Voyage of discovery

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Here is this week's post celebrating the World Museum's 150th anniversary this year! This week we have a story from Ian Wallace, our Curator of Conchology & Aquatic Biology. Read on to find out about the staff who travelled on a luxury steam yacht to collect new specimens for the museum...
Henry H Higgins

Henry H Higgins

On January 16th 1876 the Museum’s Director, Reverend Henry Hugh Higgins, and museum assistants John Chard and James Wood, left Liverpool on board the brand new luxury steam yacht 'Argo'.  This had been chartered by Mr Holt of Sudley Art Gallery fame (now called Sudley House), for a cruise to the West Indies and museum workers were invited along to collect scientifically important specimens for the Liverpool Museum (now called the World Museum).  The museum authorities allocated Higgins £50 to cover all costs for the three of them and to purchase specimens.  He spent  £43 and 10d (10 pennies) !   

They were especially interested in collecting marine life and they focussed on sponges.  A sponge is one of the least complicated of all animal groups.  There are lots of cells in the sponge body but there is no organising brain or nervous system and no complicated body organs.  The whole body is a mass of small channels lined by cells that have a beating hair.  These beating cells draw in water and other cells grab tiny single-celled plants floating in the water, digest the plant cells and pass some of the digested food to their neighbours.  Other cells secrete a supporting skeleton of horny fibres or glass fibres.

These sponges may look a little strange but are of inestimable value in the scientific study of sponges.  Sponges have strange chemicals in their bodies to stop bacteria and other things killing them and these chemicals are being tested to see if any have properties to attack bacteria or even cancer, that affect humans.

Upon return to Liverpool, on May 27th 1876  the sponges were cleaned, labelled and sent to the national expert Henry Carter, in London.  He realised many had never been scientifically described or named.  The ‘type’ specimens on which these descriptions were made were returned to the museum.  Since then other sponge experts have asked to see them to understand exactly what Carter had in mid when he wrote his description. 

As luck would have it, the collection was away in London being examined by the then national sponge expert, Maurice Burton, at the time museum was fire bombed, in May 1941.  They were thankfully saved by being out of the city at the time and were returned to Liverpool after the war.

We have many of the documents relating to the voyage and Reverend Higgins wrote a book about it called 'A Field Naturalist in the Western Tropics'. It must have been a real adventure!