RAMM shell collection recognised with Designation award
30 January 2020
The international importance of George Montagu’s 19th-century collection of land, freshwater and marine shells at RAMM has received formal recognition. This week, Arts Council England awarded the collection Designation status through the Designation Scheme – a mark of distinction which identifies the collection to be of national significance.
Pioneering naturalist George Montagu (1753-1815)
George Montagu was the first person to collect and name British molluscs in a truly scientific manner. The shells were not just attractive curios. His work revolutionised the study of molluscs and his collection at RAMM is Britain’s most intact and taxonomically-important, early 19th-century collection of British shells (1800-1816). Today it is an essential resource for taxonomic research.
The Designation Scheme
The Designation Scheme recognises, celebrates and champions collections of national and international significance held outside national museums. Awards of Designated status are made by an independent expert panel, based on the collection’s significance, quality and research value. There are 152 Designated collections in the country. RAMM’s award proves that it delivers the highest standards, and that RAMM is committed to the continued recognition and promotion of this remarkable collection, for the enjoyment of generations to come.
Phil Gibby, Area Director, South West, Arts Council England, said “We are extremely pleased to officially recognise the national significance of RAMM’s outstanding Montagu Collection of shells through our Designation Scheme. The unique collection is one of the UK’s most intact collections of British shells of the early 19th century, and this award is a visible assertion of our belief in its enduring cultural value. The collection illuminates our understanding of the natural world and therefore enriches our lives, which is why we’re delighted to award it Designation status.”
Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, said: “We are delighted to be awarding this prestigious accolade to Exeter’s Royal Albert memorial Museum & Art Gallery. Montagu’s mollusc collection offers a fascinating and important insight into the history of the nation, and should be celebrated and shared with new audiences.”
Exeter delighted by the recognition
Rachel Sutton, Exeter City Council’s Climate & Culture Lead, said “It is wonderful that another of RAMM’s collections has received this rare and highly sought-after recognition from Arts Council England. The museum is blessed with outstanding natural history collections thanks to the pioneering work of Devon’s naturalists. Montagu is one of these eminent pioneers. His collection attracts the attention of researchers from all over the world – so far enquiries have been made from 20 different countries – demonstrating the value of historic collections. RAMM is keen to share this beautiful collection of shells with wider audiences locally, nationally and internationally. This award will help highlight the importance of Montagu collection and give us the resources to share it. We are very grateful to Arts Council England for the support they provide.”
Montagu described (named) 199 mollusc species in the scientific literature that he considered were new to science. 120 of these are represented in RAMM’s collection and can be considered as having ‘type status’. Types are the exact specimens that a scientist used to describe the new species and these specimens represent that species. They remain a permanent reference for the scientific community to use when identifying organisms and reconsidering how one species relates to another. The species Montagu described are found throughout Europe and as a result the collection receives research interest from around the world.
What are molluscs?
Snails, slugs, octopuses, cuttlefish and shellfish (such as mussels and clams) are all common examples of molluscs. There are over 85,000 species some living on land, others in the water. Most have soft bodies that can be entirely protected within a shell. Though slugs appear to be shell-less many have a small vestigial internal shell which they use to store calcium.
Humans have interacted with molluscs for thousands of years. Gardeners consider them a pest, collectors see them as objects of immense aesthetic appeal and they appear on the menus of the world’s top restaurants. But molluscs are also essential components of any ecosystem, they are both predator and prey, disease vectors and after their death their empty shells provide homes for other creatures.
Who was Montagu?
George Montagu moved to Devon in 1798 when his army career ended in disgrace. He was court-martialled after the discovery of his affair with Eliza D’Orville. Together they moved to Kingsbridge in Devon where Montagu devoted himself to natural history. Ahead of his time, he had a broad environmental focus and his stress on examining live animals showed that he was a true naturalist and not merely an assembler of trophies. Montagu was the first to publish a fully comprehensive monograph on the molluscs of the British Isles (Testacea Britannica 1803, 1808), Eliza provided the illustrations. He was a member of the Linnean and other scientific societies and had a wide network of correspondents to discuss research and taxonomic issues.
Accessing the collection
The Montagu collection is available online thanks to the Mollusca Types in Great Britain project spearheaded by Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales and the Natural History Museum, London, funded by the John Ellerman Foundation. Type specimens can be accessed via the project’s website.
All of Montagu’s collection is available via a research theme on RAMM’s Collections Explorer.
Two open access (free) research papers describing the collection are also available
Oliver PG, Morgenroth H, Salvador A (2017) Type specimens of Mollusca described by Col. George Montagu in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter and The Natural History Museum, London. Zoosystematics and Evolution 93(2): 363-412.
Oliver PG, Morgenroth H (2018) Additional Type and other Notable specimens of Mollusca from the Montagu Collection in the Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter. Zoosystematics and Evolution 94(2): 281-303.
More molluscs at RAMM
The external shells of land and aquatic molluscs attracted many a Victorian collector. RAMM’s collections comprise over 60,000 shells from numerous collectors. The majority are dry specimens and many are still in their original boxes. A selection can be found online using Collections Explorer. Other collectors of note include:
- Miss Juliana Linter (1844-1909) – Over 15,000 lands snails that were donated to RAMM in 1909. Some are now very rare or even extinct, some have type status and many are very attractive.
- Miss Florence Jewell (1861-1960) – 20th-century collection of foreign marine shells.
- Lieutenant George Peard – collected shells, birds and minerals during his voyage of discovery on HMS Blossom.
- JT Carrington – collection of UK land snail shells. Includes examples of the many banding patterns found in Cepaea nemoralis and C. hortensis – small yellow snails with brown bands often seen on garden walls after rain.
Designated collections at RAMM
RAMM’s World Cultures collection has also gained recognition as a pre-eminent collection of national and international importance.
The Designation Scheme is a mark of distinction – it identifies outstanding collections held in museums, libraries and archives across England. The 152 Designated collections cover an extraordinary diversity and range of subjects spanning vast periods of time. They encompass art, history, literature, science and the natural world and illuminate our understanding of topics ranging from religion, politics, communication and music to lace, footwear and folk song.
Arts Council England
Arts Council England is the national development body for arts and culture across England, working to enrich people’s lives. We support a range of activities across the arts, museums and libraries – from theatre to visual art, reading to dance, music to literature, and crafts to collections. Great art and culture inspires us, brings us together and teaches us about ourselves and the world around us. In short, it makes life better. Between 2018 and 2022, we will invest £1.45 billion of public money from government and an estimated £860 million from the National Lottery to help create these experiences for as many people as possible across the country. www.artscouncil.org.uk