So you think you know about dinosaurs? The evocative title perfectly reflects the contradictory upbeat attitude and challenging facts of Ben Garrod‘s series of dinosaur books for children. Each book is focused on a different dino species and is chock full of hard facts and science aimed at enthralling, teaching and challenging kids to think for themselves. While at an absolutely ANCIENT age of 23 years I am perhaps not the demographic that Ben is aiming at, nonetheless I immensely enjoyed these charming books and surprised myself by learning a lot about Triceratops, Diplodocus and Tyrannosaurus Rex.
What is your role on the NatSCA committee?
I am new to the NatSCA committee so am just starting to feel my way and find what my role might be as an Ordinary Member. I have considered joining the committee for many years, so I am really excited to finally be a part of it and just looking forward to getting involved, helping out and learning as much as I can.
Job title and institution
Curator: Mollusca & Vertebrates at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales, Cardiff
Tell us about your day job
I have been at National Museum Cardiff for 17 years and for the large part of this time my role has been to work as part of the team curating the mollusc collections. We have one of the largest collections of molluscs in the UK, and it is taxonomically and historically significant. In recent years however, I have also taken on the role of facilitating access to the Vertebrate Collections. As you can imagine, this has been a significant learning curve and I am still in the process of developing in this role. As with many curators, a large part of my job is making collections accessible to everyone, be it through enquiries, loans, collection tours, open days, workshops, talks, visits and everything else. My job also includes curation – adding collections to our databases, sorting labels, etc, but with so many things to cover, I don’t get as much opportunity to do this as I would like. In recent years I have been involved with collections-based research, locating and investigating Type specimens in both our own collections and those in other institutions.
Natural science collections are very popular with museum visitors. Why do you think this is?
What’s not to love? They appeal on so many levels. For our youngest visitors this might be their first close encounter with nature, I remember my own experiences as a child vividly and it had a huge impact on me and my life choices. For artists, the collections are endlessly inspiring and a reminder of the amazing beauty and diversity in the world around us. For amateur naturalists they are havens for knowledge, feeding that passion. For specialists they are storehouses, representing vast swathes of data. For everyone, they can be immersive experiences of escape and wonder.
What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now?
Not to sound like an overplayed record, but money, money, money. Not just that there is less to spread round; but where that money is spent and who makes those decisions. I have had personal experience of losing colleagues to redundancies and it is a very real problem. With the loss of these amazingly talented and devoted people, we are losing not only valuable mentors and guides, but immeasurable amounts of knowledge about the collections they were custodians of. In many cases collections have been left vulnerable, open to poor treatment, terrible conditions, or disposal. With greater demands on smaller pockets, we are all expected to justify the relevance of our museums, the collections, our research, and science.
What do you love most about working with natural science collections?
There are so many things! Of course, the incredible collections. I am very aware of the privilege and honour it is to work with such great specimens. There is always something new to discover, something weird you didn’t know about. The people. I cannot state how much respect I have for all of my museum colleagues, for their dedication and amazing enthusiasm. Finally, the buildings! Generally, they are old, beautiful, full of character, history and stories.
What would your career be in an alternate universe without museums?
What a horrible universe that would be! I think a librarian? Which I know is not a million miles away from a curator. If not, maybe an illustrator with a lovely studio in a garden shed in the countryside. I loved art in school and would have so enjoyed pursuing it further. Or run my own tea house.
What is your favourite museum, and why?
I can’t pick an absolute favourite, I think it varies depending on the day or my mood. Close to home, I would choose St Fagans National Museum of History, just outside Cardiff. It’s an open-air museum where historic buildings from across Wales have been taken down and re-erected piece by piece by piece. It is fantastic for a day out, not only to see the beautiful buildings but also the wildlife; great wild birds, lesser horseshoe bats and great crested newts are all present on site.
It’s been a few months since our 2018 conference and AGM at Leeds City Museum. It was wonderful to see so many people there – to catch up with old friends and to meet new ones. And as always, I am so sad when it is over. I guess this is why it’s nice to revisit what went on for the two days. There have been a few different write ups about the conference:
David Waterhouse, Senior Curator of Natural History, Norfolk Museums Service, wrote his first blog post ever all about his time at the conference here.
Glenys Wass, Heritage Collections Manager at Peterborough Museum wrote about her summary of the conference talks here.
