Amgueddfa Blog: Hanes Naturiol

There are numerous hash tags celebrating the natural world on Twitter. However, #FossilFriday remains one of our favourites. Each week we showcase the wonderful paleontological collections that are housed at National Museum Cardiff as well as the research that goes on every day behind the scenes.

We not read some of our latest #FossilFriday Tweets and discover more about the fascinating world of fossils

I joined the museum team in June this year, as a design placement student from Brunel University, to begin the process of digitising parts of the Natural Sciences outreach collection. The project makes use of 3D scanning technology to create virtual versions of meteorite, rock and fossil specimens. Which can then be used to create a digital library of the collection.

The aim of this project is to create an online exhibit which is always accessible and available for everyone, developing it for outreach and education in a virtual environment. Digital scans will allow the public to get 360o views of specimens, meaning you could notice newfeatures and details not seen when specimens are behind a display case or shown in photographs.

Initially I will be working on the collection available in the Down2Earth loan boxes and designing the best environment for them to be displayed digitally. The objective is to create an environment that allows for exploration of specimens and the ability to see them in a whole new way, while also encouraging learning. Making the scans will be a useful resource both for those who are borrowing the boxes, as a source of information, and for those who are unable to borrow the boxes as a way to still interact with the specimens and learn about them.

The process of creating the virtual specimens uses an Artec 3D scanner, a rotating turntable and a computer. Placing the specimen on the turntable, several scans are made with it at different orientations. Once the whole specimen has been imaged computer software is used to align each scan, this can be a fairly fiddly job but once complete the software runs a process that removes any outliers and creates an accurate and precise representation of the specimen’s shape and surface texture. I then begin the post-processing steps of setting the material to look as realistic as possible along with setting it into a virtual scene and lighting it. The final stage is to add in the information that comes with the specimen and highlighting points of particular interest.

However not all specimens can be imaged using the scanner as they may be too shiny, in the form of slices or too delicate. The plan with these objects is to photograph them in high detail from multiple sides and in different settings (e.g. backlit), in the hopes that the user can still find ways to explore the specimen, by moving around, zooming in and changing the lighting.

Creating a virtual collection to go alongside the physical one could completely change the way the public engage with the collection. Opening up new avenues of user interaction and therefore adding to the user experience. The specimens scanned so far are being hosted on our Sketchfab account, sketchfab.com/museumwales, until the project page has been designed and developed. You can explore objects such as this cast of a Tyrannosaurus Tooth and many other fossils, meteorites and rocks there right now. 

The first dinosaur footprints found anywhere in Europe

One sunny evening in September 1878, Welsh artist and naturalist Thomas Henry Thomas was wandering around the small village of Nottage, just outside Porthcawl. The rays of the setting sun were shining across a large slab of rock placed on the edge of the churchyard. The local villagers told him that the five strange markings on the rock were the footprints of the devil as he strode across the slab. The rock had lain between the church and the village pub for years, and was a local curiosity.

Thomas was a well-educated man, born in Pontypool in 1839, and had studied Art at the Royal Academy, before returning to Wales. He was a key member of the Cardiff Naturalists Society, and a well-respected artist as well. On discovering the footprints, illuminated by the setting sun in the churchyard, he was struck by the similarity between these markings and newly found dinosaur footprints in North America. He quickly sketched the prints and informed various local geologists. John Storrie, curator of the Cardiff Museum, visited the site and made a cast of the trackway.

The President of the Cardiff Naturalists Society was Colonel Turbervill, who arranged for the rock to be brought to the Cardiff Museum for safe-keeping.

Thomas H. Thomas wrote a short paper, in January 1879, describing the footprints and also his attempts at Bristol Zoo, to persuade a suspicious Emu to walk across modelling clay, for comparison! He described the footprints as "Tridactyl Uniserial Ichnolites", but left it to Professor W Sollas of Bristol University to publish a formal description, with the name Brontozoum thomasi. We now know that these footprints were made 220 million years ago by a medium-sized meat-eating dinosaur, similar to Megalosaurus which evolved later.

The original footprint slab was around 6' 6" long and 5' 6" wide, and about 6 inches thick, although excess rock was later removed to make it easier to handle and display. When the collections of the old Cardiff Museum were transferred to the new National Museum of Wales in 1907, the footprints were one of its most important acquisitions. Currently the fossil is on display in the Evolution of Wales gallery, as befitting the first dinosaur footprints found anywhere in Europe.

Wales has an important place in the evolutionary history of dinosaurs; not only this early set of footprints, but also another major trackway site near the town of Barry, which is one of the most significant sites of its age in Europe. The rocks of this area were laid down around 220 million years ago, at a time when Wales was a low-lying desert, similar to those in the Arabian Gulf today, and dinosaurs had just evolved. Over the next 20 million years, the sea-level rose and the deserts disappeared underwater. However the dinosaurs living on higher ground continued to diversify into different species, one of which was Dracoraptor, the small theropod dinosaur found near to Penarth in 2014, and now on display at the National Museum Cardiff.

