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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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

A Tale of Two Playing Cards

The Museum Ethnographers Group conference is being held on Monday and Tuesday at the excellent Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent. The theme is ‘Nature and Culture in Museums’, and the relationship between the two.

I am a zoologist by background, but for the last three years I have been immersed in a different world, working on a review of the Anthropology collections at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. I have learned an enormous amount about material culture from all over the world, seen some incredibly stunning objects, and been surprised by how relevant my Natural History knowledge has been. Many of our objects are made of animal materials, and it’s been a great opportunity to learn new skills in identifying ivories, bone, and antler. Only a few weeks ago I was very excited to be able to identify an Inuit flint-sharpening tool as being made of mammoth ivory!

I have also been asked to add taxonomic data to some Anthropology object records in our Collections Management System, so that we can record the species that are represented by objects. This provides richer contextual data, and links between objects that can be navigated on our website.

Victorian playing cards featuring exotic species (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Victorian playing cards featuring exotic species (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

One such group of objects is this set of Victorian playing cards. They are cute: on one side is a cryptic clue to the identity of an animal, and on the other is an illustration of that animal. I didn’t anticipate how much the taxonomic information would add to our understanding of the objects, or that it would enable them to tell a story about discovery and extinction…

Two cards in the pack, together, tell this tale. The first is the ‘Black-diver’:

Black-diver playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Black-diver playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Mounted Great Auk specimen (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Mounted Great Auk specimen (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Which is actually a Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis). I have never heard ‘black diver’ used as a common name for this bird, but the likeness is unmistakable. The last recorded sighting of this species is from 1852, following the death of the last individuals to be shot, in 1844. I was intrigued to see this species represented in the pack, and was left wondering whether any of the Victorian children who played with the cards had ever actually seen a live Auk.

A second card could potentially hold the clue to this:

 

Reverse of animal playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Reverse of animal playing card (Horniman Museum &Gardens)

Gorilla playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

Gorilla playing card (Horniman Museum & Gardens)

The Eastern Lowland Gorilla (Gorilla beringei) was not described until 1903, so it seems much more likely that this card represents the Western Gorilla (Gorilla gorilla), described in 1847.

The date of the discovery of the Western Gorilla, combined with that of the extinction of the Great Auk, could potentially narrow down the date at which these cards were made enormously: there is only a five-year period in which both species were known to exist together, between 1847 and 1852. However, the actual date of manufacture could be much later: following their discovery, gorillas were incredibly popular with the public for many years, particularly in the 1860s after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, and the first live specimen reached a European zoo in 1876. ‘The Auk’ was taken as the title of the American Ornithologists’ Union’s journal, founded in 1884. So the Great Auk was clearly still in the public consciousness long after its extinction. Given this information, it seems quite possible that the original owners of the playing cards may never have seen either species in the flesh!

But that is as far as my research has taken me for now. This is a story that I hadn’t expected to find in these objects. As museum professionals, we are custodians of more than just collections: we are the keepers of specialist knowledge that we use to interpret our collections, to tell stories that will engage our audiences. Sometimes, to find their stories, you need to look at objects from more than one perspective. By working across disciplines and sharing our expertise, we can find new tales and new ways to tell them.

 

Rachel Jennings
Documentation Assistant, Horniman Museum and Gardens

One of our dinosaurs, birds, crabs…. is missing

Reblogged from the UCL Museums and Collections Blog

One of our dinosaurs, birds, crabs…. is missing

By Mark Carnall, Grant Museum of Zoology

You may have figured from the title of this blog but I’m going to take a bit of time to talk about when specimens go missing from a museum collection. It can be a difficult thing for museums to talk about as most museums operate to care for the specimens and objects that are given in trust to them often for perpetuity, or more practically until the death of our part of the Universe. Currently a lot of my work here involves relocating our specimens following the move of the stores and museum a couple of years ago and trying to work out what happened to a missing specimen involves a bit of detective work, so I thought I’d offer an insight into the process.

Missing Specimens- The Prime Suspects

Collectively, museums look after billions of objects. The Grant Museum contains roughly 68,000 specimens which may sound like a lot but natural history collections regularly number in the millions. Even keeping track of a mere 68,000 of them can be problematic enough. Here’s the mental checklist I go through when a specimen can’t be located.

1. Somebody* put it back in the wrong place. A little known fact about museums is that under English law it is still possible to punish a museum professional with death if they commit this crime. Putting a specimen in drawer 43 instead of drawer 44 may sound trivial, but if it’s one of 200,000 superficially identical butterflies that’s been misplaced….. Of course, naturally you search the nearby area but if it isn’t immediately  findable the next step is to organise a search committee and comb the museum inch by inch until it is located. Sometimes this is how half dodos are rediscovered.

