Category Archives: Museum Collections

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 beauty of the beast

I will admit it. I am fond of this weeks bad cast. The cast is not unique or unusual. Nor is it particularly striking. The beauty of this beast is unseen.

A familiar cast? It is of course, the wonderful Archaeopteryx.

A familiar cast? It is of course, the wonderful Archaeopteryx.

You will immediately recognise this cast: Archaeopteryx. A cast of one of the most famous fossils in history. Preserved almost perfectly for around 150 million years, this is a truly beautiful creature. The preservation on the real fossil is so incredible even the feathers have been fossilised. This is down to the exquisite limestone they have been encapsulated for an immense period of time: the Solnhofen Limestone.

The limestone in Solnhofen, Germany, has been quarried for centuries. Forming around 150 million years ago this was once at the edge of the now extinct Tethys Sea. Here, there was a beautiful, sparkling lagoon. Beautiful but deadly. With the salinity so high, no organisms could live here. This was good news for future palaeontologists, because no organisms in the lagoon means there is nothing to eat anything that falls into it. Added to this was the incredibly fine carbonate mud falling to the bottom. So not only was anything that fell into the lagoon protected from scavengers, their bodies were covered in extremely fine sediment. The result – exquisitely gorgeous fossils including plants, insects, pterosaurs, and of course Archaeopteryx.

Admittedly it is not the most detailed cast ever produced. Made with a rather thick, powdery Plaster of Paris, you can only just make out the outline of the wings. Today, fine resins make much more detailed casts of fossils, often reproducing the smallest of details.

This cast is certainly not rare. Almost every museum in the UK will have a copy of this famous specimen. So confident that you are guaranteed to see this cast, my chum at UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, Mark Carnall, included it in his slightly tongue-in-cheek, ‘Museum Bingo’. Here you take the Museum Bingo card into a museum and cross off the specimens you see. More often than not, you will shout ‘Bingo’!

And it is true. There are plenty of them about. I have seen an Archaeopteryx proudly displayed in a case right next to the front doors welcoming all visitors. In another museum, a quirky ‘real life’ model of an Archaeopteryx is perched valiantly next to the cast. One museum goes one step further and boldly places the cast on the wall to explain bird evolution: it is the only specimen on the wall and I am really sure it works.

So why, if nearly every museum in the UK has a copy, do I have such a secret crush on this bad cast?

True beauty is not in what something looks like. Something that appears beautiful can actually be quite the opposite. I have known a couple of people whom many would say are beautiful. They have strong features, soft skin, big eyes. But to me, they were not beautiful. They lacked personality, humour, empathy, kindness, or warmth. These are the features that make someone (or something) beautiful. The ability to make someone smile; to have interesting, engaging chats; to understand others and to have that warmth of kindness in their eyes. There are so many truly beautiful people in the world. And it is their beauty that really shines.

This Archaeopteryx cast is beautiful. There are only 12 specimens of Archaeopteryx in museums in the world. Twelve. Being so rare, not every museum can hold a specimen. But that doesn’t stop every museum from wanting one. Because these were amazing animals.

Archaeopteryx is one of those ancient animals that have caused heated debate ever since it was first discovered. It is incredible because it has gorgeously preserved feathers; real, long, asymmetrical feathers, which are used in birds today for flight. But there are traits in this creature that cannot be seen in birds today:

  • Archaeopteryx had fingers: birds today have three fingers (digits ii, iii, and iv) which have shrunk or fused to form an extra one in the wing.
  • Archaeopteryx clearly has teeth: birds today lack teeth in their beaks. Some chicks have an ‘egg tooth’ to help them get out of the egg when they hatch.
  • Archaeopteryx had several bones in its tail: birds today have a small number of 5 or 6 tail bones fused together (called the pygostyle).

A strange creature indeed. And it clearly shows a very close relationship between dinosaurs and birds. Although maybe not a direct ancestor for modern birds, this was a very early type of bird which had wings for flying.

