Category Archives: Museum

That belongs in a museum!

Somewhere off the Portuguese coast, rain pours down hard. Lightening flashes in the background. He lifts his bloodied face and smiles. He is surounded by four bad guys, held back and beaten. Even when the historical gold cross is taken from his bag, he still believes. He knows that object should be in a museum, and has no quarms is saying it, despite his predicament. Those words, “that belongs in a museum”, spoken with passion by Indiana Jones, are inscribed above every museum curators door. Well, they should be. Too often do we see things sold to private collectors, and I have even seen specimens on eBay. More often than not there is nothing we can do but watch as unique objects go off to the highest bidder.

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

He  stood his ground for what he belived in. Damn it Indy, you are so right. (From here)

 

Sometimes there may be something we are able to do. Or at least try.

Recently I saw a large collection go to a University. Not a University Museum – they live by the same rules as other museums. University Museums have curators, catalogues of collections, databases, and do some real cool things with their specimens. This collection went to a University teaching collection.

This is a shame, because those specimens, with their own little stories will be used just for teaching – and this is a pretty limited audience. Only the students and a handful of lecturers will see the collections. Some universities do an open day once a year, and bring out some of their teaching collections (I have helped out with some over the years and they often bring out the same specimens, so the rest are kept in behind closed doors). Anyone wanting to carry out any research on the collections needs to know the collections are there – and these will be the university lecturers and a few select students. Even if there is research carried out on them, perhaps a dozen people may read the scientific paper.

I have nothing against University teaching collections – in fact they are excellent at giving the students a chance to see real specimens instead of images on a presentation.

The good, the bad and the ugly

I emailed around to museums to see if there were any experiences with University teaching collections they wouldn’t mind sharing. I heard back from a dozen colleagues with a mixture of good and bad experiences. One University transferred their dinosaur footprint collection to a museum, which was fully documented and included lots of additional data and has subsequently been researched on. A museum took on a University’s entire herbarium collection (over 10,000 specimens) and rescued a Diptera collection which was being badly attacked by pests: both collections had good data. One University Museum holds the teaching collections from three Universities with about 80% information associated with the specimens (one of the collections was from a University with a University Museum!?!).

There are also some not-so-great examples. Some teaching collections were taken by another museum which had very little data associated with them, and were in very poor condition – any old documentation was chaotic and curators are still attempting to identify specimens over 30 years later. Another teaching collection has some fantastic skeletal and taxidermy specimens from all over the world, but no data with them at all, and are very badly eaten. Some years ago a museum took an entire geology teaching collection which had very little data with the specimens at all: the museum spent a long time with volunteers and members of the Russell Society on identifying them, eventually keeping just a fraction of the collection.

An amazing collection of primate skulls, including several of the same species. Lots of potential use with these specimens. But, they have no information with them, and no one knows they are there.

An amazing collection of primate skulls, including several of the same species. Lots of potential use with these specimens. But, they have no information with them, and no one knows they are there.

 

An enormous herbaria collection was almost disposed of but quickly taken in by a museum. It held teaching specimens, PhD research specimens as well as individuals own collections. This took years of volunteers who knew botany to go through and assess the material. Lots had little or no information with them, but the collection did hold some really rare and unique specimens. Just to think that they were almost thrown in the bin.

Some very ugly examples were also brought to life by colleagues. A University disposed of their geological collections with very poor data, and are now with a private individual. In the 1980s another University closed its Geology department, and skipped their teaching collections and students were told that they could take specimens from the skip. A few years ago a University skipped their entire teaching collections only for museum curators to hear about it after it was too late. The loss of unique and potentially important specimens must have been huge.

 

Just one drawer of several from a University teaching collection. The moths have been eaten and completely destroyed.

Just one drawer of several from a University teaching collection. The moths have been eaten and completely destroyed.

 

Hmmm. So there seems to be a few problems with University teaching collections:

– information with the specimens is lost, or not kept.

– the specimens are not cared for and get eaten/damaged/lost.

These are just a few examples. Not all University teaching collections are poorly looked after. There are however enough examples to warrant a little concern.

