The Hampshire County Council Museums and Archives Service (HCCMS) cares for more than 125,000 preserved plants and animals in order to fulfil three specific aims
Natural history has a long tradition as a museum discipline. Some of the earliest museums were formed to show ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’, preserved exotic plants and animals from around the globe. HCCMS’ Curtis Museum at Alton was founded (1855) in just this way and specimens from this era still exist in the collection. Although today there are many other opportunities and media whereby people may gain an insight and knowledge about the natural world, museums remain an important way for people to interact with the ‘real thing’. The HCCMS collection illustrates the enormous biodiversity to be found in Hampshire. Specimens from it are used to interpret the complex geological, biological and environmental processes which have produced some of the finest wildlife habitats to be found in the British Isles and to demonstrate how attitudes to wildlife and conservation have changed during the past century.
The HCCMS network of local museums across Hampshire provides access to biological specimens in a variety of ways including permanent and temporary displays, activities and workshop sessions. In addition, SEARCH at Gosport uses the collections to provide hands-on natural science activity sessions for school groups, closely linked to the National Curriculum and led by expert staff. Staff expertise and loans from the collection provide schools, other local authority departments, wildlife groups and relevant organisations support for their own activity, learning and display programmes.
Biological specimens with good supporting data provide evidence for the occurrence of a species at a particular place and time. Such specimens are also the products of the environment at this time and thus may provide important data for long-term analysis. Records and observations supported by a voucher specimen can have their identities checked or reassessed. Records and observations unsupported by a voucher specimen may have their authenticity questioned in the future which diminishes their value. Voucher material deposited with HCCMS originates from a variety of sources including site surveys, environmental impact assessments, ecological studies, as well as road and weather casualties.
HCCMS is a member of the Hampshire Biodiversity Information Centre Partnership (HBIC) which currently comprises18 partners, including Hampshire County Council, unitary & district councils, wildlife organisations & societies, and government agencies. All of the partners are managers and/or users of biological data but only HCCMS is primarily engaged in the management of voucher material, often on behalf of other partners. Many important voucher specimens also originate from individual naturalists and members of the public.
Biological collections are an extremely important reference resource if managed appropriately. Although many excellent monographs exist which enable the accurate identification of the more popular groups of wildlife (e.g. birds, mammals, butterflies, dragonflies and flowering plants) there are many less well known, even in the relatively well-studied British Isles. For these, identification keys are often unavailable, out-of-date, difficult to use, or scattered through the scientific literature and the only practical means of identification is by reference to another accurately identified specimen. This is especially the case for many groups of invertebrates and lower plants.
The importance of most users of the Biology Collection stored at Chilcomb House, Winchester, is that they are ‘experts’ who use or interpret the collections through research, often on behalf of environmental and educational organizations. They have a powerful ‘multiplier’ effect in terms of extracting and promoting the information held in the collections to a much wider public. There are some 250 visits by local people each year to the Biology Collection. Most visits are from people using the collection and the associated library as a reference resource. They include wildlife surveyors, reserve managers, consultants, ‘amateur’ naturalists, artists, the media and members of the public with an identification enquiry. In addition, the collection is used for one-day wildlife identification training sessions organised by HCCMS, sometimes in conjunction with Hampshire Wildlife Trust or the Countryside Education Trust. The collections are also a focus of study for undergraduate and postgraduate students from Sparsholt College and Bournemouth University. Occasional MSc and PhD students from other universities and colleges have used the collection during the course of their studies. Demand for reference use will increase as the HBIC partnership develops and matures.