Sir Arthur Russell and the Preservation of a National Collection

This article was Published in the Geologists Association Magazine in June 2012 (Vol 11 No. 2).

I started collecting at a very early age. I was a toddler when I began to pick up my first rocks from the beach with my mum and dad, seven when I created my first properly displayed geological collection and eight when I won my first prize with Rockwatch for my ‘mineral museum’.

Sir Arthur Russell (1878-1964), the 6th Baronet of Swallowfield Park near Reading also began collecting at a very young age and by the time he was eight years old had visited his first working mine, a trip that helped develop a hobby and a passion that would stay with him for the next 78 years of his life. His stunning collection evolved into one of the most significant British regional mineral collections to date, comprising approximately 13,000 specimens and is one of the Natural History Museum’s largest and most significant stand-alone collections.

Russell collected almost half of the specimens himself; developing relationships with owners of other mineral collections and workers at important geological sites where he acquired many scientifically significant specimens that otherwise might never have been publicly available. Today, many of the localities he collected at have disappeared; consequently Russell’s specimens hold integral information on the geology, geography and cultural history of these sites.

The collection was left with the Natural History Museum in London on his death, as requested by Russell – to the great annoyance of other institutions, such as Harvard. In his will, he conditioned that the collection be stored in perpetuity, together in its original ten oak cabinets with his cataloguing system. The association of Russell’s original cabinets, labelling and cataloguing system mean that his collection does not only represent a near complete record of the mineralogy of the British Isles at the time of assimilation, but also an important historical and cultural resource.

The practice of keeping an object ‘in perpetuity’ is complex. To preserve something exactly as it is for ever is impossible, a problem all conservators and curators will be intimately familiar with. In heritage collections it is a fact that objects will become more fragile with time and the institution holding them will do their best to ensure the object is in the best condition relative to its original state. This process may involve preventive conservation measures to ensure that the possibility of degradation is limited.

To a casual visitor, it may be difficult to imagine the need to conserve a mineralogical collection. The truth is however that some minerals do degrade, sometimes causing catastrophic damage to the specimen or even to those around it. Because of the nature of the Russell Collection, this kind of damage may not only have implications for the scientific integrity of a specimen, but also the historical context. Mineral degradation can affect associated labels, rendering them unreadable, or worse, completely disintegrating them. In the case of Russell’s collection, part of its uniqueness lies in the labels handwritten by Russell himself in his characteristic script, so preventing loss of any aspect of his collection is essential.

In a climate where museums are under tough economic pressure, with severe cuts to funding and staff it may be more difficult than ever for museums to ensure that collections receive the care they need. Without heritage collections we would lack essential information that forms part of the basis of our extensive knowledge of the world today. What makes a collection such as Russell’s so unique is the range of values that can be associated with it – scientific, historical, educational, cultural, aesthetic and inspirational. It not only provides a significant mineralogical resource for researchers across the world, but also a historical record of people and places, that without the collection we may have known much less about.

Looking back to my own collection, (although far from the stunning host of Russell’s specimens!) it provided me with the notion that I wanted to work in museums with other geological collections. Since being introduced to The Russell Collection, it has inspired me to continue to pursue my aim through studying an MRes in Heritage Science at UCL and I am now about to embark on a project focusing on Russell’s Collection at the Natural History Museum. Through the project I hope to learn much more about museums and how to care for collections as well as how to contribute to the preservation and awareness of our great national geological resources.

For more information on The Russell Collection, The Natural History Museum or the work I am doing please visit: http://www.russellsoc.org/ , http://www.nhm.ac.uk/ , or https://geoheritagescience.wordpress.com/.

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One thought on “Sir Arthur Russell and the Preservation of a National Collection

  1. It must be a great delight working with the Russell Collection… such a great treasure! Speaking of early collections, I remember seeing a comparable treasure… an exhibition called ‘Rainbow of Minerals’ back in 2002 🙂

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