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Behind the Scenes at the Museum: The New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester

Article from: Newsletter No. 94
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The New Walk Museum opened in 1849 as one of the first municipal museums in the UK following the Museum Act 1845, which gave town boroughs the power to establish museums funded by local council tax.  Joseph Hansom, creator of the eponymous taxicab, designed the original museum building that forms the core of the present museum on Leicester’s New Walk promenade, between Victoria Park and the city centre.

The founding collection of the New Walk Museum comprised some several thousand curios amassed by members of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society (LLPS) with whom the Museum has maintained a strong connection.  The collections of the New Walk Museum & Art Gallery (now combined) have grown in scope and size since 1849, now boasting an eclectic suite of exhibitions including the (Richard) Attenborough Collection of Picasso ceramics, a newly refurbished Egyptian Gallery, and an exhibition of German Expressionism.

Of principal interest to our community is the Natural Sciences Collection which currently comprises upwards of 60,000 geological specimens, the majority of which (c.38,000) are palaeontological, alongside about 160,000 zoological specimens.  According to the Curator of Natural Sciences, Dr Mark Evans, this is reflected in the “unashamedly palaeontological” displays of the Dinosaur Gallery which was opened in September 2011 by Sir David Attenborough.

The centrepiece of the Dinosaur Gallery is the ‘Rutland Dinosaur’ Cetiosaurus oxoniensis, one of the most complete British sauropods.  Discovered in 1968 in an active quarry in Rutland, northeast of Leicestershire, the fossil had been dug out by the time museum staff arrived on scene and was found residing in a corner of the quarry!  This ancient giant, now reconstructed using a combination of fossil and replica bones, presides over the goings-on of the gallery.

A clear Jurassic theme runs through the Dinosaur Gallery, with a focus on local specimens.  Alongside a new Gloucestershire plesiosaur, which found itself the subject of Mark’s PhD research, are displays of the Museum’s Hettangian (Early Jurassic) Barrow-upon-Soar and Callovian (Mid Jurassic) Oxford Clay collections.

The first of these collections comes from the mid-19th Century lime pits around Barrow-upon-Soar, ten miles north of Leicester.  This includes the ‘Barrow Kipper’ – a five metre long rhomaleosaurid plesiosaur – discovered in 1851 and still under taxonomic study.  The ‘Kipper’ has been in the possession of the New Walk Museum on display, much as it is now, since the 1850s.  Whilst this impressive display has survived the test of time, the Victorian preparatory techniques leave something to be desired.  The wall-mounted skull is a cast, with the original occupying an adjacent display cabinet where careful use of a mirror demonstrates the beautifully chiselled underside of the skull.  Rock and bone were indiscriminately planed-off in the 1850s to create a flush surface for mounting the specimen.  The eagle-eyed observer will also see pits left by six inch nails, originally (we must assume) used to prevent the ‘Kipper’ making a break for it!  However, this is a nonetheless stunning fossil and an interesting study in how (or how not) to prepare palaeontological specimens.  As in life, as on display, this plesiosaur shares its environment with articulated ichthyosaur specimens, complete with body-outlines preserved, and various invertebrates and fishes.  These fish include the holotype, and indeed only specimen, of the diminutive Browneichthys, discovered by and named for the persistent collector and 19th Century New Walk curator, Montagu Browne.

Surveying the Dinosaur Gallery from above is Leedsichthys – a c. 9 m long pachycormid fish from the Middle Jurassic Oxford Clay Formation.  This collection has a rather unusual display, whereby the often fragmentary vertebrate fossils are contextualised in metal frame outlines that form the basis for fleshed-out model reconstructions.  These models were themselves used to create an animated interactive display where the Jurassic seas are brought to life with creatures swimming right over your head.

Despite the name, the Dinosaur Gallery is not restricted to the Mesozoic Era.  Perhaps the most famous specimen in the Natural Sciences collection is the holotype of Charnia masoni – the first identified Precambrian macrofossil.  Brought to scientific attention in 1957, Charnia has been on near-continuous display in the Museum since January 1958.  Alongside the holotype are two wall-mounted casts of spectacular Charnwood Forest Ediacaran fossil surfaces, on loan from the British Geological Survey (BGS), which give a sense of the difficulties of studying these organisms, but also of how rewarding that work can be.

The ‘lab space’ of the Dinosaur Gallery displays items from the geological side of the collection, displayed as a suite of samples just unpacked after a 19th Century expedition.  Rocks and minerals sit atop packing crates amongst old museum desks, gazed down upon in sightless curiosity by the ‘Bone Zone’s’ articulated skeletons.  In this lab space you can try your hand at microscopy and discover plate tectonics with a seismometer provided by the BGS and LLPS.  For the kids jumping up and down, testing their seismic impact, the seismometer provides boundless entertainment, or the feeling of the coming apocalypse if you happen to be studying ice age fossils in the basement collections room below!

Among the currently unseen treasures in these basement collection rooms are many more marine reptiles, the skeleton of the wingless moa alongside many ice age fossils.  Although the majority of the collections remain out of sight, the New Walk Museum hosts monthly “fossil in focus” events to bring some of these specimens out of the dark.  Most recently, the bones of the giant pachycormid Leedsichthys were out on show, and before that the focus turned to a suite of large-antlered ice age deer fossils not seen since 1982.  Local libraries also benefit from temporary displays on loan from the Museum, including the current “ay up me duck” suite of waterfowl that brings together local dialect and natural history at the New Parks Library.

The entrance of the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery is currently being redeveloped to improve accessibility, with work on a new ammonite-inspired staircase due to be completed in mid-May 2017, and in June the Dinosaur Gallery will play host to the icebreaker reception of the Progressive Palaeontology meeting.  The New Walk Museum has successfully navigated the sometimes bumpy road followed by municipal museums by reinventing itself over the years, and it keeps its place as an important repository of British palaeontological collections, especially those from the English midlands.

Author Information

Thomas Hearing - University of Leicester

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