Category Archives: Collections

The polecat comeback

Object of the Month – February 2019

The European polecat, Mustela putorius, was thought to be extinct in Essex since 1880 thanks to persecution from gamekeepers. The first modern sighting was in 1999 near Wendens Ambo and there are now numerous records from north-west Essex, though only from roadkill specimens.

A mounted polecat skin from 1842 and a polecat skull, also from the 1800s.

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A bit behind the scenes

An update from James Lumbard, Natural Sciences Officer.

The Geology Gallery received a lot of attention in the run-up to the festive period thanks in no small part to the help provided by Cali, the latest addition to the natural sciences volunteer team. After a short training session in how to carefully clean specimens using a conservation vac and a paintbrush, we were away, and have already cleaned around half of the objects on display at the time of writing. It should be a fairly quick job to finish the rest of the objects in the ‘table-top’ display cases, leaving only a dozen or so in wall-mounted cases. This is part of regular ‘deep cleans’ that help care for museum objects, and will help us double-check and update the information we hold about each object. Many museums are also ‘Accredited’ which means that they uphold certain national standards of collection care, and this work contributes to Saffron Walden Museum maintaining its Accredited status year-on-year. Meanwhile, the photos we take can be used for everything from social media to encouraging researchers to visit the collection.

Fossil ammonite found in Saffron Walden. 150-200 million y.o.

At the start of December I visited the Essex Field Club’s (EFC) annual exhibition and social at Wat Tyler Country Park, near Basildon. The EFC is a volunteer-run society of amateurs and professionals who compile and look after a county-wide database of the wildlife and geology of Essex. The club’s secretary, Fiona Hutchings, very kindly introduced me to members from each specialty so I could speak to them about the natural sciences exhibition this summer, called Take Away the Walls. My plan is to hold a museum-based exhibition showcasing the wildlife of north-west Essex, and to run activities bringing together wildlife organisations and community groups across Uttlesford to help people enjoy the outdoors in new ways that will benefit their own health, and the health of the local environment. The exhibition and activities will really start to take shape behind the scenes soon, so keep your eyes peeled for more updates in the coming months.

Fossil bryozoan in flint. Tiny bryozoa live in coral-like colonies (above), but are much more complex internally.

At the end of this month I will be attending a short training seminar entitled ‘Finding Funds for Fossils, Ferns and Flamingos’, hosted by the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) at the World Museum, Liverpool. NatSCA are a nationwide ‘subject-specialist network’ of museum professionals working in the natural sciences who have an active programme of meetings, training courses and conferences throughout the year. This particular event is all about how to successfully attract funding and support to care for and promote natural sciences collections in museums, and I look forward to putting my new-found knowledge into use to benefit the tens of thousands of natural sciences specimens at Saffron Walden Museum.

Object of the Month – June 2018

 

June’s Object of the Month is a silk reticule or bag, made in the 1820s to support the campaign to abolish slavery. The reticule was chosen as Object of the Month by Leah Mellors, Collections Officer (Human History). We featured the reticule on our blog last year, when we were raising money to fund vital conservation work. You can read all about the history of the reticule here

Our previous Collections Officer (Human History), Leah Mellors, acquired funding to carry out conservation work on the reticule, which was in very poor condition. The silk had faded and was badly stained, large sections of the silk had shattered and were coming loose and the reticule could not be handled or displayed without causing further damage. With funding from the Daphne Bullard Award, the Saffron Walden Quaker Meeting and individuals in our local community, the museum was able to pay a textiles conservator, Poppy Singer to carry out conservation work on the reticule. 

Poppy discovered that the bag had been folded over at the top and sewn down to cover some old damage, so she undid the stitching, cleaned and reshaped the reticule to its original shape. She made an internal support bag and pad to support the new shape of the reticule, adhered the fragmentary silk, and added very fine netting over the top to prevent future damage. Thanks to Poppy’s work, the reticule can now be carefully handled and displayed in the museum for short periods of time.  

Reticule before conservation

Reticule after conservation

You can see the reticule on display in the museum throughout June.

Object of the Month – May 2018

 

May’s Object of the Month is a Stag Beetle.

