About the collection

As at November 2014 this collections database lists over 6550 museum specimens of shells, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals, of which nearly 2,000 are directly attributable to John Gilbert. Approximately another 1,000 specimens on the database were probably collected by Gilbert, but the loss of data makes it hard to prove.

Collections which have particular problems of provenance, due to having had the original labels on their specimens removed during the mounting process, are birds in the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and in Naturalis Leiden, and the reptile and amphibians in spirit in the Natural History Museum in London.

Curating this collection

Reconstructing the original data on specimens missing their original labels is akin to doing a jigsaw puzzle where only a few pieces remain, none of which are from the outside edge. Recourse to original notes, letters and registers help with these reconstructions, but this ever-developing specimens database has been of enormous use in identifying missing data, particularly when attempting to re-assemble type series – i.e. deciding which specimens were actually in front of the describer (usually John Gould) when they wrote their type descriptions. As a result, much Gould Collection bird material in museums other than the Academy of Natural Sciences has been identified as having type status, and in many cases these specimens are better qualified as potential types than are those at the Academy. Gould’s business acumen may have clouded his ability to come clean (or perhaps even care) about exactly which specimens were his types, as he had already sold many of these to other institutions years before he offered the collection of birds “being the originals of my work” to Edward Wilson for his brother in Philadelphia.

Using museum collections

More problems arose because many other museum collections have been difficult to search. Specimens are piled on top of each other, have lost or torn their labels, or are not in a logical order; many specimens are dirty and impregnated with odorous and potentially dangerous chemicals.Curatorial staff in museums are much more thin on the ground now than they were in the 19th or 20th centuries, particularly curators who specifically look after collections. The increasing pressure on museum budgets is drastically affecting the well-being of specimens.

Most of the specimens listed on the database are from Australia, but there are also seabirds and fish from the Atlantic and Indian Oceans and their islands, many of which have now been identified as type specimens. Gilbert also collected in West Timor for a short period in 1840. Many of these specimens have been found during intermittent museum searches over the last 30 years, but having been able to concentrate on this project for 90% of my time as a result of two years funding from the Leverhulme Trust (2012-2014), I have had great success in finding Gilbert specimens in collections not previously visited (e.g. the egg collection in Camarillo, California and the fish collection at the Natural History Museum in London).Time has also been spent in the bird, mammal, herptile and mollusca departments of the London–based Natural History Museum, in Worcester, Bristol and Exeter museums in the UK, and in museums in Harvard (Cambridge, Mass.), New York and Philadelphia in the USA.

Gilbert and associates

Originally I intended to only database Gilbert’s specimens, but realised it was more useful to add others, particularly those collected by his employer, John Gould. In this way I did not keep going back over the same numbers from the Gould Collection accessions in various museum registers, thinking I had missed Gilbert material. The result is a much more compete listing than I had first intended of the types, or potential types, of all the birds and mammals which Gould described to science, a valuable resource for the future. Another useful resource is the listings for specimens obtained by collectors whose material is often confused with Gilbert’s. These include other pioneers of Queensland ornithology, Frederick Strange, Charles and Elizabeth Coxen, John Cockerell;the 13th Earl of Derby’s collector John MacGillivray, and British Navy-based ship’s officers such as Benjamin Bynoe and J.B. Jukes. I have also added a few specimens collected by William Saville-Kent and C. Price Conigrave, who like Gilbert collected fish on the HoutmanAbrolhos Islands, off Western Australia, as I had found I was wasting much time checking and re-checking who had collected particular specimens from these interesting islands.

Using the database

The structure of database itself has evolved greatly from its inception and now allows searching by species, type status, collecting date, locality, present museum location; other headings record such details as the exact writing on the original label. It has already proved invaluable in re-uniting several orphaned specimens, including types, with their original accession numbers and data. However, many specimens need further checking, especially those (such as shells) where I have little expertise. Many specimens are missing and further searches need to be made for them. Some were declared to be “duplicates” and were given to schools and colleges, or exchanged with material from other museums.

Improving Gilbert's collections

Much work on Gilbert’s specimens still needs to be done. His extensive plant and insect collections have not been databased, and some museums (such as the natural history museum in Turin, Italy) are shut and the collections not accessible. Several aspects of Gilbert’s natural history collections would expand to make a valuable and interesting project for others, as would research on the other collectors such as the Coxens.