Starting an internship at a museum is an exciting prospect. There's a chance to explore the depths of a collection that spans thousands of years and every continent. The chance to get to know and learn from museum professionals. The chance to gain some insight about how a museum fits into its community and what it does for that community. What I did not expect was to be confronted by a forest of coral.
The glory days of natural history collecting involved amassing examples of everything that swam, flew, crawled or sat attached to a rocky shelf. The collected items were preserved via taxidermy or pickling in spirits or laying them out, pinned in sequence and according to classification. Unnerving to modern sensibilities, the lack of ready access to high-quality images and the generality of scientific practice meant these collections served a useful purpose. They provided people with an opportunity to understand and marvel at all creatures great and small, sourced from all over the planet. The treasures of the sea floor were no different.
The founder of the Whanganui Regional Museum, Samuel Drew, collected examples of corals from throughout the Pacific Ocean.
Two huge ledgers in copperplate handwriting give species identifications to some of them and, occasionally, a broad location of where they were collected. Drew was not a man who organised his collecting practices with a young intern’s cataloguing process in mind. Personal, beautiful (if illegible), and with details sometimes totally absent, his ledger is both helpful and unhelpful in identifying corals.