And even after 150 years after it was first discovered, we are still learning new things about this ancient bird. In 20122 a team used the incredibly powerful Scanning Electron Microscope (SEM) to look a feather of Archaeopteryx. Zooming in at such a high magnification brings out features that have not been seen before, including structures of melanosomes: the cells which store the colour of the feather. The team compared the structures to many other bird melanosomes, and it showed this feather was very likely black. Another study looking at more feathers indicated that some were dark and light. Each new fascinating bit of research adds a little extra detail to this enigmatic bird.

Using the bad cast. I like to use Archaeopteryx at events. This week I have been running an event for Science Week. School shave been learning about bird anatomy, plus a little bit of evolutionary history.

Using the bad cast. I like to use Archaeopteryx at events. This week I have been running an event for Science Week. Schools have been learning about bird anatomy, plus a little bit of evolutionary history.

All of these great features, and the historical tales of great debates of Archaeopteryx, make this a wonderful fossil to have a cast of. Does it matter that it is a cast? Not really, no. It was cast from the original fossil. And the cast can be used in many different ways. Many museums have it on display. I don’t. I actually use it for talking to schools or families about anatomy, evolution, adaptation, fossils, history of science…This is one of my regulars I get out for events. And it never fails to impress.

The beauty of this Archaeopteryx cast is it’s ability to inspire. Talking to people of all ages and letting them get up close to this fossil, give a real sense of awesomeness. It may not be the most perfect cast, but goodness me, it really is the most beautiful.

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Hidden beauty

They are back. After a little break, mainly to digest their pure awfulness, bad casts are back. This plaster cast of a real fossil is as bad as you would expect. (And I must remind you, that all the casts in this series are real casts.)

I’m not really sure what this bad cast looks like. But I do know that is looks nothing like the fossil it was cast from. This is another trilobite. Paying homage to the ghost in the rock, this rather blurry replica, gives little detail for the viewer to drool over. Which is a shame, because it is actually from a really cool group of trilobites.


A squashed bug you say? Nope. That's a cast of a trilobite.

A squashed bug you say? Nope. That’s a cast of a trilobite.


This rectangular slab of plaster does have an museum number with it, and an accession card! That is pretty exciting, because the accession card is a record of all the associated information with that specimen. (Today we have computer databases, but 100 years ago, there were wonderful accession cards.) Very exciting. Well, it would be, if the accession card had any information on it!

Written on the card is ‘Plaster cast white slab’. Yep. Got that.

Then it gives the measurements ‘5 ¼ x 4 ¾’. Pretty pointless.

Finally, the card tells us that this specimen was given by the crooksters Gregory and Gregory. (See previous posts. Several of these bad casts have been sold by those two.)

Accession cards should have information about where the specimen came from, who collected it, when it was collected and any other information. That is standard for museum objects. Without that information, the object may be pretty fro display or education, but scientifically useless.

My trilobite identification skills are not amazing. So I sent an image of this (and several other bad casts) to colleagues at the Natural History Museum, London. They were awesome and identified them as best they could, despite the fact that they were so bad. This trilobite was placed in the Family Cheiruridae. This was a fairly large family with around 83 different Genera, and numerous different species. These are a pretty cool Family of trilobites. With elaborate head spines, and extra large spines growing from the bottom, they are a distinctive group.

Trilobites are sadly now extinct, but they were a very successful group of invertebrates. The first fossils of them can be found at the very beginning of the Cambrian Period (around 520 million years ago), and they evolved to live in a huge number of marine environments. A hard, but thanks to the segments on the thorax, flexible outer shell protected the creature from most predators. Some groups grew elaborate spines from their backs, adding a little extra protection. Others we happy to be incredible simple looking. What a great group of animals. Hidden under the tough outer shell were two dozen or so little legs, each with gills on, furiously kicking giving the illusion of an animal elegantly gliding through the water.

The Family Cheiruridae first appear around 485 million years ago, and vanished around 360 million years ago. That is a long time for a Family to be on the planet. (The Family to which humans are in, along with the great apes, the Hominidae, have only been around for around 14 million years.) And they were are pretty stunning Family too.