 

That belongs in a museum.

Of course specimens should be offered/donated to a museum first. Collections with information with them should be held in a relevant public institution so they can be accessed by anyone. The collections get cared for, and one hundred times the use!  Donating to a relevant museum strengthens their collections by filling gaps, adding unique stories, and encouraging more researchers, artists, school groups, and public through new displays. This also makes it easier to identify where to go if you were looking for specific things from a certain area. Someone wanting to look at bat specimens from Devon would not go to a museum in Newcastle.

The group that is often said to be the biggest users of teh collections are researchers. While it is true all museums have researchers using the unique, histoical collections, there is more. So much more that we should be shouting about! Collections are used for much more than research. There are probably many more examples of uses, but I will just share some of my own: I have artists each year coming in and taking inspiration from the collections; I bring specimens out and give talks about the local collections to local community groups; I have been out with local specimens to talk to elderly people suffering from dementia; I set up practical sessions using collections for undergraduate students to get up close and see real specimens. I bring bugs, fossils and skeletons out to schools inspiring hundreds of children every year; I have brought out the collections and their stories to people in shopping centres, the local hospital, the university and other places around the city. Museum collections not only are for active research, they have an even greater role in society: they are actively inspiring.

My fantastic old apprentice, Hayleigh, leading an interactive session about skulls and bones with enthusiastic children.

My fantastic old apprentice, Hayleigh, leading an interactive session about skulls and bones with enthusiastic children.

 

What can be done?

Unfortunatley, the worst things about University teaching collections is the lack of any information with specimens, and the poor condition they are kept in. I have worked closely with three Universities, and I know that teaching colelctions are built up by individuals who are particularly interested in that area. They generally don’t record where specimens were from or when they were colelcted, because for teaching taxonomy this information isn’t needed. When the lecturer retires, or departments closed, then Unviersities get rid of these teaching collections. And if we are fortunate enough, a museum may get wind and rescue the collection from the skip. The difference with a museum is that a curator can carry on from their predecesor. In a University, if that lecturer leaves, there is no one to take over their teaching collection.

The teaching collections are often in such bad condition that musuems have had a difficult time checking what the specimens actually are. Bluntly put, I think the specimens are better off in a museum in the first place. They can be cared for and used much more. I have used collections for teaching University students. Why not have the ‘teaching collections’ in a museum and Universities use them through the museum?

Unfortunately there is no law saying that they should be offered to museums first. Maybe museums need to talk more to universities to offer advice on how to look after their teaching collections. I have written a report for one teaching collection offering advice on safe storage, and ways of finding out the historical information about the specimens. I am working closely with another University to help digitise and care for their herbaria collection. Two other museums I know encourage undergraduates to donate their finds from their dissertation projects and how to record information correctly. These examples help build relationships between the museum to the University.

Today many University departments are closing because there is less demand for degrees in plant sciences or zoology. As they close, the teaching collections with them are thrown out. Perhaps teaching collections would be better housed in a museum in the first place.

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The flamboyant cast

Another Bad Cast for your pleasure. Here we have a pretty small cast of a trilobite. You can just make out the outline of this specimen.

Just. But it is a trilobite.

There is a cast of a trilobite on this image. There really is.

There is a cast of a trilobite on this image. There really is.

Unfortunately, as is a recurring theme with these bad casts, this specimen does not convey the true flamboyance of this type of trilobite. It is a cast from the extravagant trilobite family Thysanopeltid. Species in this family of these extinct arthropods are noted for their big gabella (which is the bulging bit in the centre of the head). They also have very elaborate pygidiums (the ‘tail’ segment): almost as long as the main body in some species.

A beautifully preserved (Image from here)

A beautifully preserved Scabriscutellum sp. from Morocco. Note the very elongated tail section (towards the left of the image). (Image from here)

As with all trilobites, they lived in the marine environment. With their large eyes, and relatively flat, streamlined bodies, these unusual trilobites likely lived in the shallow coastal areas where there was light. Staying close to the sandy or muddy floor, they would have scurried along feeding on the tiny organisms in the water as they went.

