Who wrote that? Forensic analysis of museum specimen labels

Label attached to a Chatham Island snipe specimen collected in 1900. Image: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Museum curators often need to identify handwriting. In the Bird department this includes determining who wrote historical register entries and specimen labels, or who was responsible for annotations on original documents. Much of this skill is learnt on the job, and we keep a file of examples of writing by earlier curators. But it is important to recognise your limitations, and when it is time to call on the experts. In this case it was the Document Examination Section of the New Zealand Police whom we called.

Gordon Sharfe and Trish James (NZ Police) and Colin Miskelly (Curator Terrestrial Vertebrates, Te Papa) examine century-old bird specimens in the Te Papa collection. Photo: Alan Tennyson, Te Papa

The enquiry was driven by a 114-year-old whodunit. Who collected the type specimens of the South Island (=Stewart Island) snipe on Jacky Lee Island in 1897 & 1898? The labels on some specimens were signed by Henry Travers, a Wellington-based collector and dealer in bird skins and plant specimens. Although Travers has long been credited with the discovery of this now-extinct snipe, I suspected that – apart from trips to the subantarctic islands in 1890 and 1894 – Travers never ventured south of Banks Peninsula.

The main question that I asked of Trish James (Senior Document Examiner, NZ Police) was whether any of the ‘Travers’ labels on birds collected from the Stewart Island region between 1897 and 1905 had been written by someone other than Travers. And she concluded that some had. Four of the labels had writing that differed from Travers’s, particularly in the form of the capital S and F, and the lower case t. Yet the words were written on the typical ornate labels that Travers used on most of his specimens, and tied on with his characteristic pink cotton.

Labels written by Henry Travers (top row), Sigvard Dannefærd (bottom row), and an unknown specimen collector apparently working for both Travers and Dannefærd (middle three rows). Image: Colin Miskelly (Te Papa)

Even more intriguing, this same writing was evident on a series of snipe and shore plover specimens from the Chatham Islands collected in 1899 & 1900. And this time the writing was on labels characteristic of both Henry Travers and his main competitor at the time, Sigvard Dannefærd (who was based first in Auckland and later in Rotorua). The photo shows in row 1 (A & B) both sides of a label written by Travers, and in row 5 (I & J) two labels written by Dannefærd. In between are six labels (C-H) written by the mystery bird collector. Rows 2 & 3 show Travers type labels, and row 4 shows Dannefærd type labels, but the writing is not theirs.
 

Trish James (Senior Document Examiner) with enlarged images of bird specimen labels at NZ Police National Headquarters. Photo: Colin Miskelly, Te Papa

Between them Travers and Dannefærd sold over 500 bird specimens to the Colonial and then Dominion Museum (now Te Papa), and many hundreds more ended up in either the British Museum of Natural History or the American Museum of Natural History (which purchased Lord Rothschild’s enormous private collection in 1932). Travers and Dannefærd collected or traded many notable specimens, including the name-bearing types of black robin, Chatham Island rail, Stephens Island wren, Snares Island fernbird, Snares Island tomtit, Hutton’s shearwater, and the South Island snipe. But they were both notorious for their poor record keeping. As a result of the forensic examination completed by Trish James, we now know that even the labels and cotton that we thought were diagnostic signatures of both men are unreliable. Both of them must have provided blank labels (and possibly spools of cotton) to others collecting birds on their behalf, and on at least some occasions they were both employing the same man!

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