Adorn: Natural Wonders

30 Aug 2019

By Sophie Stevens, Collections and Learning Curator: Adorn

As a Natural Science specialist, when I heard that the whole team would be involved in curating Adorn, I made it my aim to get some specimens from the NS collections on display!

As a team we think broadly about the content of our exhibitions and try to use objects from a wide range of subjects wherever possible, often putting our own interests aside. Although we often feature specimens from the Natural Science collections in displays at both Hollytrees Museum and Colchester Natural History Museum, this would be the first time in many years that they could play a part in a major exhibition at the Castle. Fortunately for me, the ‘Materials and Making’ section was an obvious place to showcase some of the wonderous specimens from the rock and mineral collections.


Marvellous Metals

Although I am a Natural Scientist, rocks and minerals are not my specialism. I have been working with the collections at Colchester for 12 years, during which time I documented the mineral collection, getting to see (and hold) each of the hundreds of specimens. Throughout this process I was most looking forward to seeing the gold and silver ores…who wouldn’t?! Those of you who have seen ‘Adorn’ may appreciate that the day I did so was both exciting and disappointing in equal measure! The gold ore and gold dust specimens on display are some of my favourite objects in the museum collections. Although the quantity of gold is small, I find the ores in particular, really beautiful.



In contrast to the joy of finding the cupboard containing the gold, was the crushing disappointment of finding the native silver…surely there must be a mistake?! These dark, knobbly lumps can’t be silver, can they?! On reflection we all know that our own silver objects tarnish easily so perhaps I was naive to expect to see lumps of shiny silver! Beautiful or not, these ores have finally got their chance in the limelight and can be found alongside gold and silver treasures from the Roman, Viking and Medieval periods.

Awesome Organics

As well as the specimens of gold, silver, copper and tin on display, the exhibition includes jewellery made from a range of minerals and natural materials. A very enjoyable day was spent looking at the long-list of archaeological objects and seeing which ones we could match up with specimens from the Natural Science stores. This section also gave us an opportunity to display some of the more modern jewellery such as the coral earrings and jet snake brooch (at the top of the page), as well as the amber necklace whose date is not known.

The most satisfying pairing for me was the Victorian Hat Pin and the Amethyst. Although the mineral collection is large and diverse some of the specimens are of questionable quality! Having found the amazing hairpin with the amethyst we searched our Collections Management System to see if we had a corresponding specimen in the collection…the answer was yes! But was it any good?! We raced to the cupboards and full of anticipation unwrapped the candidate rock…much to our delight we revealed a stunning piece of amethyst, perfect for display. The following day, our Conservator Cym had cleaned both the hat pin and specimen showing off their glorious purple colouration.


Curious Coral

As a local museum, our Collecting Policy focuses on the local area, and this includes the Natural Science collections. Since the Natural Science collection started however, overly enthusiastic curators have accepted all sorts of things that you wouldn’t expect to find in Colchester (including the most of the mineral collection!). One such group of objects are the corals, many of which have no collection information, so we don’t even know where they are from originally. Although the future of the corals in the collection may be questionable, I was so pleased to be able to display a large piece of red coral in this exhibition. We may not know where it was found, but displayed next to the coral earrings it plays an important role in the display – that and corals are fascinating!!

‘Coral’ is made up of hundreds to thousands of tiny animals called polyps. Each polyp creates a hard, outer skeleton of calcium carbonate. The polyps have tiny, tentacle-like arms that poke out of the coral skeleton to capture their food from the water.

Most corals contain plant-like organisms called algae, which use the coral’s waste products to make their own food. The corals benefit, as the algae produce oxygen and remove waste, helping them to grow and build. This relationship started over 25 million years ago and has helped coral reefs to become the largest structures of biological origin on Earth.


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