Monthly Archives: July 2014

Should museums charge for enquiries?

As a museum curator I get a huge variety of enquiries from members of the public. My most popular is the ‘meteorite’ enquiry; in 7 years, I have only ever seen one real meteorite. (99% of the time the ‘meteorite’ is unquestionably waste from smelt works, wonderfully called ‘slag’.) The most interesting enquiry I’ve had so far was a leopard tooth, subsequently donated to the museum and is currently undergoing some pretty awesome research. I have had plenty of funny enquiries, including a person who saw faces in her ‘crystals’ (there were no faces, nor were they crystals, just pebbles picked up from the road). The funniest has to be an email sent into me for a bird identification: no photo, just a wonderful description of the bird; “It had black feathers. As it flew, it made a ka ka karr kar noise. It never flew higher than 4 metres above the ground.” Pretty useful description, thanks.

Face to face enquiries are fantastic because they give us curators an opportunity to speak to people one on one about something they have brought in. They have been interested enough to pick it up, and hopefully by bringing it into the museum, we can encourage them to explore further. Museums are pretty unique in that anyone can just pop in and ask for a museum curator to have a look at a rock or a painting. I’m not aware of anywhere else that does this. You can pop into your local museum and get some really cool interesting (non-jargon) facts from a real person.

An enquiry which led to a donation and some pretty potentially exciting research.

A leopard tooth enquiry which led to a donation and some pretty potentially exciting research.


But should this come at a price: should museums be charging for identifying things brought in by members of the public?

There is a reason for me asking. Recently due to short staff, I helped cover our museum reception desk for an hour over lunch, which involved answering phone enquiries, pointing people to exhibitions, and helping visitors. It is a rather fun opportunity to people watch; how people move through the museum, how long they stay at certain displays, what they miss, and thinking about how their visit may be different if they were with someone else. No doubt lots of studies have been carried out on visitor movement in museums, but this post is about something else I saw that mild summers day.

Whilst I was subtly people watching, I noticed some museum staff talking to a couple who had brought in a painting. The art curator went off to get some more information, and our conservator was talking to the gentleman. The lady from the couple came over to me on the reception desk, peered sheepishly at a few leaflets on the desk, leaned over and asked “do you know of any auction houses in Plymouth?” I apologised, and shook my head.

A brief exchange, but an interesting one. In museums we do not give valuations on things. As professionals we all follow the Museum Code of Ethics, and encourage appreciation of the objects people have rather than any potential financial value. Many museums will have it written in their collections policy that they will not give valuations for this very reason. We can give details of dealers or auction houses, but if people are thinking of getting rid of an object, I prefer to gently suggest donating it to the museum.

We do however give the enquirer information. And information is power. And I may have heard somewhere that ‘power is power’:

Ah, the delightfully kind and gentle Queen Cersei from Game of Thrones, showing little Finger that 'power is power'. (From here). To watch the full scene click here)

Ah, the delightfully kind and gentle Queen Cersei from Game of Thrones, showing LittleFinger that ‘power is power’. (From here). To watch the full scene click here)

When someone comes in with an object, we let them know what it is, when it was made/painted/lived, who the artist/collector was, and more if we can. This information can be used to sell the item without us ever knowing. Although that is everyone’s right, they have got the information from the museum staff, which opens the question, ‘should museums charge for enquiries?’

I hadn’t heard of a museum charging for enquiries, but to double check I posted a question on the JISCMAIL for the Natural Science Collections Association  (NatSCA). Over 300 curators are signed up to this email list, so one email is far reaching to numerous professionals across the country (and abroad)!

I will confess an embarrassing error. When I sent the email asking whether museums charged for *public* enquiries, there was rather an embarrassing typo. A typo that was seen by most natural history curators in the UK, including friends, colleagues, future bosses… A collections manager, whom I have known for many years, rather wittily replied:

“At my previous museum I did once have an enquiry in a match box which was a pubic louse. I didn’t charge for the enquiry.”

It took me a few moments to realise why he was telling me this.

