The curious life of a museum curator

Working as a curator in a museum is an odd job. It is the best job on the planet. But it is like no other I know of. There are an enormous range of daily tasks a curator carries out, and these are not without their quirks. Here are a few oddities museum curators deal with regularly:

Curators are not Indiana Jones

I’ve written about this before in more detail, but no, we are not Indiana Jones. When we introduce ourselves to new people, the response is sometimes ‘oh, just like Indiana Jones.’ This is a common misconception, albeit a rather flattering one. We do see some dangerous action in the field: dozens of beetles and flies on family friendly bug hunts, slipping on jagged rocks when rock pooling. However, some, many, most do not have whips under their beds. Curators do not steal ancient relics from temples (there are laws against those sorts of things). We are just as determined and passionate as Indy, but very different.

 

A museum curator and Indiana Jones. Can you tell the two apart? (Photo left Public Domain. Photo right by author)

 

“You’re Ross from Friends

This is a another common response when a museum curator tells someone what they do. And yes, Ross Geller (played by the excellent David Schwimmer), was a museum curator before becoming a university lecturer in the wonderful sit-com Friends. Ross worked at the fictional Museum of Natural History as a palaeontology curator. His work spanned enormously for a national museum, where his expertise ranged from human evolution to dinosaurs. Ross Geller is the closest thing to a museum personality curators have ever had. To be honest, this isn’t a bad thing. He was pretty cool. Curators can relate to his slightly obsessive geekiness and matter of fact way of thinking. For me, Ross is a legend on screen. As a teen watching Friends his character was actually extremely influential – I could relate to his nerdy, slightly awkward persona. In fact, without Ross Geller I wouldn’t have thought about a career in museums.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – September

(Image from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

What  should I read?

Love the posters at this years NatSCA conference? Want to read and admire them in more detail? You can! Read them with pleasure at your leisure, because they are now all available free to look at!

Did you know there were ten different species of mammoth? A long read over your lunch time, spanning 5 million years in fact, visiting some very big and some very small mammoths!

A great piece by Mark Carnall, Life Collections Manager at Oxford University Museum of Natural History , looking at rudely shaped rocks! A fun piece with giants, owls and very early palaeontology.

What do you call woodlice?

Just one of the many species of woodlice. Or is that roly poly, or sow bug, or …. (Image by Franco Filini, Public Domain)

A little map of woodlice names was shared on BBC’s Springwatch blog earlier this week. It has led to dozens more names of woodlice. Jan Freedman (that’s me!) is gathering up names and wants to update the map, so do get in touch if you know of any historic references or names.

What can I see?

The Dinosaurs of China exhibition at Wollaton Hall is on until the end of October. Visit beautiful grounds with deer, and explore some truly magnificent creatures in the exhibition, from the time of the dinosaurs.

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To Dress a Wolf

I like a nice little link to a place I am visiting. And there is a wonderful (if not a little tenuous) link between where I work in Plymouth and Cambridge. Charles Darwin studied theology at University of Cambridge in the old oak clad lecture theatres. And it was through the connections he made at Cambridge that set him on board the HMS Beagle, on a journey that would change the world of scientific thinking forever. The HMS Beagle, with Darwin and all the crew, set sail from in Plymouth after a three month delay. It’s a neat little link.

With such a strong historic links to science, there was perhaps no better place suited to hold the NatSCA  conference 2017. Even the theme title linked in, with a little nod to Darwin (those clever committee members): Evolving ideas: provocative new ways of working with collections.

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NatSCA Digital Digest – March

The bob tailed squid. (Image from the collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery)

What Should I See and Do?

The fantastic ‘Extinction or Survival‘ exhibition at the Manchester Museum is still on until the 26th April. If you are visiting nearby, then you must pop into this museum!

Something is coming…..Bristol Museum and Art Gallery will be having a prehistoric adventure with their new Pliosaur exhibition opening in June this year. Expect lots of fossils, digital recreations, and I hear there will be a life-sized model of their incredible specimen. More updates as the beast swims towards June… Continue reading

Improving Specimen-Data Recording and Access in a Life Sciences Museum

The Museum of Life Sciences at King’s College London contains teaching and research material from King’s College London (KCL) and elsewhere. The collections include Botany, Zoology and Pharmacy specimens, including microscope slides, from around the world and a small, unique exhibition of glass sculptures recently created to commemorate the role of KCL in the discovery of the structure of DNA.

Paper and electronic (Access) databases were first created in 2003 and contained data for the then KCL Zoology and Botany Collections. In the last few years, volunteers have been recording specimens in paper (form-based) or electronic (Excel) formats and we have all been learning ‘on the job’. Inevitably specimens have been catalogued in different ways to record various kinds of information and many specimens remain uncatalogued. Some groups of specimens from a single collector/preparer or from a single source have been catalogued together as eg ‘The Daws Collection’, The Challenger Collection’.  The accumulating data were becoming unwieldy as there are now more than 8000 records. Continue reading

Nature Notes

In 2016 the Herbert held its first in-house natural history exhibition since a major redevelopment was completed in 2008. The exhibition, Nature Notes, explored the seasonal changes in local wildlife by displaying taxidermy, nests, insects, botany and fungi, botanical watercolours, oil paintings and contemporary artworks. It encouraged visitors to look at the natural world around them and the artworks aimed to inspire visitors to respond to nature in a creative way.