This male stag beetle was found dead on the Recreation Ground at Great Dunmow, Essex in May 1999. It was handed in to the police station at Dunmow, and a Police Wildlife Liaison Officer gave it to Saffron Walden Museum to be preserved.

Stag Beetles

The stag beetle, Lucanus cervus, is the largest beetle in Britain. They prefer areas with low rainfall, high air temperatures and light soils, so stag beetles are widespread in southern England, especially the Thames valley, north Essex, south Suffolk, south Hampshire and west Sussex. They are also found in the Severn valley, coastal areas of the southwest, and a few areas in Devon and Worcestershire. They live in hedgerows, parks, gardens and in the edges of woodlands.

Adult males are up to 75 mm long. They have large antler-like jaws, or mandibles, which are used for wrestling with other males during the breeding season.

A Long Life Cycle

Stag beetle larva (image by Anaxibia, from Wikimedia Commons)

The stag beetle has a long life cycle. Three to seven years are spent underground in the larval stage. Larvae are large white grubs, with orange heads, that can be up to 11 cm long. When it is time to change into an adult, a larva builds an oval shaped cocoon in the soil up to 20 cm below ground. Cocoons can be as large as an orange and may take up to three weeks to build. Within the cocoon the larva becomes a pupa and finally changes, or metamorphoses, into an adult. An adult stag beetle emerges from its cocoon in the autumn, then it spends the winter and spring in the soil.

Breeding

Adult beetles usually emerge from the soil from mid May onwards. Males can be seen flying at dusk looking for a mate. Male beetles use their antlers to wrestle other males when competing for a female beetle.

Female stag beetle (Image by Q-bit array, from Wikimedia Commons)

Females are often seen on the ground looking for somewhere to lay their eggs. They lay small, round eggs below ground near to rotting wood in log piles, tree stumps and old fence posts. Female beetles prefer to dig down into light soil to bury their eggs, and newly emerging adults have to find their way to the surface.  Very few stag beetles are found in hard, chalky areas like the North and South Downs.

By the end of August most stag beetles will have died after mating. They do not survive the winter.

You can see this stag beetle on display in the museum until 31 May 2018. You can also find out how you can encourage stag beetles to live in your garden!

Object of the Month – April 2018

 

April’s Object(s) of the Month is a selection of pieces of Roman roof tiles with paw, hoof and foot prints left by animals and people over 1,750 years ago. The tiles came from a temple that was about 1km north-east of Great Chesterford, which was an important town in the Roman period.

Can you work out what sort of animal left the footprints?

How animals left their mark
At the tile-maker’s yard, the wet clay tiles would have been laid out in the sun to dry before firing in a kiln. It was during this drying stage that tiles could be trampled over by any passing stray animals or domestic pets. Traces of footprints are found from time to time on Roman tiles, and the Great Chesterford tiles preserve prints from a number of different animals, including dogs of various sizes and cloven-hooved farmyard animals such as sheep, goats, calves or pigs. There is even the impression left by a hobnail boot or sandal, possibly from a workman trying to shoo away the animals that were treading on the unfired tiles!

The tiles with footprints are all pieces of tegulae – large, flat rectangular roof tiles with upturned sides. We do not know exactly where these tiles were made. Tiles and bricks were usually made near the building site if possible, where there was a supply of suitable local clay, water and wood to fuel the kilns. It was difficult and expensive to transport large numbers of tiles from a distance, though Great Chesterford’s position in the River Cam would have allowed materials to be brought in by boat.

Great Chesterford Roman Temple
The site of the temple, north-east of the town, was a special place before the Roman Conquest. Local British people had a shrine on the site in the late Iron Age. After the Roman conquest, in the late 1st or early 2nd century AD, the temple was rebuilt in Roman style as a square building with walls of mortar and chalk rubble faced with flint and plastered, and a tiled roof.

By the mid-3rd century (around 250 AD) the temple had fallen into disrepair. Large amounts of roof tile and plaster fell off the building and it appears that the remains of the roof was cleared away before a big programme of rebuilding started in the late 3rd century.

You can see the tiles on display in the museum throughout April and find out more about Great Chesterford, the temple and Roman building materials in our archaeology gallery.