A beautiful fossil of Paraceraurus exsul, from Russia. This little beast would have been swimming int eh waters (Image from here)

A beautiful fossil of Paraceraurus exsul, from Russia. This little beast would have been swimming in the waters around 460 million years ago.(Image from here)

Unfortunately we only got the Family for this trilobite cast. Such a terrible reproduction means a positive identification is very tricky. But I do know more than I did about this cast than I did before. These were beautiful animals. Scanning images online of the fossils (here), the detail in the preservation is incredible. Over 400 million years old, and they are exquisite.

It is such a shame that this cast is just so bad. It tells a tale of the beauty and diversity of trilobites. But to look at it, one would never know.

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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


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.


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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The croc in the rock

Number 16 of this series of bad casts is another shocker. All the casts are actually really bad (possibly apart from that pretty darn good bad cast, but this is a cast of a model, not a real fossil). It is amazing how truly bad these casts are and nobody seems to have ever questioned them!

This week’s specimen fails to excite, as you would expect by now.

Another terrible bad cast. A head of a crocodile and a few vertebra. Remember, these bad casts actually belong in a museum. Why?!

Another terrible bad cast. Remember, these casts actually are in a museum collection.


The ‘rock’ for this cast is fairly good for a change. Normally, the ‘rock’ (the block the fossil sits on) is just splattered with one colour where you can see the enormously clumsy brush strokes. This one has a little shading, and even a couple of ‘cracks’ thrown in. Nice touch.

The ‘rock’ looks pretty real. This (momentarily) takes your eyes away from what you are supposed to be looking at; the tennis racket in the middle of the slab.

The tennis racket is, of course, the cast of the fossil crocodile head. There are a few other bones included; two vertebrae and a leg bone. Presumably these were on the original fossil.

‘Presumably’, ‘probably’, ‘may have’, are words that often come up in this series of posts, because there is very little information with the specimens. With this cast there is a faded number but no information.

We can make educated guesses about what it is and why the museum possibly has it.

Looking at the snout, I know it is a crocodile skull. Alligators have wider snouts, whereas crocodiles have long thin snouts. It is quite a small specimen, but why have one?

I have a tingly feeling that all of these bad casts may have once been used to illustrate life through time. The collection of casts includes some trilobites, some ancient fish and even a dinosaur tooth. There are some mammals as well (which will come in the next few weeks). This crocodile ‘fossil’ may well have been used to show the people of Plymouth in 1910 a selection of different creatures that lived millions of years ago. Although the fossil is pretty bad, the choice of animal pretty good.

True crocodiles evolved around 200 million years ago. Before these, the ancestors lived on land and looked a little different. In the skull you can see four holes;

Another terrible bad cast. A head of a crocodile and a few vertebra. Remember, these bad casts actually belong in a museum. Why?!

The crocodile skull has four holes on it’s head.

The front two holes are for the eye sockets. The two holes at the back are shared with many other animals, including, birds, snakes, lizards, dinosaurs, rhynchosaurs and others. These two holes (found in diapsids) would have attached muscles to the head. Because they are present in all these animals (including some other extinct ones), it shows that they are all closely related. But crocodiles and birds are even more closely related.

Crocodiles, dinosaurs and birds all belong to the group called archosaurs. This group is defined by the animals within it having two extra openings in the front of the skull (below the eye sockets). Sharing a similar feature like this means that the animals in this group all shared a common ancestor which split apart and evolved into some incredible forms!

Around 250 million years ago, during the Triassic Period, the dinosaurs were becoming the dominant land animals. The ancestors of crocodiles (known as crocodylomorphs) had evolved to take advantage of a number of food sources, including insects, meat, plants and fish. These land loving ancestors felt the pressure of the successful dinosaurs, and around 50 million years later, during the Jurassic Period, crocodiles were living solely in the water.

It was at this time, around 200 million years ago, that crocodiles began to look like crocodiles. Before then they were strange reptiles, some with nostrils on the tops of their heads (rather than at the end of their snouts), and others walks on two legs. They waited patiently in the rivers while large dinosaurs were taking sips of water, and some grew to enormous sizes to tackle this larger prey. The enormous Sarcosuchus was almost as long as a basketball court (around 20m), and would have enjoyed a dinosaur for dinner.