Eerily beautiful. The crab louse, from a human host. This little critter likes to live in human hair. A straong reminder to read emails carefully before clicking 'send'. Another bad example of clicking too quick was for a job application where I meant to type 'inconviencene', but spell check changed it to 'incontinence'. I never heard back about that job. (Image from here)

Eerily beautiful. The crab louse, from a human host. This little critter likes to live in human hair. A strong reminder to read emails carefully before clicking ‘send’. Another example of clicking too quickly was for a job application where I meant to type ‘apologies for any *inconvenience* caused’; unfortunately the spell-check changed it to ‘incontinence’. I never heard back about that job. (Image from here)

20 museum curators responded to the email, all of which did not charge for enquiries. A few did say that although they themselves were against it, their museum was planning on introducing a charge for public enquiries.

There are a couple of reasons for introducing a charge for enquiries. Many museums are publicly funded and with many cuts in public spending, places that don’t generate income (such as museums) often get the biggest cuts. There is a pressure on museums to generate income by charging for special events or image reproductions. Monies raised in this way go back into the museum to keep the services they provide running and essential materials for the collections.

Another reason for charging is time. Museum curators do a surprising amount of varied work from writing exhibitions to developing safe working procedures for radioactive collections. (I wrote about what museum curators do here.)

Enquiries are fairly ad hoc and can take a reasonable amount of time so one view is to charge. Inevitably some enquiries may take a little bit of time researching, whereas others may just be a quick flick through some reference books, so there could justifiably be a charge.

These are valid reasons. But they are not enough to put a charge on enquiries. These reasons are squished by the very essence of what a museum is about; to engage, inspire and educate people using our incredible collections.

Of the many great responses from curators, this one was sums up the unique and awesome enquiry service in all museums;

“We see it as part of the museum function to encourage people to take an interest in things around them, and in the museum collections as we can show visitors similar items that we have.”

Most museums are funded by the public, so essentially the public have already paid for that service. (Most of the respondents to my email said something to this effect.) Many museums are also free for people to come in and have a look at collections, and talk to a member of staff. Free entry to museums in the UK was only applied relatively recently in 2001, and this has increased the visitors by enormous amounts. By taking away a charge for entry is giving a pretty big statement; it is letting people know the collections are cared for by public money, and belong to us all and should be enjoyed by us all. (Other services such as activities may charge to keep them sustainable; the charge is fed back and buys card, pencils, etc. to continue the activities.) There are smaller independent museums who do charge for entry, but these are mainly volunteer run, and the entry fee goes towards maintenance, bills, etc.

If time is an issue, there are options of set days for enquiries, or special events where enquiries are encouraged. These are always great fun, but often it is quicker for a curator to look at something that has been brought in than someone explaining to them that there is a set day. Some museums will have front of house staff take photos of the objects and the relevant staff get back to them. Some of the front of house staff may be able to identify the object themselves. These short examples still answer the enquiry and satisfy the persons curiosity.

One response from a curator was that adding a charge often costs more in administration and staff time than the actual charge! It is often quicker to speak to the person, giving them a sense of excitement, and mention the donations box on the way out. This is a good point. We speak directly to people and can subtly mention the donation box.

Talking to people also provides an excellent opportunity for specimen donations to the museum. I have had numerous offers of specimens offered to the museum, including the potentially exciting leopard tooth above. One 8 year old girl offered a beautiful fossil she found to the museum (with permission from her parents). Clearly, enquiries are an excellent means of collections development, and people begin to feel ownership of the collections, because it is something they have donated and it now belongs in the museum.

Yep. That's me. Just telling that lady who asked about the auction house what she should really do with it. (From here.)

Yep. That’s me. Just telling that lady who asked about the auction house what she should really do with it. (From here)

More recently I know many curators who receive enquiries through social media. Many museums and curators are on Twitter tweeting about their daily work – which is great to show people the variety of things a curator does, and also a fantastic way to engage with people. I have been asked to identify many things through Twitter, from bones to rocks.