Nature Notes was designed to be enjoyed by all and accessibility was a key consideration in developing the interpretation and interactives. Additions to the exhibition included Makaton on the text panels and interactive tables; and the provision of accessibility aids such as torches, magnifying sheets and ear defenders. We considered contradictory needs such specific learning difficulties and visual impairments by producing lower contrast labels and providing high contrast large print text to take round the space.

Gallery view of Nature Notes.

Gallery view of Nature Notes. The seasonal display runs around the wall, with interactives and handling specimens in the centre.

The most popular part of the exhibition was the multi-sensory interactive tables with things to touch, smell and listen to. These were created by using low cost tables with adjustable legs with a vinyl graphic applied so they tied in with the exhibition’s design. Five pieces of taxidermy were commissioned – one of each season, plus a spare mouse. We worked with a local group of disabled and non-disabled teenagers to help us choose the right smells for each table – only the brave dared to smell the otter dung! As each offered the same experience of touch, smell and sound this meant queues did not form around one table, allowing for a better visitor experience. Continue reading

Micromuseum: The slide collection of J T Quekett

How many natural history collections contain drawers and drawers of unloved microscope slides? With a few notable exceptions, such as the Grant Museum Micrarium, museums often find slides difficult to display and use.

The Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) has a particularly large collection of 50,000 slides, making up more than half of all the objects in the collections here. Hardly any are on display in the Hunterian Museum. A closer look however, reveals that the RCS microscope slide collections are really something special. From William Osman Hill’s Yeti slides to William Hewson’s 240 year old microscope vials, the slide collection here is every bit as exciting and important as the other objects in the museums.

As Collections Assistant for the microscope slide collection most of my work over the last six months has been on the John Thomas Quekett collection. His name is not well known, but if you have heard of it that is probably because you have come across the society of microscopists named in his honour. The Quekett Microscopical Club (QMC) has generously funded a project to care for Quekett’s original slides.

John Thomas Quekett (1815 -1861) was a leading histologist and microscopist who was Richard Owen’s deputy at the Royal College of Surgeons.  Quekett took over as conservator of the Hunterian Museum in 1856 when Owen left for the British Museum to become the superintendent of the natural history department and oversee the building of what would become the Natural History Museum, London. Quekett was at the cutting edge of a revival of the popularity of the microscope in the Victorian period. He wrote A Practical Treatise on the Use of the Microscope which became a classic text for microscopists, and is known to have instructed Prince Albert in the use of his silver microscope. He was a fellow of the Linnaean Society and the Royal Society, and worked with famous scientists such as geologist Charles Lyell, palaeontologist Gideon Mantell, explorer David Livingstone, botanist Joseph Hooker and Charles Darwin himself.

John Wu

John Thomas Quekett (1815-1816). (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

 

An octopus

An octopus from the Quekett Microscope slide collection. (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

 

Quekett was a pioneer in histology and microscopy, designing his own microscope and producing stunning histological preparations, especially injected specimens. Furthermore he put every natural object he could get his hands on onto a microscope slide. Animal, vegetable, mineral, everything. Tissue samples of every organ in the human body, a whole octopus, tiny flakes of silver, the exquisitely prepared respiratory system of a caterpillar. He prepared diatoms, ferns and coal, delicate sections of pterosaur bone, thylacine teeth and oak wood. There are even hair samples disturbingly labelled ‘vampyre’, although this probably refers to the bats rather than the undead.

He carefully labelled and catalogued his slides to produce a comprehensive natural history collection on a microscopic scale, and 12,000 of these slides remain today. It is not surprising that a recent review of the RCS collections concluded that the Quekett material is “one of the strongest representative collections of Victorian microscopy and scientific practice in general in the UK and possibly the world” (RCS Significance Review June 2015).

Given their age the slides are in relatively good condition, but there are some issues to contend with such as cracked glass, missing labels and leaking fluid. Since the 1880s microscope slides have been a standard size – 2.5cm x 7.5cm, but the Quekett collection predates this. His slides range in size from 1.8cm x 4.8cm up to a whopping 8.5cm x 20cm. Some of the slides are also very thick and all this makes storage difficult and any type of automated scanning nigh on impossible.

thyl

Slices through the teeth of thylacines. (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

The collection is obviously of interest to those working on the history of science and microscopy, but impressively the slides are still being used for scientific research, 170 years after Quekett made them. Preparations of harder materials such as fossils, bones and teeth have survived in excellent condition, enabling modern researchers to gather data from the collection. The image below was taken recently using reflected light fluorescence microscopy by a PhD student studying bone remodelling in mammal species.

Transverse section of the humerus of a mountain hare. Prepared by J T Quekett, photographed by Alessandro Felder, Royal Veterinary College. Image taken at 4x magnification using reflected light fluorescence microscopy

Transverse section of the humerus of a mountain hare. Prepared by J T Quekett, photographed by Alessandro Felder, Royal Veterinary College. Image taken at 4x magnification using reflected light fluorescence microscopy. (Image Royal College of Surgeons)

With the upcoming RCS decant and new Hunterian Museum planned for 2020 there is an opportunity to bring this collection to prominence again. We plan to include Quekett’s story in the new exhibits and make his collection better known, better protected and more easily accessible online. At first glance an old microscope slide collection might not look like much, but if you investigate further you never know what you might find.

Written by Hannah Cornish

(Collections Assistant, Royal College of Surgeons)

For more information about J T Quekett see:

https://www.rcseng.ac.uk/library/blog/quekett-and-exploration

http://www.quekett.org/about/who/history