For the Royal Horticultural Society’s Flower Show in Cardiff this year, we decided to build on previous experience of creating real botanical windows. We wanted something that would form an eye-catching backdrop to the collections on display within Amgueddfa Cymru's woodland-themed marquee.

The botanical windows began in 2015 with our Museum in a House exhibit for the Made in Roath festival. We wanted a display that would reflect aspects of our Museum work as well as to represent the herbarium itself. We pressed plants following the standard method for creating herbarium specimens as shown below. In this way, plant specimens last for hundreds of years on conservation grade card and out of light in herbarium cupboards.

Method for pressing plants for long-term storage in the botany collections:

  1. Select a plant showing as many characters as possible – fruit, flowers, roots.
  2. Place between blotting paper, arranging the plant at the same time, to limit the amount of overlapping material.
  3. Place in a plant press and tie as tightly as possible.
  4. Place in a drier between 20 and 30oC.
  5. Change the blotting paper initially every day, and then less often until the plants are completely dry. This will take about a week.
  6. Attach plant to conservation-grade card (for example made from cotton) using small strips of adhesive cotton tape. Place the tape strips strategically on the plant’s stems and leaves to hold it safely on the card. This technique allows for some flexing of the card without damage to the plant and for easy removal of the plant from the card for study.
  7. Store out of light in an environment with humidity between 40 and 60 RH.

After pressing, we attached the plants to large sheets of tracing paper using small pieces of transparent tape strips (rather than the conservation grade materials we would normally use for the botany collections). The tracing paper was then wrapped carefully for transport to the site of the exhibit and then taped to sunny windows in the living room.

For the RHS Flower Show in 2016, we built on the initial idea but had the added complication of having to create our own windows to install in the marquee. We had nine 80 x 60 cm sheets of 2mm thick acrylic cut, with holes drilled into each of the corners for hanging. We attached the plants to these sheets using small transparent tape strips. Once at the Flower Show, we attached strong metal rings to the corner of each panel and hung the panels from the cross bars of the marquee by looping fishing line (the type strong enough to catch a 60lb fish!) through the metal rings. The only worry now was whether the ranges of temperature and humidity in the marquee would be too much for the transparent tape and we would arrive the next day to find the plants on the floor! We certainly would never subject pressed specimens from the collection to this environment. We were relieved to find that the panels held well the whole weekend – and with much praise from visitors.

In 2017, we planned to recreate the botanical windows for the Flower Show, but with a slight twist. We had a woodland theme, so we chose Welsh trees for each panel: Oak, Beech, Hazel, Hawthorn, Holly, Scots Pine, Yew and Lime. To make the display really stand out, we printed a silhouette of the tree with its Welsh, English and scientific name onto transparent material for the backdrop. We taped the transparencies onto the acrylic and then taped the pressed plants onto the transparencies as before. Unfortunately, this year was particularly warm weather – the transparent tape holding the pressed plants did not last as long on some of the panels, so remedial work had to be carried out to keep the display looking good.

 

Read about the RHS Flower Show in 2017:

 

Find out more on our Made in RoathMuseum in a House’ installation in 2015 and the RHS Flower Show in 2016

 

Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales at the RHS Flower Show, Cardiff 2017

We have had a presence at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Flower Show, Cardiff for over 10 years. This year our theme was Welsh Wood and Woodlands, encouraging visitors to learn all about the plant and animal life associated with Welsh woodlands from the ancient ‘coal forests’ of the Palaeozoic era, through the post-glacial forests, up to the present day. We put our unique Welsh collections on display, including living and preserved plants, botanical wax models, fossils, insects, taxidermy birds and mammals, as well as botanical illustrations. A superb collection of large timbers, rarely on show to the public, formed the centrepiece for the display. In the foreground, a vibrant green moss garden demonstrated the variety of mosses found in Welsh woodlands, while hung as a backdrop were 12 large botanical ‘stained glass’ windows of pressed woodland plants.

Geraint Parfitt the clog maker and David Davies the woodcarver from St Fagans National History Museum, demonstrated their crafts at the RHS Flower Show for the first time. Members of the public were fascinated to see Geraint practice his traditional craft, turning newly felled timber into clog soles while David showed his skill at making Welsh love spoons.

Crowds were attracted by our 3D printer where we showed how we can reproduce specimens from the collections the twenty-first century way. This enables us to make replicas of delicate or poisonous specimens from the collections more easily, that would not otherwise be touchable.

Families could test their knowledge of Welsh trees or work out the age of the trees from our collections by counting their rings under a microscope. Talented story tellers from Amgueddfa Cymru entertained children with woodland inspired stories.

We were delighted that the RHS honoured our exhibit by presenting a Commended award. We would also like to thank the players of the People’s Postcode Lottery for supporting this event.

Have a look at the Twitter fall from RHS Cardiff 2017 – it follows the preparation and set-up of the Museum’s display to our visitors’ experience.