There is more information behind a bad cast than would first appear. A lot of information can be told around this bad cast and we can work out why the museum purchased it.

I may be trying to make this bad cast look extremely good with all the exciting information. Our educated guesses may actually be nothing more than an old Christmas present to a previous curator who left it in the office by mistake. I will never know.

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The king lizard whale

This weeks bad cast doesn’t really look like a fossil, yet it may be from a creature you might recognise.


A very very poor quality cast. Those pesky fossil cast dealers.

A very very poor quality cast. Those pesky fossil cast dealers. Doesn’t look like much, does it?


I nearly took the photo this way by mistake;


Has someone made a cast of a banana?

Has someone made a cast of a banana?


Even worse, I almost took the photo this way;


Well. Good job I didnt take the photo this way.

Well. Good job I didnt take the photo this way. Otherwise, this could have been mistaken for a cast of something unimaginable. 

Shocking. Not the shape of the fossil (which is a little), but the quality. How can this be sold as a cast of a ‘real’ fossil? It has. Frustratingly it was 108 years ago, so the dealers cannot be challenged by trading standards. There is no time travelling ombudsman. (Now there’s a cool job.)

This is actually a cast of a fossil tooth! The tooth does exist somewhere, but you wouldn’t be surprised to know that there is no information with this specimen about the original fossil. That would be giving us too much!

The label names the tooth as belonging to Zeuglodon cetoides. This extinct beast is actually one you may recognise; Basilosaurus cetoides. It’s an amazing creature, with an interesting history.

In the earl-1800s, huge fossil bones had been discovered in the sediment of the American South. Huge, and fairly common, these had been used as furniture! A couple of bones were sent to the American Philosophical Society for identification. (The American Philosophical Society was set up in 1743 by Benjamin Franklin and John Bartram and early members included three presidents of the United States of America).

The anatomist who looked at the bones (mainly the bones from the spine; the vertebra), Richard Harlan, compared them to the (then) recently discovered dinosaur bones of Megalosaurus and Iguanodon. Harlan thought they looked very similar, but bigger. So he named the creature ‘Basilosaurus‘ meaning ‘king lizard’.

Was this another type of giant extinct lizard? Another new dinosaur discovered? Nope.

Harlan visited England and took some of his newly described Basilosaurus specimens with him to show to the great Richard Owen. (Richard Owen was an incredible British  comparative anatomist who was able to identify an extinct animal by one bone. He was brilliant, but he was also very arrogant, egotistical and deceitful.) Owen looked at the fossils and there were traits that looked like a mammal, and lots of similarities to whales. He renamed the giant ‘Zeuglodon‘ and the American anatomist agreed.

However, there are rules when we name animals and plants (and bacteria). Them rules are there for a reason. The rules of taxonomy are there to make sure that an organism doesn’t have five different scientific names. It also gives priority to the first name given. So in the case of this big whale, it was scientifically described as Basilosaurus before it was called Zeuglodon, so Basilosaurus takes precedent.

This tooth belonged to this whale that lived during the Eocene (around 40 million years ago). About as long as 4 double decker buses, it was a heft animal! As you can’t really see, the teeth were quite chunky and pointy; the shape, and that one fossil had a stomach full of fish indicate that they fed on fish in the oceans. Closely related to modern whales, the Basilosaurus were not their ancestors; this group and the group of modern whales shared a common ancestor that lived around 50 million years ago.

A delightful little sketch of two Basilosaurus. Big, long, whales. Lovely. (Image from here)

A delightful little sketch of two Basilosaurus. Big, long, whales. Lovely. (Image from here)

Beneath this shockingly bad cast is the tale of an whale that once swam in the oceans millions of years ago. Fossils, and potentially casts of fossils, reveal such awesome clues to forgotten worlds. Many of the bad casts in this series do not give the original fossil any thing to get excited about. This bad cast is no exception.



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What does a museum curator do?