Launch of our new Learning Services

 

Saffron Walden Museum is delighted to announce the launch of new learning and engagement services following the appointment of a Learning and Outreach Officer, Charlotte Pratt.

School children exploring the museum’s collections

The Museum is now able to offer a range of services to schools and groups, including taught sessions in the Museum, new revised schools loan boxes to support National Curriculum topics, and outreach sessions which can be delivered in the school classroom. The sessions are tailored to the National Curriculum and are an ideal way to enrich the delivery of a range of subjects. The learning menu is currently being fully developed but in the meantime, teachers and group leaders are welcome to contact Charlotte on 01799 510644 or email her to request sessions.

Saffron Walden Museum is fortunate to have a rich and varied collections as well as a separate handling collection which includes historical artefacts. Topics which can be offered include:

• Romans
• Ancient Greece
• Prehistory
• WW2
• Local History
• Vikings and Anglo Saxons
• Ancient Egypt
• Natural History
• Art and Design
• Victorians
• Geology
• Museums – kid curators
• Toys and games

A bespoke handling session for Support for Sight

As well as structured school sessions, the Museum will also be offering a range of activities for visitors and groups including school holiday activities and events for adults. The Museum is working in partnership with a range of other local and national organisations to widen its learning offer, including the Dementia Action Alliance, Support for Sight and the Wellcome Trust. Museum staff aim to make the collections and their stories accessible and engaging to all, through a range of activities to suit different needs.

On Tuesday 15 May there will be a Reminiscence object handling session, arranged in conjunction with Uttlesford Dementia Action Alliance, and visitors will be able to just drop in (usual admission charges apply).

Help us bring the Piano Hoard home

 

In 2017, a hoard of hundreds of coins was found inside a piano in Shropshire. Investigations showed that the coins were hidden by a Saffron Walden resident in the early 20th century.

The coins date from between 1847 and 1915. They were deliberately hidden inside a Broadway upright piano by a Saffron Walden resident sometime in or after 1926. We know this because the piano has a plaque reading ‘Supplied by Beavan & Mothersole, 27 West Road, Saffron Walden’. Beavan and Mothersole were piano suppliers, tuners and music professors.

The coins were placed into small packages and pouches, carefully made from cardboard and covered with fabric. One of the pouches was made from a cereal box and the branding on the box helps us to date it to between 1926 and 1946.

We don’t know why the owner of the piano hid the coins or why they were never retrieved. Perhaps they simply considered it a safe place to hide their family’s wealth. Perhaps the coins were hidden during the Great Depression in the 1930s. The questions surrounding this hoard only add to its intrigue and appeal.

The coins remained hidden until the piano was moved to Shropshire and donated to a local school. A piano tuner discovered the coins and reported it to the local Finds Liaison Officer.

Because of the value of the coins and the fact that they were deliberately hidden, they have been classed as Treasure under the Treasure Act of 1996. The museum would like to acquire a selection of the coins and the piano, so that we can display them in the museum and create education sessions for local schools.

But we need to raise about £3000 to do so. Can you help us bring these coins home to Saffron Walden, where they belong? So far, we have raised £530 so we still have a way to go! Any donations would be gratefully received.    

Cash donations can be made in person in the museum
Cheques can be made payable to ‘Saffron Walden Museum Society’ and sent to Leah Mellors at the museum
Online donations can be made on our crowdfunding page  

For more information, please contact Leah.

Object of the Month – February 2018

 

February’s Object of the Month is a model great auk egg. It was chosen as Object of the Month by Sarah Kenyon, Natural Sciences Officer.

This plaster cast of a great auk egg was made in 1856. It is a copy of an egg that belonged to John Hancock, whose collection founded the Great North Museum in Newcastle upon Tyne. The egg, and the mould from which it was made, were given to Saffron Walden Museum by Mr William Murray Tuke of Hitchin, Hertfordshire in 1896. The inscription on the model egg reads: ‘Copy of J. Hancock’s Great Auk’s Egg Made Dec 1856’.

Making the Egg
A mould of John Hancock’s great auk egg was made first. The mould was then used to make a copy of the egg for Mr Tuke. The model egg was cast in plaster and two inscriptions engraved into the surface. Finally, the colour and markings were painted on to the model egg.

