species. There’s a few in the collection which means that there should be a related publication describing these specimens. These specimens are particularly important for taxonomy.
Green tape (Fig2D). There’s lees of a similar widespread convention for green tape but colleagues here at the OUMNH have noted that it was a convention in mid 20th century to denote either type or ‘other important’ specimens. There’s two specimens in the collection with green tape around the jar. Meaning currently unknown.
Orange/yellow/green circular sticker (Fig2E). Liberally applied throughout the collection. Fortunately, someone has left a legend to these dots in the store. These refer to a documentation audit that was done at some point in the past (the legend is undated). Orange means specimen requires some remedial care, yellow means the specimen is uncatalogued, green means identified but not in taxonomic sequence and white sticker means unidentified specimen. It’s err not a fool-proof system and it’s not clear how far this system was applied as there aren’t specimens with white, yellow and orange dots plastered over them. It may be that some supporting project documentation can be found for when this assessment was done and any action taken.
Red oval (Fig2F). Several specimens have an older red oval on them. Nothing obvious unites the specimens as they all come from different sources at different times. Another mystery.
L number on outside of jar (Fig2G) Similar in style to the ’70s’ labels printed labels with an L number. L2 and a number of specimens labelled with L27 occurs in the cephalopods. Again nothing else about these specimens suggests an obvious relationship as they all have different histories (or none at all).
‘Modern’ museum label inside jar (Fig2H) We looked at these last time and ones in this handwriting may have been written by Jimmy Hull, Head Technician of the zoological collections and author of the 1976 collection history. Many but not all of the fluid specimens have a modern label.
U.S.F.C label inside jar (Fig3A) Six specimens have paper labels with U.S.F.C references with a number, confusingly also in the 70s and details of locality and depth in fathoms. None of the specimens are dated. Happily, with a quick Google, it seems that these are the complete set of cephalopods purchased from the United States ‘National Museum’ from 100 sets which were put together from United States Fish Commission dredging in 1880 and 1881 by the steamer Fish Hawk. So already that’s some history and context we didn’t have before. Although these are part of an essentially commercially available set, legendary cephapodologist Addison Emery Verrill had a hand in identifying these which makes my not-so-inner cephalopod geek VERY excited.
Physiology series label (Fig3B) Brown and mostly faded and dirty double bordered labels with a handwritten 3-4 digit number sometimes with a letter suffix. Fortunately, a few of these specimens have more modern labels indicating that these are Physiology labels, sometimes occurring as P.S. ### labels. There are a dozen of these in the cephalopod collection and the physiological series catalogues are still extant although some volumes are missing.
Printed D number labels (Fig3C) A surprising blast from my own past, I recognise these labels as looking remarkably like another important zoologist, E.Ray Lankester’s labels from his time at UCL, now the Grant Museum of Zoology (where I used to work). These labels are a very good match for a label catalogue that Lankester had printed in 1890 and I coincidentally wrote about some of the cephalopods in the Grant Museum catalogue. Lankester left UCL to come to Oxford University in 1890 and it looks like he brought a few specimens with him (or at least the labels) which is what used to happen a lot back in the day when borders of museum and personal ownership were a lot less clear. Fortunately, I just happen to recognise these labels as there’s nothing on them to indicate an association with Lankester or the UCL collections. Tannis Davidson, the curator of the Grant Museum, has helpfully confirmed that the dates and the Lankester association match up with records there in addition to others. Huzzah, museum documentation sometimes work!
Number written on the top right hand corner of a label (Fig3D) A few specimens have a small number written on the top right hand side of the label with numbers in the 70s. Not sure what these mean but for a couple of specimens this top right corner has been torn off which may be related as this number was no longer needed? (Fig3E)
Paper label with pencil writing on (Fig3F) There’s a fair few of these in the collection and obviously, they aren’t necessarily related but quite a few of the specimens with these labels are ones that were transferred from the Calcutta Museum. Some previous research has speculatively identified some of these as type specimens described by Edwin Stephen Goodrich in 1896. These labels could be in Goodrich’s hand and these specimens may be cited or figured in Goodrich’s publication. Unfortunately, these labels are huge and obscure themselves and the specimens inside so the lid will need to be popped for these to be examined further.
Metal tag attached to specimen (Fig3G) Metal tag attached to a string and tied through a specimen. Fun documentation fact! A lot of Darwin specimens are labelled in this way. However, before we get too excited about Darwin cephalopod specimens these metal tags are found in association with the pencil labels mentioned above so appear to either be common to ex. Calcutta Museum specimens or the H.M.S Investigator expedition on which they were collected.
Old display label (Fig3H) Printed typed labels mounted on a blue card background. I can identify these labels from some of the battery jar specimens which still have them attached. These labels were made for a lot of specimens which were previously on display. Although as this label shows, they weren’t meant to be the kinds of labels we see in the museum today but give some basic information such as the scientific name, date of the specimen (see part 2 for the ambiguity over what dates mean- caught, purchased, labelled date?) sex and an accession number. I can identify these labels as there are some specimens with them still attached, however, there’s nothing about them to explicitly denote this. This secondary evidence tells us that at some point this specimen was deemed of enough interest in the past to be worth putting on display. Where the label is loosely associated with a jar as in Fig3H this suggests that the specimen has been ‘repotted’ at some point so neither the jar or fluid are likely to be ‘original’. We might also be able to trace this specimen in historical photographs of the museum which might help to firm up our confidence limits about the relative age and provenance of this specimen.