Being a museum curator is a fascinating job. The incredible specimens we are privileged to work with every day, and the huge variety of things we do, ensures that this job is forever enchanting. I have worked in museums for 10 years, and I am still in my honeymoon period.

But what do curators in museums do? I am often asked this very question. Sometimes people have actually answered it for me by saying ‘Ohhh, so you are a little like Indiana Jones?’. After a little quip about having a whip under my bed, I sadly admit that being a curator in a museum is a lot different (although I still am super flattered to be called Indiana Jones!).

No that's not me. That is a photo of Harrison Ford. Although we do look uncannily alike, that is where the similarities end. A museum curators job is a little different from the work of Indiana Jones. Image from here.

No that’s not me. That’s a photo of Harrison Ford. Although we do look uncannily alike, and that is how I hold my whip, that is where the similarities end. A museum curators job is a little different from the work of Indiana Jones. Image from here.

I am Curator of Natural History at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery. Although my degree was in Geology, I look after all the geology (rocks, fossils, and minerals), all the zoology (vertebrate and invertebrate animals) and all the botany (plants). This is quite standard for ‘smaller’ local authority museums where there is little funding for a curator for each specialist area, so a natural history curator looks after everything. This isn’t a bad thing; it keeps things extremely interesting, as we are constantly learning new things with the collections.

From the small independent and local authority museums to the large national museums, the essence of a curators job is the same; the core collections work. This ‘core’ work we all do is essential to make sure the specimens are in the best possible care. I will provide examples using natural history collections, but the essence is the same for working with dead things or paintings.

The ‘core’ curatorial work includes:

1. The magic number

Every single individual specimen in the museum collections should have a unique number; an accession number. This number is unique to that specimen. Like a bar code, it links information, notes, forms, and correspondence directly to that specimen.

When a collection comes into the museum it is recorded in the accession register and given a unique number. As each specimen in this new donation is recorded and documented, individual unique numbers are given to each. All the data is recorded along with the number, so it can be cross referenced in a simple, easy system to find a specimen and all its information. Nice and simple. One would like to think.

100 years of numbers, and different numbering styles, makes things a little more interesting. And a little more frustrating; two different specimens may have the same number; numbers may have rubbed off or fallen off; specimens may be numbered 19.01 and this could be recorded in the accession register as 1919.01 or 1901.19. My favourite are those wonderful large-scale documentation projects in the 1990s where specimens  have been given a new ‘temporary numbers’. Over 20 years later, those ‘temporary’ numbers are still going strong.

A beautiful sub-fossil hyena tooth. The number on the specimen tells us where it has come from, when, who found it and notes and publications. Unfortunately, another seven different specimens share this number!

A beautiful sub-fossil hyena tooth. The number on the specimen tells us where it has come from, when, who found it and notes and publications. Unfortunately, another seven different specimens share this number!

For new collections that come into the museum, we have the privilege of numbering the individual specimens as they should be. This is actually like a wonderful honeymoon; slow, methodical, thorough, covering every detail, beautiful, entirely satisfying, and something you don’t want to end.

There is a lot number checking in a curators job. Remember, the number relates to an individual specimen and all the information with it. So without the number that rock has lost its history, it has lost it’s unique story. A beetle is just a beetle. That pickled worm is just a pickled worm. But find the number for that pickled worm, and dig in the old accession books and history files, and we find out that that pickled worm was the first individual of this species to be discovered in the waters off Plymouth in the 1950s, which was forgotten about and re-discovered only a few years ago.

There are old records and old files holding lots of information about specimens. Luckily today we use databases to store all this information, so we can type in the unique accession number and it brings up all the details about that little specimen. That is the ultimate dream.

2. Computer says ‘no’

Since the 1990s all museums (should) have a computer database. This is where the all important numbers come in. That unique individual number for a specimen is typed into the database and all the information with that specimen is recorded under the number. This is where the bar code analogy comes in: search the number on the database and all the information relating to that specimen will come up.