Good old object movement tickets. They still work when the servers don’t. (C) UCL Grant Museum

Good old object movement tickets. They still work when the servers don’t. (C) UCL Grant Museum

2. It’s temporarily somewhere else. At the Grant Museum, we use our specimens a lot. On any given day we’ve got specimens out for researchers, specimens on loan across the department and to other institutions, specimens being photographed and documented and our own rotating and temporary displays. For longer term movements, the ever useful object movement record should be where the specimen normally lives and the temporary location will be recorded on the database. For shorter term movements this won’t be the case and it’s true to say that with higher-than-you’d-expect regularity two people will need the same specimen at once. As for loans to other institutions it used to be common place to loan specimens on ‘permanent loan’ so some specimens have been temporarily somewhere else for 20, 30, 40 and even 60 years and before the current museum good practices and standards the loan agreement may or may not have been written down anywhere… There’s a good reason why ‘permanent loans’ have been all but outlawed in museums.

A page from one of the Grant Museum loan books. Note how some of the unnumbered ‘Dog skulls’ don’t appear to have a return date. SAD SMILEY FACE. (C) UCL Grant Museum

A page from one of the Grant Museum loan books. Note how some of the unnumbered ‘Dog skulls’ don’t appear to have a return date. SAD SMILEY FACE. (C) UCL Grant Museum

3. The specimen never existed in the first place. Many museums have gone through a number of phases in the attempt to catalogue every single object and specimen in the collection. Sometimes two or more people are documenting the same objects at the same time. This results in duplicate or ghost records appearing for the same object. Over time, and I can testify to this happening, you can be in the situation whereby you’ve got to try to work out whether the 20 physical dog skulls you have before you are the 20 records on the catalogue or not. Another complication is that we appear to have older catalogues of the collection which were part descriptions of the physical collection and part ‘wishlists’.

4. The specimen has been destroyed. Without constant monitoring and conservation work, sadly specimens may be degraded past the point of being recognisable, safe or otherwise usable. In addition specimens may be actively destroyed for the purposes of sampling or other investigation. Today we’d record a specimen as being disposed of and the method by which it was destroyed but in the past this may or may not have been recorded so you’ll be looking for objects that haven’t existed for a long long time.

Pest damage to entomology collections results in the disintegration of specimens. (C) UCL Grant Museum

Pest damage to entomology collections results in the disintegration of specimens. (C) UCL Grant Museum

5. The specimen was part of the ‘curator’s collection’. If you’ve been following my colleague Emma’s series on previous Grant Museum curators you will have read how some of our previous curators didn’t appear to leave much of a material trail in the museum. This is because in the past the boundaries between what belonged to the museum and what belonged to individuals was, how shall we say it, very fluid. When the curators moved on to other institutions they sometimes took their own collections with them or donated their important specimens to the Natural History Museum. Frustratingly, they didn’t always record that this had happened.

6. Stolen. Whether it’s innocent 5 year olds pocketing a handling specimen, a professional scientist accidentally retaining specimens sent to them or your organised criminals stealing to order it’s a sad fact of life that museum specimens do get stolen. There’s at least a bookshelf of literature on art thefts over the years, rhino horn thefts are at an all time high and then there’s the more run-of-the-mill smash and grab jewellery thefts. The real issue is at what stage the theft is noticed. Gallery display thefts tend to be obvious but if it’s one of 40,000 specimens in a storeroom that’s gone missing it can be months or years before it’s noticed. More often than not it’s when specimens come onto the open market that it’s realised it’s no longer in the museum.

7. Misidentified. The classification of animals is constantly changing. In older collections you’ll have the full spread of names an animal has ever been known by that may be completely different to the current ‘consensus’ (which can be in a state of flux for 150 years and counting). Furthermore, depending on who has been documenting a specimen, your non specialist may get as far as bones, your generalist natural historian as far as lion and your carnivoran expert down to population you may be looking for a bag of bones labelled lion or looking for a lion labelled as a bag of bones.

A great example of the kind of handwriting you can expect to find on older specimens. Diplommyotns, Diplomyctus, Diplonijotus, Diplonnystus? Suggestions on a postcard please. (C) UCL Grant Museum

A great example of the kind of handwriting you can expect to find on older specimens. Diplommyotns, Diplomyctus, Diplonijotus, Diplonnystus? Suggestions on a postcard please. (C) UCL Grant Museum

8. Human Error. I don’t know if there’s a ‘background rate’ for errors that people make but when you scale museum staff adding up to 200 different fields of information (number, description, location, etc.) for thousands or hundreds of thousands of different specimens the inevitable fallibility of humans starts to add up. Couple this with the fact that, like GPs, scientists tend to have awful handwriting and you can be looking for a Z300 instead of an S800.

 So that’s the mental checklist I run through when a specimen can’t be located and it can be very heartening to relocate a missing specimen but ultimately some specimens end up recorded permanently as lost in the hope that at some point they’ll be rediscovered.

Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology

* For diplomacy I use the generic somebody here. In reality it’s always Mr. Nobody who takes responsibility for this.