My favourite ‘social media enquiry’ was around a year ago; a photo of rock found by a 3 and a half year old. It didn’t look like anything enormously exciting, just some flint from the South Downs, but in the photo I could see some bits of a fossil sponge. The location gave its date, and the fossil told the story. The mother later replied that her son was so happy and excited to receive the information and loved to hear about an ancient sponge sitting at the bottom of a shallow warm sea with Ichthyosaurs splashing around, while dinosaurs were stomping around on the land. Such a wonderful response is priceless.

Charging for an enquiry takes away any of the excitement of bringing something in to the museum and talking to a real curator; ‘That will cost you £15 to talk to someone.’ It doesn’t really welcome people to bring things in, and a price would also drastically reduce the number of enquiries we get. This would reduce the ‘I found a meteorite’ enquiry, but what’s wrong with spending 4 minutes talking to someone about how slag is formed from ancient smelt works? It would discourage children from bringing things in, and even discourage them from looking at things in the first place.

Enquiries are brilliant! It is a great chance to talk to people passionately about what they have brought in to be identified, and make links to our collections. People from all ages get in touch about something exciting they have found. From long, long conversations with some enquiries, to seeing the pure astonishment on a childs face when they find out how awesome that thing they have brought in is, curators are there for the public. If we start to put a fee on this, we would be stopping people from using the museum, and stopping peoples natural curiosity.

I shall end with one wonderful response from a curator. This is a delightful recount of their experience when they were younger. I, and I am sure all my colleagues,  hope that speaking to people about the things they bring in with such enthusiasm encourages the next museum curator, or palaeontologists, or entomologist…

“When I was both smaller and younger, in fact about 12yrs old, when on holiday in Norfolk, I went into the Castle Museum, Norwich, with a section of a fossil elephant molar found under the cliffs at Bacton. I was completely bowled over by not just being told what it was but taken by the curator to his office (or that was what I thought it was, it could have been the store) where we were shown a drawer full in all different stages of preservation, size, etc. Coming from a part of the world (southern Lake District) where there were no museums that employed curators, this was a completely novel experience. Who knows if that accounted for my choice of career but if it had a formative role then I thank [the curator] for it.

I later met him “professionally” and thanked him for his kindness and patience. He was very polite as small boys and girls bearing things found lying about in the countryside must have dragged him away fairly frequently from whatever deep thoughts were engaging his attention. He wrote a book on the Fossil vertebrates of the Cromer forest bed in Norwich Castle Museum, running to two editions. I have tried to model my attitude to enquirers on this pattern. It is a lot more satisfying (and in fact easier) for both parties to show a visitor a drawer full of cockroaches, or whatever, to show the difference between the American and the Australian species rather than just tell them the name of it.  There are many arguments for such a free service. What are the arguments for charging? Is there any museum in the world that charges small children with their precious matchbox contents or adults with a similar curiosity about our world?”


Update 12th August 2014:

Since posting this blog, it was picked up by the Museums Association. It was slightly edited, and re-posted on their ‘Comments’ section of their website. Click here to read the edited post and extra comments.



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Original beauty

All that remains of most extinct creatures we know about are a few fossil bones that have been lucky enough to survive oceans vanishing and continents colliding. Rarely some special conditions preserve an organism (animal, plant or bacteria) perfectly revealing the most exquisite fossil. To gaze upon one of these, you can be forgiven for forgetting where you are and being taken back to the time when the animal was alive. You can visualise the original beauty of this long lost beast. It is such a shame when the casts of these extremely rare, beautiful fossils are just awful.

There really isn't too much to say about this bad cast.

There really isn’t too much to say about this bad cast, except that it looks like it was badly moulded from clay.

In true bad cast fashion, this specimen does not show off any of it’s real awesomeness. In the slightest. It looks like a birthday cake, a pretty cool birthday cake, but still, a birthday cake. There was no label with this specimen but underneath, scribbled in pencil, was a name Cephalaspis lyelli. This is lucky as it gives a lot more detail than I would have otherwise found.

Believe it or not, Cephalaspis lyelli was an ancient fish that lived in what is now Scotland around 400 million years ago. The most striking feature is the head, which has a prominent curved shield. The Genus ‘Cephalaspis’ acknowledges this quirky feature, as it literally means ‘head shield’. These creatures were very different from todays fish; they were armoured and they had no jaws (a few fish today do not have a jaw, such as the lamprey and the hagfish). This bad cast is bad. It is thickly painted taking away any potential fine detail. There has been no shame in adding ‘detail’ at the end; they eyes clearly painted on, and the ribs look like a 6 year old has had a go.

