Making the Most of What You’ve Got

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History, Horniman Museum and Gardens

The Collection

The Horniman Museum is the custodian of a collection of ca. 175,000 fossil specimens, collected by Walter Hellyer Bennett (1892-1971). A mining geologist and palaeontology enthusiast, Bennett collected somewhat indiscriminately, not pausing to favour geography, strata, or taxa, which makes it a collection of great interest to a wide variety of academics, and for other uses such as exhibitions and loans.

This huge collection was bequeathed to the Croydon Natural History and Scientific Society in the 1970s, where choice pieces were put out on open display whilst the rest remained stored in Bennett’s original wooden cabinets. It contains some beautiful material, such as this Isotelus gigas trilobite, and Eryon propinguus lobster.

A) Isotelus gigas, and Ordovician trilobite from the Trenton Limestone. B) Eryon propinquus, a Jurassic lobster from the Solnhofen Limestone. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

The collection is approximately 10% vertebrate material, 85% invertebrates, and 5% plants and trace fossils. In case you are interested in particular taxonomic groups (as we are keen on facilitating research enquiries and visits… fyi) the invertebrates are mostly bivalves, brachiopods, cephalopods, corals, and gastropods, with a large variety of other taxonomic groups represented in small numbers as well (please do get in touch if you’re interested in getting more information), and the vertebrates are primarily conodonts, crocodilians, dinosaurs, fish (including sharks), ichthyosaurs, mammals, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs, and turtles. Geographically, around 87% of the material was collected within Europe, primarily from the UK (50%) and France (15%). A further 10% is from North America whilst small amounts of material were collected from across Africa, South America, the Middle East, Asia and Australasia. Notable sites include the Solnhofen Limestone and the Burgess Shale.

Problems and solutions

At present, the collection is bulk accessioned under a single number, with a spreadsheet representing a draw level inventory as the only searchable gateway to the material. For the purposes of access for research, exhibitions, loans, etc., the collection needs to be accessioned at specimen level, with all relevant data uploaded on to our database Mimsy XG. For the most part, that’s not difficult, though there are several quirks that act as speed traps of thick gloopy mud, for example some drawers had a label for a group of specimens rather than individual specimen labels and on occasion these specimens have been mixed up. You know, the kind of thing that makes a curator like myself have an itchy brain at 3am. I say “for the most part, accessioning the collection at specimen level isn’t difficult”, but let me remind you of the scale of the collection; it contains ca. 175,000 specimens. Difficult, no. Time consuming, yes.

A) Specimen level label, kept in the individual specimen’s bag or box. B) Label for a group of specimens, these have unfortunately been mixed up in some drawers. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Over the last two years, with help from a number of volunteers for various periods of time, we have managed to document 1,750 specimens per year on average. This has included a lot of Sherlock Holmes-ing and integral ‘fiddling about’ rather than solid documentation hour after hour. But we need to start somewhere so, based on that figure, and hopefully not too optimistically factoring in more continuous volunteer roles (which we take on for three months at a time), the projected time to accession the entire collection at specimen level is:

So those lucky researchers alive in the year 2117 will be able to fully access the collection and know everything there is to know. Hoorah. But for us back here in 2019, that feels like rather an unsatisfactory goal. So, we need a better plan and that’s where the point of this article becomes apparent. In order to get to a stage where we can facilitate access to the collection for internal and external use, we need to either win the lottery and hire a herd of curatorial staff, or take carefully calculated ‘short-cuts’. Sadly, the choice isn’t ours and thus we’re going for the latter.

The biggest weapon on our arsenal is the gargantuan spreadsheet that acts as a drawer level inventory. This can be uploaded onto Mimsy on a drawer by drawer basis, meaning that, superficially at least, the collection is searchable. It doesn’t detail individual specimens, but it is an excellent starting place, and something that already exists so it would be folly to overlook its extensive usefulness. However, to document the collection on a specimen level, as is appropriate for a museum collection, after much, very careful, consideration the following steps have been agreed as acceptable short-cuts for the here and now:

1. Specimen lots

If there are a number of specimens of the exact same species, in the exact same physical location (drawers in cabinets in this case), they will be accessioned and labelled as a specimen lot, to be part numbered at later date. All of the relevant information will be on the record, and the number of items will show how many specimens we have. The pro of this is speed, and the individual specimens won’t be missing anything, except that it will share a number with its small group. The con is if one of the specimens needs to be moved in isolation of the others. In this event, the group would need to be part numbered. However, part-numbering is the future goal of the group anyway, so the urgency of requirement would just bring the deadline forward.

Under the ‘Rule of Specimen Lots’, these six ammonites would be given a single number, for eg NH.89.3.453. At a later date (or sooner if the need arises), they will then be part numbered and given individual numbers accordingly; NH.89.3.453.1, NH.89.3.453.2, NH.89.3.453.3, etc. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

2. Prioritisation

This makes the back of my eyeballs burn when I look at the database but, the collection will be ordered out of sequence. Some of the material is higher priority than the rest, due to potential for display or research, as examples. I would like the numbering sequence to commence at drawer one, cabinet one, but realistically that will hold up the documentation of material of known importance in order to document specimens of far less importance and lower quality. As much as it’s painful to number things out of order, it’s the most reasonable course of action. The pro, again, is speed. The con is important specimens may be overlooked at this stage, it is difficult to be an expert in every taxonomic group relevant to such a huge collection.

We will prioritise important material such as this partial ophalmosaur paddle from Yetminster, over material with obvious less-importance. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

3. Digitisation

Following on from point two, we will only list the most important material for photographing. Whilst this is done by a separate department, their time is extremely limited as well, with only a percentage of their workload being dedicated to natural history.

This ?Brachylophosaurus jawbone is from the Judith River Formation, in Alberta, Canada. Due to its potential importance, it was selected for imaging by our photography department. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

4. Only the necessary information

Again, a lack of completeness is tough to accept, but for now we will just be uploading the most important data to Mimsy. It is hard to distinguish the ‘important information’ from the rest when everything clearly has a use, however we have decided to fill in the fields marked below by green arrows as a priority and leave the rest for the future. It may seem like we’re not jumping many fields, but inputting data into fields such as Measurements is time consuming, and worth de-prioritising. Just to state- as is the theme of this article, this is not the preferred method, but it is the most reasonable in terms of getting the job done within a satisfactory timeframe.

For the next year, we will document the specimens by filling in these select fields only. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Revising the plan

The four point plan above is intended as a guideline for the upcoming year. At the end of the year, we will compare the rate of progress of documentation against previous years, when all fields were filled out without exception (calibrating for anomalies in work rate, as far as possible). If the rate of progress isn’t much above that of the previous year, then we will look again at the method and revise it.

So this is how we will move forward in documenting the Bennett Collection, with the four short-cuts listed above having been concluded as the best course of action. However, if you’re also in this far-from-unique situation and have any comments, or helpful suggestions, please do get in touch with me at the Horniman Museum. Sharing knowledge within the sector (or even on a cross-disciplinary basis) is what subject specialist networks such as NatSCA is so integral in facilitating after all.

One thought on “Making the Most of What You’ve Got

  1. Pingback: NatSCA Digital Digest – November | NatSCA

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