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Collections blog

If they ask for a fish, do you give them a snake?

User AvatarPosted by Penelope Lovesy at 31/07/2020 21:04:35
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Despite the title, today’s blog has nothing to do with Matthew or Luke; it’s the only phrase I knew that featured both creatures in one sentence. Over the last few months, I’ve been working quite closely with our natural history collection in preparation for Poole’s contribution to an online exhibition, Wessex Museums’ Objects on Tour Goes Digital, which will feature all four partner museums. The natural history collection is a fascinating group of weird and wonderful things and is a throwback to a time when Poole Museum, like most, was an endless pool of curiosities, collected without rhyme or reason during the late Victorian period through to the Second World War.

Last month, both Shark Awareness Day and World Snake day had their stint on the 2020 main stage. While reading various blogs and articles each day I began to wonder if there were any quirky specimens I could hunt out and share. While these could have presented as featured objects, I’m not sure they have the grandeur or wow factor to hold their own amongst their more attractive counterparts and the scraps of stories about their past are perhaps the real highlight.

You’re forgiven if you mistook the image on the left for a tapeworm but I suggest you check if your specs are on the top of your head or even underneath you on whatever seat you find yourself while suffering yet another of my mildly interesting musings. It is, quite clearly, a collection of vertebrae from a snake or even a dragon… no, just a snake. The Encyclopaedia Britannica states snakes have between 110 and 655 vertebrae; I’ll let you count to check if this description fits. The original accession register for our natural history collection describes it as a “vertical column of serpent on cord about 12'6" long” and, I have to say, that’s pretty spot on, if a little flamboyant. Each individual vertebra has been meticulously threaded on a cord and some sections reinforced with wire and thread. It’s mobile, has all the hallmarks of coiled locomotion, if a little disjointed, but something isn’t quite right and some of the vertebrae don’t fit snuggly with those each side. It’s likely that after the snake was skinned and cleaned the backbone remained ‘unprocessed’ for a time and some of the parts mixed up or lost. This vertical column of serpent was donated to the museum back in October 1913 by none other than Lady Wimborne herself. In fact, she was incredibly generous and gifted 11 skulls along with it. What Lady Wimborne was doing with so many skulls is anyone’s guess, but such trinkets and trophies were commonplace amongst high society households as signs of status, wealth and a far-reaching influence across the world. Even public houses weren’t beyond displaying taxidermy, skulls, jaws, horns or antlers. Why? Because they’re undoubtedly a talking point for the punters and environmental and ethical concerns weren’t in the forefront of people’s minds. Looking back, it’s difficult not to contemplate the reasoning behind the assemblage or the environmental effect of attaining such treasures. Were they collected as curiosities or, maybe, were they even gathered for the progression of science? These are questions that will never be answered. All we can do is learn from past mistakes - this backbone is a captivating thing and has real potential to educate and influence how we can take care of the natural world.

And that’s just the thing; natural history collections are the potential missing link for today’s conservation scientists, allowing them to learn something they may otherwise have been unable to. 41,415 of the word’s plant and animal species feature on the IUCN Red List, with 16,306 of them classed as endangered species threatened with extinction and around 4,500 of these classified as critically endangered. But there was a time when things didn’t look so bleak. Museum natural history specimens may be the only examples of their kind and provide an invaluable opportunity to carry out DNA analysis and scientific dating. Groups of objects with known origins could also provide essential information to paint a picture of the status of past animal populations. We have recently provided photographs and measurements to a conservation society based in Florida to help their ongoing global research project.

For now, let’s return to the items at hand. Accompanying the snake spine today are two shark jaws, which have a special place in my heart (I know, I’m a bit odd!) I’ve been an avid follower and supporter of shark and ray conservation from a young age and loved trips to aquariums and sea life centres to see different species of sharks majestically swimming and learning anything about them I could. I’d love to tell you what species they are but that isn’t something we know. What I can tell you is that the larger specimen was donated in April 1924 by the then Landlord of the Marlborough Arms on Elystan Road in Chelsea! I told you they were a regular décor choice and talking point in pubs and I’m fairly certain a few of Poole’s own pubs had similar jaws on display. The smaller example is untraced but once hung in the left corner of the ‘Old Curiosity Shop’, a former exhibit that formed part of Oakley’s Row, the old Waterfront Museum’s famous street scene. The curiosity shop was full of the strange and unusual and Lydia Deetz would have been quite at home there.

I wonder how many of you remember the old street scene or even the museum on Mount Street, in what is now ‘The Lord Wimborne’? And what an  incredible coincidence that those skulls donated back in 1913 by Lady Wimborne were probably on display in the very building that would eventually bare her husband’s name.

Keep your eyes peeled in the autumn for Wessex Museums’ ‘Objects on Tour Goes Digital’ which focusses on collections items linked to the environment and climate change. I can guarantee that Poole Museum’s input saw you coming a mile off…

Until next month keep enjoying the natural world around you and document the things you see with photos and artwork. Then, take a break and visit Poole Museum as we are open for business once again.

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