What is really cool is that we can keep updating information as new information is discovered. Recent research papers, oral history stories, new links, and photographs can all be scanned, transcribed and added to the database. This is really cool because projects we work on today can be linked directly to the specimens. Curators in 50 years time will have such rich records of the collections in just one click.

Even cooler – yes the database does get cooler – is that the information can be linked to website! So we can select records from the database and link it to the museum websites. What a great way of giving access to thousands of museum objects! Pretty snazzy no?

Super cool. But the database is also our weakness. A lot of the time we can put a number in to search for a specimen and the ‘computer says no’.

The face of many a curator after looking for a number on the museum database. Computer says no. Image from here.

The face of many a curator after looking for a number on the museum database. Computer says no. Image from here.

When computer databases were introduced into museums, there were enormous projects to get as many numbers on the database as possible. This was great but there were big downfalls: the dreaded ‘temporary number’ was given to specimens which still haunt us today; because it was done so quickly, lots of information was left off; lots of specimens were missed. Even today there is an enormous amount to check and get on there. (For example, there are 61,000 natural history records on my museum database. That’s a lot of records. But there are an estimated 150,000 specimens, so a lot of work is needed.)

An enormous, and slightly addictive, part of what curators do is check the specimen number to see if it is on the database, and if it is to check the information is all there. This can be an overwhelming task, but done project by project, collection by collection and it is manageable. And unbelievably satisfying to see a collection with all the information on there! The honeymoon continues to delight.

3. Show a little tender love

With collections in museums over 100 years old, there will be one or two that need a little gently loving care. Some may need fixing, others cleaned, and some just packed a little better than they were: this is called conservation.

Most museums will have a conservation department. The staff there will be working on objects to make sure they are kept in the best standard and fixed if needed. It is interesting that most natural history curators will carry out conservation themselves on a daily basis. One week we can be working with specimens in spirit, another safely storing fragile ice age bones.

But we don’t do things nilly-willy! We are trained by colleagues and go to information packed and inspiring training sessions across the country. Two subject specialist groups provide excellent natural history training workshops; the Natural Science Collections Association and the Geological Curators Group. One of the greatest training comes from the natural history community; colleagues across the UK offer advice, support and mentoring without anything in return, expect to know that knowledge is being shared.

Recently donated to the museum, these Cave Bear teeth and bone need conservation work to remove the mould, clean and store in environmentally controlled boxes.

Recently donated to the museum, these Cave Bear teeth and bone need conservation work to remove the mould, clean and store in environmentally controlled boxes.

Working directly on specimens is ruddy brilliant! We get really close to the creatures, and there is such a variety. Reattaching heads and limbs to pinned insects is a good one to test that steady hand. Working with spirit specimens is an interesting, and extremely satisfying job because a mouldy dried up ‘thing’ can be rescued and transformed to its complete original form.

Conservation is a wonderfully intimate art bringing us closer to the specimens we are charged to care for, and in doing so we understand them in all their beautiful glory.

4. Putting on a display

Museums trace their origins to the old cabinets of curiosities, where collections of the truly weird and wonderful were collected and displayed en masse. As more museums began to open their main focus was education and inspiration.

This really hasn’t changed much today. Instead of being hard-core fact after hard-core fact, displays are full of interesting, quirky tales and captivating stories behind the collectors and collections. Some rather old skool [sic] curators I know, one in particular, is obsessed that this is ‘dumbing down’ the science*. Far, far from it my friend. In fact, if I may return to the honeymoon analogy, this is pretty darn sexy stuff. Quirky tales get people excited, so excited that they may play around on their computers when they get home to find out more.

We are more likely to remember an interesting tale than a cold hard fact. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting a few facts into an interesting tale.

Museum displays and exhibitions are what most people who visit a museum will actually see. For us curators, this is a chance to bring out some awesome collections, with their fantastic stories and get people excited!

5. The stuff of dreams

Research is another exciting part of the job. This can range from checking out the background details to a collection from 100 years ago to radiocarbon dating specimens and writing articles. Each is like detective work to find out more, and each also adds incredible value to the specimen.

Two things hold the curator back; time and specialism.