These were creatures of the Devonian. From around 410 to 358 million years ago, several species from this family were swimming in the warm seas. From Morrocco, North America, and South England, this was a successful family.

The land was slowly being colonised by plants in the Devonian, with some primitive insects scuttling through these alien forests. The seas were different: they were rich, full of diverse life.  With giant armoured fish longer than me, coral reefs, and hundreds of different types of trilobites, this was a world owned by the marine creatures. Stepping barefoot into shallow Devononian waters, you would feel the tickle of trilobites running furiously over your feet, while others swimming would accidently bump into your legs. It was a wonderful world.

Towards the end of the Devonian the fossil record shows that there was a huge extinction event, with numerous families of trilobites, ammonites, corals, and some land animals vanishing forever. Around 22% of families had gone, and 75% of species. The causes may have been due to a meteorite impact, or the changing atmosphere due to the spread of the land plants. It was, and still is, a very fragile planet where slight changes have extremely dramatic effects.

Around half of the bad casts at the museum are trilobites. I get why. Plymouth is on very hard, tough limestone. What fossils have survived 400 million years of crushing, burial, heat and uplift, are fragments of corals or sea shells. When the museum opened, like all museums, they wanted to represent life past and present. Without real fossils to purchase, casts were the next best thing. Apparently.

Did they have to be so bad? We will never know why someone, 100 years ago, spent many shillings on so many bad casts. What is worse for this particular cast, is that species from this wonderful family, Thysanopeltid, have been found in Newton Abbot. Rocks, which are only 40 minutes away. 40 minutes away. Instead of looking for the real thing, we have ended up with this bad cast.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The real value of museum collections

I heard something disturbing last year while I was at an event held in a museum. Colleagues from other organisations and volunteers were talking to the public about specimens on tables. It was a bustling event, with over 400 people coming along to look at the specimens, talk to specialists, and get stuck into hands on activities. During the event a member of the museum staff (lets call them Jones) went around and told the people helping with the event not to have any drinks at the table. The helpers were cautioned that they should be particularly careful because of the paintings hanging on the walls. Jones even told these external people how much one painting was ‘worth’.

The museum and staff member are remaining anonymous, but this is a true story. There are several things which are wrong with this. Firstly, Jones assumes that volunteers and external helpers were not briefed before the event began with common sense health and safety, and how to work with care around museum collections. Secondly, Jones told volunteers and people who don’t work at the museum how much a painting is worth in money terms!! Incredible!! We do not go around telling people the market value of this or that object – that would be stupid and invite enormous security problems!! My biggest problem was that Jones was very serious in mentioning the ’value’ of the painting; they completely ignored the museum specimens on the table. By warning against damage of the paintings, and giving the cost of one, gave the paintings a greater ‘value’ than the specimens which were being used for the event.

My fantastic old apprentice, Hayleigh, leading an interactive session about skulls and bones with enthusiastic children.

My fantastic old apprentice, Hayleigh, leading an interactive session in the museum about skulls and bones with enthusiastic children.

Museum objects, be they a Picasso or a beetle, should not have a monetary value added to them. We do have to put ‘insurance values’ on objects when we lend them to other museums. This insurance value is the cost of replacing that loaned item if there was any damage. However, there is no way you can replace a Picasso (one painting painted by one man). There is also no way you can replace a beetle (one individual beetle, collected from one place at a certain time by one man). And this is my point. Money will not buy back that Picasso no more than it will buy back that individual beetle. A type specimen can’t be replaced and neither can an extinct animal. All objects that are in the museum collections are irreplaceable and literally priceless.

Giving a museum object a monetary value is wrong. It indicates that these objects are worth some money. And that is not good. They can be targeted by thieves, or worse, they can be sold by the very people who swore to look after them. There have been several examples of objects being sold in order to fill budget gaps, including art work and taxidermy. Why is this wrong? Because it is not ours to sell. Museum hold objects in trust for you, the people. We look after the collections, and care for them, but they are for everyone. It is wrong, because these objects end up in private hands where they will never been seen, or enjoyed again.