Dr Lee’s Trustees Ch. Ch. (Fig4A) Occasionally, great efforts were made in the past to apply labels to every item in a specific collection. At the OUMNH this happened particularly when ownership and use of them was restricted to certain professors and students. Dr Lee refers to Dr Matthew Lee, a physician who lectured at Oxford University founding a readership in anatomy in 1750 and the building of an anatomy school which was finished in 1767. Here’s where a little bit of insider knowledge helps too as Ch.Ch. is a widely used shorthand here at Oxford to refer to Christ Church college. This collection, along with other material from Christ Church was transferred to the new museum, now the OUMNH, by Dr Lee’s Trustees between 1860 and 1866. SO already this information gives us some date ranges for the ages of specimens bearing these labels (assuming jars weren’t re-used)
Fancy old black ink label with a J? (Fig4B) A few of these labels in the collection, again in association with Ch.Ch. denoting Christ Church but perhaps not from the anatomy school. These specimens’ numbers are prefixed with a weird letter that could be a symbol, or a J. Not obvious what these refer to, possibly Christ Church catalogue numbers.
Typed label (Fig 4C) There are a number of labels like this through the collection, presumably, from a period where specimens were relabelled with typed labels but curiously still not given ‘proper’ accession numbers. The physiological series number has been written out (see Fig3B for the original P.S. number on the same specimen)
Fancy new black ink label no number (Fig 4D) Again, there are a dozen or so of these huge labels with rather fancy thick black ink writing on the labels. None of these specimens are associated with a number. My inkling is that these specimens may have been part of an individual’s personal collection so not numbered with the rest of the collection but at some point transferred over. How do I know this? I don’t, it’s just an inkling!
Blue typed label Zool.St (Fig 4E) These labels are consistently found on material dated around the 1890s, which is probably an original collection date. Most, if not all are specimens purchased from the “Zool. St.” from either Messina or Naples leading me to interpret that these specimens were collected at La Stazione Zoologica one of the greatest marine biological research institutes at which E.Ray Lankester and his students and mentees spent many field seasons at. We’ll return to these in a future part no doubt.
HOPE COLL OXON (Fig 4F) Like the Dr Lee’s labels, many of the Hope collection specimens carry this label as the label itself explains: “HOPE COLL OXON Transf. by Curators 30.vi.1899 for use of Dep. Comp. Anat. provided Hope label be placed on all preparation & c.”. Hope is zoologist Reverend Frederick William Hope who was hugely important to entomology and zoology in general as well as the development of the collections at Oxford University. Unfortunately such was his influence that there have been at least three ‘Hope departments’ and a number of ‘Hope collections’ at Oxford University and within the museum. This label clearly denotes the 1899 transfer of some material between departments but ‘Hope collections’ were also transferred between bits of the museum through the 20th century.
So you can see just across the fluid preserved cephalopod collections we’re dealing with a wide range of different label types which tell us something about the history, age and provenance of these specimens as well as the people who interacted with them. As historical evidence labels aren’t reliable and we’ve already come across examples where labels have become detached or reused, however, in many instances label and other secondary data is all we’ve got to work up some confidence limits when it comes to the who, how what where and why questions about specimens. Unfortunately, past practices have sometimes deliberately separated labels from their original specimens. An internal report on the mollusc collections at the OUMNH notes that collections were stripped of all of their labels in the 1930s during redocumentation. Labels are also taken off or fall off or are removed for display aesthetics and become ‘orphaned’ from their objects and specimens. Many natural history museums have such collections of orphaned labels. From my time at the Grant Museum of Zoology the collection of orphaned labels almost became a collection in their own right and were used in teaching and displayed in the exhibition Knowledge in Motion at UCL and loaned to exhibition Nature Reserves at GV Art Gallery both exhibitions examining knowledge production and nature.
Interpreting and researching labels is an area of expertise in it’s own right in different kinds of collections. In art history for example, collector’s stamps and paper types are used extensively in provenance research. My colleagues in entomology at the OUMNH have expertise in identifying handwriting and even the history of use of different kinds of pins to identify important specimens which have little other supporting evidence for provenance work. If we can begin to piece together a history of documentation efforts of a collection we can begin to build a history of the formation of the collection as well as make an educated guess as to the overall reliability of specimen identification. It’s already been possible to link some of these specimens to periods in time and specific individuals with minimal interpretation and a bit of googling and we’ll be returning to these in part 5 and part 6 when it comes to the people and archives with more information relating to these collections. Importantly, it’s often these associations which affect how we internally value, treat and use these collections so label detective work is more than just an esoteric exercise.
In Part 4 we’ll be looking at how we can start to usefully qualify and quantify the cephalopod collections at the OUMNH and why this might be useful. This is skipping ahead a little bit in the normal course of documenting collections to current museum standards but we’ll be able to pick apart some of the biases in the collection and characterise the collection within national and international contexts.
Part 3 Labels, labels, labels YOU ARE HERE
Part 4 Data
Part 5 People
Part 6 Archives
Part 7 Digitisation
Part 8 Sharing
It’s taking some time to write these up folks but the keen eyed amongst you will have seen some cephalopod blog posts which I might be referring to in the future. If you’re enjoying this series, I pity you. No, if you’re enjoying this series then let me know in the comments and if you’ve got any questions, tips or pointers then get in touch and I’ll try to address them as this series continues.