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Dr Sammy De Grave, Oxford Museum of Natural History

I’m Dr Sammy De Grave, I’m with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and I’ve brought over the Darwin crabs for display.

We’re here installing them at the Australian National Maritime Museum as part of their Darwin exhibition.  There’s eleven crabs in total, which are the best specimens we have left, out of about 110 different specimen lots, although we do know that there were in excess of 300 collected during the voyage, and basically more than 200 have been lost in time.  

I’m here, basically accompanying the crabs because they’re rather fragile specimens that need very careful unpacking, it’s a Maritime Museum, they’re not that used to dealing with natural history specimens, so I came across to supervise the unpacking, the installing, to make sure there’s no damage to them.  

The crabs travelled in the hold in a nice little car boot thing in a very large box which was filmed earlier.  It’s a bit excessive for eleven crabs but it’s a nice way of travelling.

They get extraordinarily well protected; that’s part of the journey.  They are in several layers of conservation buffer material.  They are protected against all the elements: they are in pretty good protection.

It’s necessary because they’re quite fragile.  If there’s too much excessive vibration literally their legs might fall off.  If they get too damp you’ll see changes happening to the crabs and they could be irreparably damaged, just by anything, so its important that we keep them in a stable temperature, stable humidity in that sort of a museum setting.  

Darwin was at the time he went in the Beagle an amateur naturalist and he was interested in any aspect of natural science, so he collected wherever he went: rocks, plants, fossils, crabs, shells.  There was no specific reason for his collecting: he was just there to collect as much as he could.

They primarily tell us that Darwin was interested in just about anything: he travelled across land to collect fossils, plants.  He also went along the seashore to collect shells, various crabs he came across, some he purchased at local fish markets, he was just very much interested in just about anything around him.  

Darwin, on the return of the Beagle, basically dispersed all his specimens to appropriate scientists who were interested in various bits and pieces.  These went to Thomas Bell, who was at the time, one of the main Victorian crustacean experts in Britain who agreed to work on them as part of a projected zoology of the Beagle which was supposed to be in several volumes.  But aside from the vertebrates no volumes were ever published so they basically sat in drawers for about thirty or forty years.  

The significance of the crabs is that there are not that many specimens still surviving from the Beagle voyage. We have a number of artefacts but natural history-wise there is very little; the crabs are one of the largest collections still around. It’s basically a direct link back to what Darwin was doing whilst he was actually on the Beagle — all the collecting, the being in foreign countries. That’s what it is.