By saying an object is ‘worth’ X amount of money, as Jones did, raises the status of that object. Other collections are neglected, relegated to some dark corner, because all the focus is on the big sexy ‘expensive’ object. Of course, all museums have their sexy collections which they like to use; it might be a massive taxidermy specimen, or an object from a known collector. This is what the museum is known for, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But they are because they are iconic, not because they are ‘worth’ lots. These iconic objects are sexy because of their story, not because of the dollars they have over their heads. Giving an object a big price tag means other objects are forgotten about, along with the stories.

Interestingly, the monetary value placed on an object is based on the current market value. This doesn’t actually mean anything for several reasons. Firstly, there is no ‘market value’ for 70% of museum collections, so does that mean they are worth nothing? If an object is damaged or destroyed, as already mentioned, we cant go out and buy that exact same object. What happens when the market crashed; do we suddenly have an object that is ‘worth’ nothing?

A gorgeous, rare oil beetle (Melo violaceus) from the entomology collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. Would you give this specimen the same 'value' as a work of art?

A gorgeous, rare oil beetle (Melo violaceus) from the entomology collections at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. Would you give this specimen the same ‘value’ as a work of art?

I have pondered what the solution should be. How should the ‘value’ of museum objects be calculated? Surely, as a museum (a place where collections are held for the public), the value should reflect that? Perhaps we forget about pound coins, and think about what value the object has to Joe Blogs. So, what about we think about an objects value in terms of its potential for inspiration and pure joy?

To measure the value of an object, we can easily work out the ‘joy’ one may get from it. We can do simple experiments (talking to people with our objects, for example) and use the following equation to work out the real value:

Value = Smiles + Awe + Interaction + Excitement

Where:

Smiles is the length of time (in seconds) a smile is held for whilst talking to that person about that object.

Awe is the length of time (in seconds) the eyes open widely and the mouth drops.

Interaction is the number of interactive questions asked about the object.

Excitement is the number of excited responses (i.e. ‘wow’, ‘noooo’, ‘that’s amazing’, etc.)

Curators reading this may think ‘this is silly’ because actually they may secretly think ‘arggghh, what if my value isn’t high?’ Dont worry, the value will always be high. That’s the point. Whether you are holding a piece of ceramic, an old radio, or a hyena jaw, the value should always be the same. They all have the potential of being awesomely inspiring objects that fit with the above equation. All that object needs is a passionate, enthusiastic museum person to share the awesome stories to inspire the very people we are looking after them for.

(There is the obvious value in research with many specimens, and value for inspiring artists, storytellers, etc. This value can be reflected in the above equation quite easily: the person talking about the object includes it’s many different uses. Research on objects is awesome. Its 100 times more awesome if people know about it!)

When I started thinking about the real value of museum collections, of course I flirted with the thought that natural history collections are supremely valuable. They are popular amongst visitors (as shown by two separate studies: one evaluating London museums, and another evaluating museums with multidisciplinary displays). Events with stuffed birds, pickled creatures and fossils are always over booked. But, after this fleeting 2 second thought, it vanished. All collections in a museum are as valuable as each other. Departments within one museum should not be proving who has the most ‘expensive’ object, or debating who has the more important collection. We should actually all be working together. We have different collections, and sometimes different audiences. But this is a good thing: mixing up collections for displays and events highlights areas that people may not have seen before. It increases the inspiration people get, and automatically gives it value. A value that is more valuable than money.

We care a lot about what we look after. Curators of curtains love curtains (there is a real Curtain Museum). Curators at the Tank Museum love tanks. And yes, those curators at the [real] Museum of Broken Relationships are passionate about, well, the spoils from broken relationships.

Let curators show the true value of our collections.

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Update: 1st Nov 2014

This post was picked up by the Museums Association after a Twitter discussion between myself and my good friend @MarkCarnall at UCL’s Grant Museum. We were asked to put across our views in a kind of ‘conversation’ style chat (I quite like ‘museum dance off’).

The conversation was published in the Museums Journal, and is also on the Museums Association website – here.

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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?”

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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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