A Foot In The Door – Finding Collections Work As A Trailing Spouse In A Foreign Country

Written by Caroline Grounds, Freelance Zoological Collections Assistant, Musée national d’histoire naturelle, Luxembourg.

I arrived in Luxembourg 8 years ago when my husband accepted a job offer here, not knowing much about the tiny country (“where exactly is Luxembourg?”), and with a new baby in tow.

I had become accustomed to the trailing expat spouse role, so I was happy for a new adventure, though the hardest part about moving, especially to a country where you don’t speak the language, is finding your niche in which you can carve out something of your own.

As a former Biology teacher, most of my previous museum experience was in science education, as a volunteer at the NHM in London, and the George C. Page museum (La Brea Tar Pits) in Los Angeles, and I was keen to get involved in the Luxembourg Natural History Museum in any way, shape or form. Something about being around the wonders of nature, whether outside or housed in a building, is inspiring to me and, surrounded by like-minded people, where I truly feel like I’m supposed to be.

Not speaking any of the official local languages however (Luxembourgish, German and French), I quickly found that it would be difficult to find work, even on a voluntary basis as I had before. I submitted my CV to the museum anyway, and endured a rather painful phone call in very bad schoolgirl French (mine, not theirs!), which, much to my amazement, led to one of the researchers contacting me for help proofreading his research papers, which were being published in English. That schoolgirl French came in useful after all!

With a foot, or maybe just a toe, in the door, I kept making enquiries and soon discovered that the Zoology research department would also benefit from some extra hands to help sort their collections, which have a large backlog in need of curation. The Covid situation meant that I had nearly 2 years working through the collections from home, which has given me a great chance to familiarise myself with identifying terrestrial invertebrates, fluid preservation techniques, as well as the pinning of beetle families. I have also been able to work on the department’s ongoing research projects, including creating a Wild Bee Atlas for Luxembourg, and helping with collecting dipterans for a project examining the effect of landscape on the genetics of various pollinators. Travelling around the country hand-netting insects and setting pan traps has been a great way to see surprisingly diverse habitats and learn new skills, and fieldwork has also helped me to better understand my collections work. To date, we have 351 wild bee species listed within Luxembourg, 6 of which have been discovered since the project began in 2020.

Searching for bee flies, I learned a lot about their behaviour and which flowers they prefer. © Simon Grounds
My happy place: sorting bees from by-catch from pan traps which we set up throughout the country. © Dylan Thissen

A Little About Luxembourg (MNHNL)

The origins of the museum date back to 1850, when the Society of Natural Sciences was created, and space was created for bringing together natural objects of interest, though at this time Luxembourg was not an independent country in its own right (which would happen in 1867).

The collections grew and were moved multiple times over the next decades, notably in 1940, when Luxembourg had been invaded and occupied by German troops, and the collections needed to be moved, not for reasons of space, but in order to ensure their safeguard.

By 1996 the public museum moved to its current location, an old hospice on the banks of the Alzette, a beautiful setting in the UNESCO world heritage site centre of Luxembourg City and well worth a trip if you happen to be in this part of Europe. Additionally there is a separate building for education, and opposite the public museum, a scientific research centre with 7 sections.

Luxembourg’s Musée national d’histoire naturelle, beautifully situated on the banks of the Alzette. © Caroline Grounds

Luxembourg is a truly multicultural country and this is reflected within the department, which allows me to converse in English for the majority of the time. Working in a small department has also pushed me to think more about the direction I would like to take my own career in. I’m hoping to start my own project to prepare and identify local Bombyliidae in the future, while continuing to be involved in research fieldwork and learning more about the collections and their management. I should really improve my French skills too!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s