Written by Amanda Callaghan, Curator/Director of the Cole Museum of Zoology at the University of Reading.
What is your role on the NatSCA Committee?
I only recently joined the Committee but will be taking over the organisation of training courses from Clare Brown in the New Year. NatSCA offers really interesting and relevant courses for people working in this sector and I would welcome any ideas of courses you would like to see, or repeats of courses you missed. I attended a couple of these recently, including by far the smelliest day I have ever spent, at the skeleton preparation course at Fort Cumberland in Portsmouth.
Job title and Institution
Curator/Director of the Cole Museum of Zoology at the University of Reading/Professor of Invertebrate Zoology.
Tell us about your day job?
Working as a University academic means that you have lots of hats. My hats include teaching undergraduate zoology, supervising PhD and undergraduate student research and no end of random teaching leadership roles. These roles are all very interesting but by far the best part of my working week is spent in the Cole Museum where I have been the curator for the past 15 years.
The collection was founded by Professor Francis Cole in 1907 to teach zoology at Reading, then University College Reading. It is relatively small, with only 3,500 accessioned items, but it is supplemented by many 1000s of zoological specimens that have accumulated over the years. The past two years have been very museum-focussed because we are moving into a new Health and Life Sciences building. I usually spend 2-3 days a week organising the move and redisplay of the museum, including writing content and designing cases. The project has existed in the ether since 2015 so I am very excited and anxious to see it all come together at last in 2020. Redesigning and moving the museum is a massive job, but luckily I have two enthusiastic and talented part-time staff members, Meg and Tara, who keep it fun.
We rely heavily on our fantastic volunteers, most of whom are undergraduate students, to help with almost everything. I can think of three of my former student volunteers who have gone on to careers in museums, so for some of them it is a door to a whole new world. The moral support I have had from the NatSCA committee has been invaluable and I am keen to help anyone else in my position gain expertise through training courses and mentoring.
Natural science collections are very popular with museum visitors. Why do you think this is?
Natural science is fundamental to us all. We are part of nature and I think it would be strange to have no interest in it. Children have a natural fascination for animals and plants. Often this is lost but for many people the interest re-emerges and develops as they grow older and more contemplative. I like to think that there is an increasingly better appreciation of the importance of the natural world to our species and those of us lucky enough to work with natural science collections can help to signpost issues and improve understanding.
What are the biggest challenges facing natural science collections right now?
The obvious answer is a lack of funding which is also true for those of us working in University museums. The value of natural history collections is increasing, with new techniques to use samples to inform us of past climates to predict future trends, discover new species and look at historical genetic diversity. This, together with public interest in the collections, could be translated into better funding streams from national research councils. Whilst it is laudable to fund projects that engage local communities, we need the collections to still be there for people to engage with, and experts who are able to curate, interpret and conserve the specimens.
What do you love most about working with natural science collections?
I love biology as a subject, at every level, life is just so amazing. Working in the Cole has easily tripled my zoological knowledge. Re-designing and re-writing the Cole Museum has taken months of research into areas that I otherwise would have ignored. I knew almost nothing about fossils prior to 2017, despite having rescued the remnants of the University’s fossil collection (the best parts of which went to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History), but I am now totally hooked and in love with the Ediacaran and Cambrian fauna.
What would your career be in an alternative universe without museums?
I get to cheat on this one since I am not a museum professional! If museums didn’t exist I would just be a much grumpier and less informed academic than I already am.
What is your favourite museum and why?
There are so many great ones but if forced to decide I would choose the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. I go there whenever I can since there is so much to read and learn and I loved their recent exhibition on early life. I have based the new Cole Museum text on their approach, since it is intended to be an undergraduate teaching resource rather than a public museum aimed at families.