Jan Freedman (me), Curator of Natural History, at Plymouth Museums, Galleries, Archives, shared my experiences of the conference here.
The Future of Museum Collections
Leading on from the conference, one talk by Alistair Brown at the Museums Association, looked at where collections will be in 2030. This new research project will be working with museum staff to understand issues that currently face museums and where they want them to be in less than 15 years time. A write up of the Collections 2030 project can be found here.
What does the next decade look like for museum collections in the UK? This is the question that the Museums Association’s new research project, Collections 2030, is asking.
Over the course of this year, we’ll be working with museum workers, researchers and users to think about the big issues that the sector needs to have on its radar as we plan for the next decade. What trends do we need to adapt to? Will the way that we treat and value collections change? What are the implications of a new generation taking charge in our museums? And will we have the infrastructure that we need not only to pass on collections, but to make them valued by the wider public?
When asked about the future, it can be tempting to let our imaginations run away with ourselves.
But if we’re going to consider what museum collections might look like in 12 years or so, it’s worth casting our minds back the same distance. Over that period, technological changes have been huge, and have led to much experimentation in museums but not always greater impact. The financial crisis has radically changed the workforce and business model for many museums, with major implications for collections knowledge and management.
But our museum collections themselves can seem oddly absent from this picture of change.
Collections have not grown much, and to the extent that ‘pure’ collections issues enter into our discussions, we have seen a period with much to talk about. But not a huge amount of change in practice, about disposals, about storage, about where to put everything, and occasionally, and with much trepidation, whether we should give some of our stuff back to those who made it.
In what must surely be one of the most excitingly themed workshops known to scientists, Monica Price (formerly of Oxford University Museum of Natural History) and Jana Horak (Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales) recently ran a day-long workshop called Hazards in Geological Collections. We’re not talking hazards like booklice eating your specimen labels, we’re talking The Big Guns. It was Christmas come early for the attendees who had gathered from the ‘four corners’ of the British Isles to learn what
villainstreasures might be lurking in their collections.
Each of the three tables of eager minds was presented with a box of unlabelled specimens from which to try and list the potential hazards. After a very thorough health and safety briefing, we all leaned cautiously in towards the box. Decked out in nitrile gloves and face masks, we were the picture of professionalism. The excitement of the workshop was definitely heightened by the real, LIVE specimens in front of us. Had any of us had been stupid enough to open up and breathe in the contents of an asbestos tube, or rub ourselves all over with a toxic mineral, we could have done ourselves some serious harm. But as it was, the 20 or so geologists in the room were suitably well-behaved.
To paraphrase that great Disney wildlife documentary, The Lion King: change is good, but it’s not easy.
Leaving any job after a long time is always strange, and I’ve been lucky enough to have spent (almost!) seven years at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. In that time I’ve worked on several large projects, learned more than I thought I ever would about anthropology collections, and made some wonderful friends. But sadly, I have now had to move on. Happily, I’ve been able to move on to the wonderful Powell-Cotton Museum, where I will be spending the next year curating the natural history collections.
This has meant quite a large change: I’ve moved to a different part of the country, and started a new job that is very different to what I’ve been doing for the last few years. I’ll admit to feeling some imposter syndrome – I have been working almost exclusively with anthropology objects for a long time now (not my subject specialism: I studied zoology), and worried that I might have forgotten some of my natural history knowledge! Thankfully, that doesn’t seem to have been the case, and in fact working with anthropology collections has taught me a surprising amount about working with natural history collections… from identifying worked animal materials (such as ivory and bone) to documentation standards and procedures (I was a Documentation Assistant at the Horniman), I have gained skills and knowledge that will be invaluable in my new role.
Many of us are freshly returned from a very successful NatSCA Conference, featuring over 20 speakers, trade stands and stores tours. We will be hearing more from them in the coming weeks. Watch this space on the 31st May! In the meantime you can catch up on their exploits by reading the Twitter stream.
In other conference-related news: The Royal Society Sexual Selection Conference is going on as we speak. As before, you can read all about it at the Twitter stream.
In the meantime, I’ve been on a Tyrannosaurus pilgrimage across the Mid-West. I visited some that I can talk about and others that I can’t yet but all of it was very informative.
Not content with rocking the conference, Jack Ashby has been tearing it up at PubSci too, regaling us with tales from his new book. From cats that are killing Australia, to unrepresented penis worms – the talk was engaging and generated copious questions.