The Making of Nature’s Library

This post is almost a year in the making. And it doesn’t even begin to touch all the hard work everyone has put into it. The new permanent gallery at the Manchester Museum opens on the 27th of April. I worked with the team in the Botany department to choose objects and create mock ups of the way objects would be laid out in the cases, and the conservation and collections care team to install objects in the gallery. Nature’s Library is about exploring the diversity of the natural world through museum collections. The museum houses more than 4 million objects, but only a fraction of them are on display. The new gallery aims to display a lot more specimens and the different methods in which they have been collected over the years.

But the gallery is about more than just the culture of collecting (though we do have a case on that theme!). It’s also about how people can relate to nature and use the collections to be inspired by the natural world. But first, we had to put it all together!
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In the Botany department, Rachel Webster, Lindsey Loughtman, Veronica Guinness, Alyssa Smith, Andrew Lawton and myself worked on the mock ups for several cases with botany specimens in them. The first step was interpretation. Each seperate display case we worked on had a different theme. For example, the “culture of collecting” case was mainly about the golden age of the Victorian’s obsession with collecting all things weird and wonderful and colonialism, so we decided some cultivated ferns from the Leo Grindon collection would fit this theme. For the “economic botany” section we chose specimens from the Materia Medica collection and specimens that were historically important to trade between countries, such as tobacco and rice.

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The gallery is on a balcony, and smaller well cases surround it. We worked on several of these cases in collaboration with the Zoology and Entomology departments and conservators.

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Looking through the archival material, specimens and illustrations was thrilling. It was also a rigorous process of elimination: not everything we chose for interpretation was used for the final design. In fact, the layout changed several times and even then some specimens had to be put back because of space constraints.

Installing the specimens was also a group effort. After they had been cleaned and in some cases mounted in the conservation department they were wheeled to the gallery space. (It’s often amusing to see the expressions on visitor’s faces when we wheel things on trolleys through the museum. Examples of objects that have raised eyebrows include disembodied bird heads, giant crabs, coco de mers and gorgeous minerals.) Lists of objects for each well case were used as reference but often everyone’s knowledge was needed to tie everything together. For example, conservator Irit Narkiss helped me with arranging objects so that they benefited from lighting and in turn I used my taxonomic knowledge to help Irit identify specimens that may have been unfamiliar on the object lists.

Here are some further work in progress pictures:

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Matching up herbarium specimens with their foamex mounts:

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Test layout of the fruit and seed case:

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Figuring out label arrangement for the bird head case:

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Looks exciting, doesn’t it? Come and see it!

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Lindsey working on labels:

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Nature’s Library opens on April 27th. To see some gallery highlights so to the Manchester Museum’s Flickr page.

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3 responses to “The Making of Nature’s Library

  1. That looks interesting! Thank you for sharing Gina; that will be nice trip to Manchester with my best friend since childhood – we collected dead bees and beetles.

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