Serendipity in collections research

First things first. Mark recently posted about some images that record back-of-house activity. This is excellent, but I think it also merits seeing Mark back-of-house, for those who have never met him. So here he is:

We recently had a photographer, Claire Wood (, over taking images for the project at Blackburn and Rossendale. I’m sure Mark will share more of Claire’s excellent images with you in the future, but there’s a story associated to this one I wanted to share.

The image was taken in the workshop at Blackburn where some of the larger boxed birds are currently residing. You can see a pair of Goosander to Mark’s left, one of my favourite birds. We wanted to create a “researcher at work” dynamic for some of them, so I suggested to Mark that he look at the back of the Goosander case as if there was something interesting there. So he posed, and then said “actually, there is something interesting here”.

I should say, we hadn’t previously spent a lot of time researching these specimens. But from what we knew, we believed them to be early 20th Century. But what Mark had spotted changed that.

The boxes had been sealed with newspaper, but Mark could clearly see the year. 1891. Since the paper seal was unbroken, that gave us a minimum age for the box. As we looked at other specimens, we were able to find more of these seals, some earlier than 1891 (suggesting gradual purchases, gradual supply, or a taxidermist who kept old stock).

One other point of note is that the paper used was The Engineer, a fortnightly publication that began in 1856. It was a professional journal, recording developments in British engineering. So in this Northern industrial town, we have a further collision of nature and industry. Whether the taxidermist was a subscriber, or simply got someone’s back copies, we do not know. But it reflects the project quite neatly.

The backs of specimens, be they cased birds or a watercolour, can be a goldmine of useful information. When thinking about the social history of our objects, it’s always worth remembering to thoroughly check the back! Has anybody else made such useful discoveries?

David Craven



Filed under Museums, Objects

4 responses to “Serendipity in collections research

  1. Patricia Francis

    Herbarium specimens were often wrapped in newspapers and magazines at the point when the plant was actually collected. There’s a bryophyte collection at Bolton like this. Wrappings include pieces from a religious newspaper, the collector was a church minister, and he also used a page from old Bolton Museum guide book! Reuse isn’t new a new phenomenon!

  2. Mark Steadman

    I love the way any intimacy with objects and collections can yield insights like these. Their ability to refute or reiterate the received knowledge is why objects have authority. I could never understand why historians of science so rarely USE objects as a primary source. Thanks Patricia (see my comment to yours on the Facing Backwards post).

  3. Pingback: Friday mystery object #54 answer « Zygoma

  4. Feels like there could be some potential to play on this notion of newspaper seals and packaging, and, regarding the use of the Engineer, the “collision of nature and industry”.

    PS. If the backs of boxes and the packaging of these items is so interesting, why is this rarely displayed or evidenced?

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