Great Auks
The great auk, Pinguinus impennis, was a flightless seabird that lived in the northern Atlantic Ocean. It was also called the gare fowl or garefowl. The black and white bird was about 75 centimetres long. Its wings were used for swimming under water, as they were only 15 centimetres long.

Great auks bred in colonies on rocky islands around the coasts of the north Atlantic Ocean, such as St. Kilda, the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Funk Island off Newfoundland. Each breeding pair mated for life. They laid a single egg on bare rock. It was about 12.5 centimetres long. Sailors and island people hunted the defenceless birds for their meat, feathers, fat, oil and eggs. When the last birds were killed in 1844 on Eldey Island off the coast of Iceland, the great auk became extinct.

Mounted specimens of the birds, their bones and eggs are preserved in museums. Saffron Walden Museum has a plaster copy of a skull in the Hessisches Landesmuseum at Darmstadt, Germany and copies of great auk eggs in the collections of Sir Walter Calverley Trevelyan of Wallington Hall, Northumberland and Mr Troughton of Coventry.

You can see the model egg on display in the museum until 28 February 2018, and discover more about the mould from which the egg was made and John Hancock, the famous taxidermist.

History of the Museum – Part One

The foundation of Saffron Walden Natural History Society

This is the first in a series of blog posts exploring the earliest years of Saffron Walden Museum and the society that established it. In this post, we delve into the earliest recorded meetings of the founders of the museum, including the creation of the Saffron Walden Natural History Society and the committee’s gathering of objects. With thanks to Len Pole, who has been instrumental in studying the earliest available records and helping to compile a history of the museum.

Jabez Gibson

Saffron Walden Museum was established in the 1830s by Saffron Walden Natural History Society. The earliest recorded meeting of the society took place on the 22 November 1832, in the home of Jabez Gibson in King Street, Saffron Walden. In this meeting, a statement of the society’s Rules and Regulations was written and the committee of the society was decided upon. The people placed onto the committee were Jabez Gibson (chairman), John Player, Thomas Spurgin, Joshua Clarke and William Ward. 

Much of the early workings of the society are shrouded in mystery, as information has been lost over time. It is not clearly stated who the founders of the society were, though it seems likely that the founders were these five men, and it is even less clear how other people joined the society. The society had a group of ‘Friends and Supporters’ – anyone subscribing or donating a certain amount of money – but it is not clear whether these ‘Friends and Supporters’ became members of the society. The main purpose of the society was to establish a museum but it is interesting to note just how tentative they were in doing so. They were so cautious that they did not settle on the name ‘Saffron Walden Natural History Society’ until a meeting in 1834, 18 months after the first recorded meeting!

Establishing the museum

As was common with museums in the nineteenth century, the founders focused their collecting on Natural History. The first rule of the Rules and Regulations states “That a Museum be formed to include Specimens in the several Departments of Natural History, with Antiquarian remains, and other such Articles as may be of local or general interest”. The term ‘local or general interest’ is somewhat ambiguous, and suggests that the founders intended to collect whatever they found personally interesting!

It seems that between the first meeting in November 1832 and January 1833, the committee focused on collecting specimens for display and writing letters to various well-known figures of the period, such as botanists and professors, many of whom donated to the collection. Rule 10 of the original Rules and Regulations stated that the secretaries Mr. Spurgin and Mr. Clarke were “requested to enter into a Book the Several Donations (made to the collection) in order that it might be handed down as a Register of this Institution”. However, either Mr Spurgin and Mr Clarke ignored this request or the book was never handed on. The first paid curator of the museum, George Nathan Maynard, moaned about the lack of such a register when he was faced with the task of retrospectively creating one in the 1880s, working from committee minutes and presumably the recollections of surviving members of the society. The earliest recorded addition to the museum collection in Maynard’s retrospective register was from the Zoological Society, consisting of ‘30 birds and a deer’.

The first page of Maynard’s replacement register

The first entrance in Maynard’s register

And so, the museum had a foundation: a set of Rules of Regulations and the beginnings of a collection. The focus on natural history  and specimens from fields such as zoology and botany was upheld by the museum curators, and the lasting influence of the early values of the Saffron Walden Natural History Society can still be seen in the museum and its collections today.