Making the Most of a Move: Geological Curators’ Group Conference, Day Two
We like to share the goodies in the field of natural history, so in the first ever cross-over of its kind, Part I (comprising Day One) of this blog can be found over on the Geological Curator’s Group website. No need to take the time to google it, let me give you a hand over there.
Night Early Morning at the Museum
The only thing that beats going to a natural history museum is visiting it when you’re not meant to be. The trump card of such a visit, is when you’re allowed to go to parts of the collections, not normally accessible to the general public. After a day in the lecture theatre, the 35+ members of the “Making the Most of a Move” conference assembled the following morning outside the Natural History gallery of the National Museum of Ireland, in order to tick off every one of the above, on the Museum Treats Bingo Card*.
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.
A Fellow of the Royal Entomological Society, Harold Edward Hammond, (1902 – 1963), was a keen Lepidopterist. Coupled with this affinity for butterflies and moths he was also interested in entomology generally and would take up a new order every couple of seasons, afterwards giving the carefully mounted specimens to some young aspiring student of the subject. Before his health failed a few years before his death, it was not unusual to find Hammond out in the snow on Boxing Day, splitting logs with an axe to find beetle larvae. Generous, almost to a fault, he was content with gaining new knowledge and found reward in encouraging a new generation of enthusiasts.
Hammond’s main focus was on the larvae of Lepidoptera and, as can be seen by the associated article, he became an expert in their preservation. Raising many larvae into a suitable size for mounting could be somewhat problematic, so his Birmingham garden became a cross between a sanctuary and a fattening pen for many caterpillars. This miniature farm was orderly and well maintained, where trees were pruned to the size of bushes for easy access and micro habitats were constructed to help manage conditions for more demanding food plants.
The skills that Hammond developed in preserving caterpillars were much in demand by fellow entomologists, and he would sometimes receive dozens of boxes of live larvae a week, all dutifully delivered by a postman oblivious to their wriggling contents. His fee for this service was a request that he could have a larva or two for his own collection. During his preparations he encountered many parasitic hymenopteran and dipteran larvae, so he became quite the expert on those also, co-authoring several papers in the Entomologist’s Gazette.
Katie Ott, a museum studies student on placement with the Horniman, tells us about her fascinating work with our botany collection.
I’m Katie, and I’m three weeks into an eight-week work placement at the Horniman, helping the Natural History team to research and document the botany collection.
The botany collection at the Horniman is made up of around 3000 individual specimens either mounted onto herbarium sheets or bound in volumes. The flowering plant collection dates mainly from 1830-1850.
Two herbarium sheets from Flora Britannica no. 4., Katie Ott
The main task is to transcribe the (beautiful, but squiggly) Victorian handwriting on the herbarium sheets such as the plant’s scientific name, and where it was found etc onto MimsyXG, our collections management database.
I was just thinking last week that social media has taken over the world as the most thing in existence, corporeal or not, when this article came out about how scientists should all be trained in its use; Social Media; More Scientists Needed. No hope of escape for any of us then. (I say on a social media platform).
Last Wednesday, sadly, New Walk Museum had items stolen from display; From Rhino horns to Egyptian jewels. Whilst the objects stolen last week weren’t of natural history origin, this article (if you can see it through the adverts) also reveals that rhino horn was stolen from there a few years ago. The huge rhino horn problem faced by museums, primarily in 2012, was largely curbed by museums removing all horn from display. An update on this situation was published on our website recently in Rhinos and Museums.
We’ve all been asked it – what do you actually do as a zoology curator…
Some years ago, in a post I can no longer find, @morethanadodo responded with a long list that ranged from bar-tender to expert on name-your- taxon. Oh, how we laughed… In my long service at the Hunterian in Glasgow I have had the privilege of curating all sorts of zoology material – today I am a coral expert, tomorrow I’m puzzling over pickling fish correctly…
However, over the years, in addition to curating the zoology collection, my remit expanded to include the anatomy and pathology collections and most recently a collection of materia medica. ‘Wot dat?’ you may well ask. Well, essentially it’s an apothecary/pharmacology collection and could easily be the original ‘animal, vegetable, mineral’ quiz. In University museums, unsurprisingly and quite typically you are offered and acquire collections that have been made by former or existing academic staff in the course of their research and teaching. Given the collections are made for those
purposes, they usually require processing to get up to museum standards.
The collection in question is that made by Professor Ralph Stockman, (1861-1946), Regius Professor of Materia Medica 1897 – 1937 at the University of Glasgow. Stockman, born in Leith and educated at Edinburgh University, was a medical doctor who worked as an influential and successful clinician and an academic scientist in what was then called medical chemistry.
Ralph Stockman (image from University of Glasgow, UGSP00223)