Museums are home to millions of incredible specimens. From teeny tiny wasps that lay their eggs inside living caterpillars, to enormous fossils providing a glimpse of a world long past, our store rooms are packed with information about the beautiful natural world around us.
Curators across the world care for these collections so they are safe for future generations to use and enjoy. The bulk of the work a curator does is documentation (matching specimens to their information, and updating the database, and hunting for the right number). Some curators carry out conservation on the specimens (fixing them if they are broke using specialist training). We get to write about a few of our sexy specimens for displays or exhibitions. (I wrote about what museum curators do in more detail here.)
20 years ago this was fine. Curators, with their socks and sandals, could be squirrelled away in their offices or store rooms, and spend days looking at one specimen. Or months adding dreaded ‘temporary numbers’ on thousands of specimens (something which is taking years to rectify today). Hiding away working with a researcher, or by themselves, talking in technical jargon than no one else understands.
No more we say. No more! The museum curator of the 21st century wants to burst forth from the store rooms waving their socks in the air, free from the stigmas of old, and ready with a smile to talk about the collections to real people! The time of the Socks Under Sandals is over. A new Age has begun. A thousand years from now they will talk of this new sockless curator. The Age before will become a myth.
We look after all these specimens, but what for? What’s the use?
Us curators have researchers visiting our collections: Perhaps to test the DNA of a taxidermy peregrine falcon, or to chemically analyse mineral specimens to see if the chemistry can illuminate the locality (important for many museum collections, where, through the ravages of time, labels have been lost). A wonderful use of some of our taxidermy specimens for research at Plymouth Museum was to test if chickens could learn to spot a fox as a threat. A stuffed rabbit was used as the control. I am very much looking forward to the results to see whether chickens were afraid of a stuffed fox. Or did the stuffed rabbit freak them out?
Although there is unlimited potential for research that is not the only thing natural history collections are for. They have a role to play in society which we are beginning to understand more and more. They are relevant to their local audiences (and can even be relevant to national audiences too); local museums will hold collections collected locally so have real things that will mean something to the local people. They are used regularly by artists to study the incredible forms of nature. They are used out in schools to help support the national curriculum, and at universities to teach about taxonomy. Specimens have been used to increase wellbeing for elderly people.
We have hundreds of thousands of specimens. And we know a lot of rather geeky, but very quirky tales – about the collectors, or how this specimen was rescued from a skip, or how many different types of pickled worms we have… And, as a curator, we love finding these things out. I have heard my previous boss squeal rather loudly with delight when I spotted a rock in the collection had a tiny scrap of a label on it, which linked it to a collector. The quick high-pitched talking, excited flapping grew when we flicked through old photographs of the natural history gallery and that same rock was in one of the photographs, with a label. For 30 years this rock was just a rock, sat in a rather dark wooden drawer. In 30 seconds its future was changed forever.
The reason we get excited is because we can’t wait to tell someone: a rock is not just a rock, a beetle is not just a beetle; they have amazing stories which we want to share! The curators born in the 70s, 80s (and dare I show my age by saying even the 90s) were born with a passion about what they will be looking after.
(As a slight side-track, I have wonderful volunteers who help out with lots of different work. Some were not even born when Jurassic Park came out. Jurassic Park was released in 1993! 1993! Wasn’t that was only a few years ago?!! Why do they smile awkwardly when I crack a joke about MacGyver? Perhaps it is time I stopped saying ‘Go-Go-Gadget tweezers’.)
I know a lot of natural history curators around the UK, and I know we all have awesome collections. Most of the collections will be different from museum to museum, but some of the specimens may be the same, as highlighted by ‘Natural History Museum Bingo’ developed tongue-in-cheek by my friends at UCL’s Grant Museum. And so what if some are the same? It is their stories that sets them apart. I have a couple of mammoth teeth and this is on the Natural History Museum Bingo. But what I have are a couple of mammoth teeth from real Woolly Mammoths that lived just outside Plymouth, only a few miles from where my visitors live. That is unique. And that is a link with my specimen to my visitors: it makes it real for them.
Collections can educate, inspire and amaze. With curators getting out and about and talking to people along with real specimens we are using our collections in new ways. Collections can show the wonderful rich diversity of life around us. They can show us how our bodies work. Rocks and minerals show us what’s inside volcanoes. Pickled creatures show us what’s hidden beneath the waves. Collections open the wonderful curious world of the Victorian collector and their passion for collection the wonders around them.
Curators today know that there is no point of caring for all of these specimens if no one knows about them. Who cares if I have a woolly rhinoceros tooth found in Plymouth, or that a man who worked in a Plymouth book printers also collected 50,000 beetles to the museum? The answer is everyone I speak to will care! Because these collections (and the same for collections in other museums) have stories, and the stories of the collector, or the specimen itself, brings it to life. We want to let people know how amazing our collections are.
To reach different audiences we can give talks or write an article or two. Some of us write blog posts about our collections, or about museum goings on, but mainly this is in our own time on the commute into work, or late at night. A wonderful way to engage with the public is by organising different events where we can bring out specimens, talk to people about them and have activities based on that theme. What better way to discover about the incredible world we live in, and our heritage, by seeing real specimens up close? And here is where the title of this post comes in.
I run a family friendly group Wild about Plymouth, set up by my very inspirational, and energetic, previous boss I mentioned earlier. Once a month I organise different family friendly natural history events in the city, open to everyone. We go rock pooling or enjoy a guided tour round a local nature reserve, getting families out and about enjoying their local environment. The key to the events is that they link to our collections: we bring along specimens that link to the event. With some events held in the museum there is an awesome opportunity to bring out dozens (sometimes hundreds) of specimens that are usually hidden. I, or a colleague from the University, will be there at each event and we talk to people about science. (Other museums run their own events and activities using their curators and specimens to share their wonderful stories.)
Evaluation over the years has shown that people like to talk to approachable, enthusiastic ‘experts’ – myself, colleagues, and brilliant volunteers talk to people about specimens without all the technical mumbo jumbo, but with freaky cool facts. We have tables with specimens, alongside tables with craft activities linked to the theme.
One of my favourite events was called ‘A cold World’. We had some specimens out which were collected from the Arctic including giant sea spiders and giant isopods. We also had some beautiful ptarmigan taxidermy specimens to talk about changing coat colour in winter time. It sounds simple. It really is. The amazing thing is children and adults can talk to someone who knows about the specimens and doesn’t scare them away with the jargon. Plus, they get to see a real ptarmigan or real sea spider up close instead of on a computer screen.
Of course I brought out some of the big hitters; mammoth teeth, woolly rhinoceros teeth, hyena jaws and cave bear remains. All from the local area. Talking to people (of all ages, not just the young ones) is so much fun to see their faces when they find to what it is, or when they find out how old it is. Even more priceless, after discovering what it is, they are flabbergasted to learn these animals used to live just down the road from them! The activities were set for the theme, with making your own giant sea spiders (with straws and tape), cut out a mammoth, and make a pom pom mammoth.
As well as being fun for the little ones, they can take the things they make away with them. And hopefully when they see it they will remember seeing that mammoth tooth. That tooth from a mammoth that lived in Plymouth.
Curators are so lucky to see all these incredible things every day. We get to learn about them and find out their quirky tales. The pom pom mammoths show that we can engage with people in different ways, using our real specimens, and our passion for our collections. If we are not talking about our collections, what’s the point of them? They have amazing stories to tell, lets not keep them locked up in the store rooms any more!