Time: Any articles I write are done in the evenings outside work. I know this is true for other colleagues who write articles too. There is no time at work to write them. We spend the evenings writing, not because we have to, but, as you will see, because we want to.

Specialism: Natural history is a pretty big subject covering all animals, plants and geology. We have an understanding of how to care for these collections and do some exciting research into the background of them. But to dissect the minute genitalia of a beetle to see if it is a particular species is beyond my expertise! My knowledge mainly lies in ice age bones (and in the last five or so years I have become confident in other areas). This is where the great community of natural history curators comes in; I may know little about beetle genitalia and something about ice age bones, and a curator in another museum may know little about ice age bones but a lot about beetle genitalia. So we share our knowledge. We talk to each other, send each other photos, visit the collections, and learn from each other.

The core

This work, the very core of understanding and managing museum collections, is fundamental to the future of the specimens. This is work that happens every day, behind the scenes with the curators working hard to make sure they are well looked after and safe for future generations.

Unfortunately this essential work has created a stereotypical vision of a museum curator.

Mr Calvino, a museum curator in Scooby Doo. Fairly sterotypical; male, old, glasses, jacket (possible socks under sandals). Image from here.

Mr Calvino, a museum curator in Scooby Doo. Fairly stereotypical; male, old, glasses, jacket (possible socks under sandals). Image from here.

A new breed

Within the last ten years, there has been a birth of a new breed of curator. This new breed is different. There is a genuine, noticeable thirst for using the collections we look after in new and exciting ways!

Curators today have energy, boundless energy, talking to the old and the young about the fascinating stories locked away in our store rooms. This new non-genetically modified breed still carries on the core museum work, but does a lot, lot more.

All the core collections work is essential. We need to do it. It preserves the collections for future generations. It adds exciting new stories. But what’s the point if no one sees them or hears about them? If the generations of today are not seeing them, why are we keeping them for future generations?

Curators today are engaging with more people in more ways than ever before. All the work we carry out behind the scenes is needed, but we also have this burning desire to engage with people using our collections. This helps to get our stories out to lots of different people (and sometimes adds new stories), but also helps promote our subjects.

No longer do we give an annual mumbling talk about an obscure part of the collection to an audience of over 120 yrs old; we give engaging, exciting talks about our collections that mean something to the audience. Not just once a year, but we can do this maybe once a month and to all ages.

Many museum curators today are writing blog posts about their collections. This is another way for interesting stories to be told and reach new people. One of my favourites is the Grant Museum of Zoology and their post on the Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month. Its a fun way of getting otherwise not so exciting collections out there!

A big part of the work is getting the collections out to the local public, which can include schools, and events around the city. These types of events are excellent because people who had never heard of the museum before stumble across it, and are truly inspired by what they can see and hear. This is one of my favourite parts of being a curator – talking to people about what we look after and the awesome quirky stories that go with the specimens. If we cant talk to people about what we look after, then the curator has failed.

Yours truly showing some enthusiastic youngsters an awesome pickled spider crab at an event out of the museum.

Yours truly showing some enthusiastic youngsters an awesome pickled spider crab at an event out of the museum.

There are other fun events which can be run. Some museums, like Leeds Museum and the Horniman Museum run pub science events, where the curator leads an evening of science filled discussions. These are lovely ideas, because it is an open environment on neutral ground, so people don’t feel intimated by specialists. I run monthly natural history events in and around the city for families to come along to (here). These events range from rock pooling to star gazing and the families are really engaged with discovering something new!

What a curator does

Working in a museum is just like a never ending honeymoon; it is wonderful! Each day we are doing something different. The ‘core’ collections work will always happen which is needed to safeguard specimens. But our collections cannot talk. For my specimens in particular, the ability to make any sound has long since vanished. The curators are the voice of the collections. Through us, the collections can tell their tales, inspire future generations, bring a tear to the eye, and let people understand with true awe.

Without a voice, the collections remain silent. They remain unknown.


*There is nothing wrong with including scientific names and information in labels. We should be including this, but it is how the labels are written that is important.


Filed under Museum Collections