Natural History Museum at Tring: MKNHS Behind the Scenes Tour, 25 July 2022 – Linda Murphy

Following a fascinating talk in the spring by Dr Alex Bond, Principal Curator and Curator in Charge of Birds at the Natural History Museum in Tring, a ‘Behind the Scenes’ tour was arranged for MKNHS which proved to be equally fascinating.

After an introduction by Senior Curator, Hein Van Grouw, we divided into two groups for the tour which covered the different collections. Each was introduced by a member of staff working in that area and we could not fail to be impressed by their enthusiasm and knowledge. Each collection includes bird species from all areas of the world and many thousands of specimens. Researchers from all over the world visit Tring every week to make use of these vast collections alongside the library containing all past and current publications on birds. We saw and heard about so many interesting aspects of the work and research carried out that it’s only possible to give a few personal highlights here!

In the area where bird skeletons are prepared for the skeleton collection, we saw how teams of beetles and larvae are deployed to clean up the bones in an environmentally friendly fashion. Some species prefer fresh meat, others are willing to clean up older, drier specimens. Large birds have to be put into the ‘beetle cabinets’ in sections as they can’t fit in whole. Apparently they aren’t put back together after they’ve been cleaned up. Researchers are generally interested in specific bones to examine adaptations or changes over time or in different habitats rather than whole skeletons, so the bones from each specimen go into an individual box, which also takes up a lot less space!

The spirit collection didn’t involve any ghosts, but a huge collection of jars of all sizes containing whole bird specimens preserved in alcohol/spirit (not the technical name!) We walked past shelves of waders and other water birds. The jar for a mute swan was quite a contrast to that for a Temminck’s Stint!  If researchers want to examine a specimen, it is taken out of the jar for a period, but mustn’t dry out. Many specimens in each of the collections were collected in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The bird skin collection contains thousands of specimens arranged by species/sub-species, by country and region, stored on trays in cabinets with magnetic seals. These days no chemical pest controls are used. They ensure strict cleanliness and check for pests in the area around the cabinets but there are no ‘moth balls’ or similar in these cabinets. The bird skins are basically stuffed birds and the majority were prepared in the field, often just using whatever was available as the stuffing, such as dry grass and leaves. You could only marvel at the skill of those who did this work. The most impressive aspect of these skins for me was the freshness of the colours of the plumage, despite the age of the specimens.

Specimens brought back by Captain Cook from New Zealand (Photo © Peter Barnes)

We were treated to a viewing of some of their most valuable items, whether due to their cultural or historical significance or extinct status, including skins brought back by Captain Cook from New Zealand, skins of the Passenger Pigeon, a North American bird exterminated as an agricultural pest in the 19th century, and finches collected by Charles Darwin in the Galapagos islands, as well as finches collected in the Amazon Basin by Alfred Russel Wallace, who collaborated with Darwin on the theory of evolution by natural selection.  These skins are regularly used by researchers and most of the major books on bird identification have drawn on this collection.

Above: One of Darwin’s finches (Photo © Peter Barnes)
Below: Finches collected by Wallace in the Amazon Basin (Photo © Peter Barnes)

Passenger Pigeon skins (Photo © Peter Barnes)

The egg collection comprises around 300,000 clutches and is growing every year. Since it became illegal to hold collections of birds’ eggs, as well as to collect them, the museum has been offered collections every week, if not every day. Often these have been found in attics by people clearing out after an elderly relative has died. The museum only accepts collections of complete clutches which are documented with species, date and location where the clutch was taken. All others are rejected.

A tray of Dunlin eggs (Photo © Peter Barnes)

The clutches are being used for a range of research projects covering issues not dreamt of when many of the clutches were collected. This is made possible by the huge amount of data available from them stretching back over more than two centuries. For example, research on changes in species’ egg laying dates over time in relation to climate and the drivers for variation in egg colouration. We were shown the collection of peregrine eggs used in the study which identified the effects of DDT accumulating in these birds through the food chain.

I think everyone on the tour found it both enjoyable and very informative. We were impressed by the size, scope and quality of the collections, the variety and volume of research drawing on them, and the evident passion of everyone we met for the work they are doing. If you get the chance to do the tour in the future, it’s highly recommended!

Linda Murphy
July 2022