This is what the real fossil should look like. It may not look like much, but this fossil has scales, eyes, and even where soft parts were once attached;

The type specimen of Cephalaspis lyelli held at the Natural History Museum London. (Image from here)

The type specimen of Cephalaspis lyelli held at the Natural History Museum London. (Image from here)

These were a pretty cool group of fish. They were covered in thick skin to protect them from other giants living in the Devonian waters, such as the giant ‘sea scorpions’. The prefect fossils reveal rows of tiny nerve groupings around the rim of the head shield, and along the middle; perhaps these were used to hunt little invertebrates in the mud, or to sense for movement in the water around them so they could escape from predators.

This group of fish obviously impressed someone at the museum 108 years ago. Because they got another. Another bad cast.

Another bad cast of a beautiful fish.

Another bad cast of a beautiful fish. An undercoat of light grey, with a rusty orange on top. I could have done a better job.

Cephalaspis were amazing creatures that swam around in the waters over 400 million years ago. The beautiful fossils reveal the most perfect details, such as evidence of nerve endings around the head shield, bringing these extinct fish back to life.

The fossils are truly remarkable. The bad casts are clearly not. They effortlessly mask any beauty of the original beauty by slopping thick layers of paint over the top. The ‘detail’ in the eyes and ribs are ruined by someone who wants this cast finished quickly. It’s a shame, because these were truly amazing animals and their real beauty, that beauty of the original fossil, is lost.

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A bath time gem

After a small hiatus, the infamous bad casts are back in their usual chipped, crap manner. And, as you would expect, this one fails to impress. What looks like a somewhat expensive exfoliator, is in fact a cast of a real fossil. I have no doubt it would be a very satisfying exfoliator (particularly on your upper back), but I wouldn’t. Mainly because it is likely to crumble into mush in your hand if you soak it in water. But also because curators generally don’t take specimens with them into the bath. Well, most of the time we don’t.


A poofer? A loofah? No, no. Just another bad cast.

A loofah? No, no. Just another bad cast.


The label has this bad cast identified as ‘Anchitherium’, which is italicised because this is the Genus of an animal. (We, for example, belong to the Genus Homo, and the species sapiens, so our scientific name is Homo sapiens). What is lovely (for me) is that there is more information on the card, saying it was cast from a specimen which is at the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle, Paris. This is the first time in all the bad casts that I have written about that has information about the actual fossil it was cast from! This opens up new stories into discovering who collected the specimen, when and where from.

Anchitherium was a type of horse that lived from 25 million years ago to around 5 million years ago. It was quite unlike any horse you would see around today, for this creature was about the same size as a small labrador, and had three hooves on each foot. It was a very successful Genus with many different species, but it was not a direct descendent to horses around today. Little Anchitherium was a side branch that only just didn’t make it.

The little horse, Anchitherium.

The little horse, Anchitherium, just browsing on some leaves. (Image from here)

This unusual horse was more at home in the woods than on grasslands, which would ultimately lead to its demise. Evolving in North America, changes in climate caused woodlands to shrink, and additional competition pushed Anchitherium out to migrate towards Europe and Asia. Fossils of Anchitherium species have been found in Japan dating from around 16.5 million years ago.

This may not look like much, but it was cast from quite an awesome animal. The cast is from the top teeth showing the glorious exfoliating bumps beautifully. These bumps tell us what the animal ate. At home in woodlands, the bumpy bits (called the crowns) are higher than those in modern horses, showing us that it ate plants and leaves instead of grasses. These specialist teeth couldn’t adapt quick enough to changing temperatures, vegetation and competition. Anchitherium was a specialist plant eater; too specialist to adapt as the areas it lived lost its woodlands. As the woodlands vanished, so did this little horse. This little three toed creature was replaced by luscious grass plains, and different kinds of horses. Including the ancestors of the horse we have today.

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