Meet the Committee – Roberto Portela Miguez

What is your role on the NatSCA Committee?

I have been the Secretary for the Society since 2014 and on the committee, since 2011. NatSCA and its membership have contributed significantly to my development as a curator and collection manager, so I am very grateful for the opportunity to serve the society in this capacity now.

Job title and institution

I am the Senior Curator in Charge for the Mammal Section at the Natural History Museum, London.

The Museum collection contains an estimated 500,000 mammal specimens and over 8,000 of those are type specimens. This makes it one of the largest and most comprehensive collections in the world.

Twitter username

@bertieportela

“Fashion is key for fieldwork” says Roberto

Tell us about your day job

My duties involve the general care and curation of the collections under my care, and the identification, data-basing, preservation, and accession of new material. I am also in charge of answering enquires, supervising visitors, and heavily involved with associated Museum exhibition and public engagement projects within my taxa of expertise.

I support research opportunities and collaborations that demonstrate the relevance and value of the Museum collection and increase our understanding and knowledge of mammals

Natural science collections are very popular with visitors. Why do you think this is?

We all have a special regard for the natural world. After all, we are part of it. I like to think that the majority of people still feel that connection and deeply care for it. Visiting any type of exhibition helps us to satisfy our curiosity and stimulate our intellect, but I think natural history galleries work on a level that also rekindles this deep rooted and innate link to the medium in which our species evolved.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now?

Natural Science collections have never been impervious to the socio-political and financial forces that rule our daily lives. Museums have been dramatically damaged by wars and financial crises before and indeed many have been lost in those tragic periods. However the selfless efforts of individuals and small collectives of people have managed to keep many of our collections soldiering on through the centuries. We are now at a time of austerity again with many uncertainties looming over the financial future of the museum sector and of science in general. Museum proffesionals are hardly ever invited to the table where political and financial agendas are crafted, but we must never give up. We must stick together, support each other and keep advocating for the importance of natural history collections to address current and future global challenges.

What would be your career in an alternate universe without museums?

The Museum has given me the opportunity to do fieldwork in remote locations and see amazing places where few have previously ventured into. These experiences have been painful (leeches, mosquitos, diarrhoea, etc…) and frustrating at times (try using a bog roll under cyclone conditions…not easy!). However, despite these adversities, I loved every single second of it. Therefore, and since we are talking hypothetically, I think in a universe without museums, I would try to be an explorer… even if I don’t get to collect.

What is your favourite museum, and why?

This is quite a difficult question to answer, because it is the equivalent of asking which friend and colleague would you like to upset by not choosing their collection and I am afraid I am keener on building bridges than burning them.

Instead I would be prepared to tell you that the exhibitions I enjoy the most are those designed open plan rather than labyrinth-like galleries. I like to be able to see as many exhibits as possible and make the choice of where to go rather than being led down a path. I am not a radical but I just do not like being forced to follow the herd.

Written by Roberto Portela Miguez,  Senior Curator in Charge for the Mammal Section at the Natural History Museum, London and NatSCA Committee Member.

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