Curator of Micropalaeontology | Diary of a Principal Curator Jan 2021

This year I’m writing a diary entry each month for a typical week in the life of a Principal Curator at the Natural History Museum. In the January entry I cover the return to work after Christmas, home schooling, the return of Dippy, news of a possible move of the collection in my charge to Harwell and a rare trip into S Kensington.

Monday – first day back

The first working day of the year means catching up on e-mails that have arrived over the Christmas break. Among them there’s a request from a journal to review a paper by my PhD supervisor, news that a conference rescheduled for Wuhan this year has been postponed again and the annual newsletter from the interestingly named Pander Society, a worldwide group of specialists on conodont microfossils. Another e-mail announces a Geological Society of London Scientific Statement on The Geological record: present and future climate, and reminds me of the importance of studying Geology and the collections in the Earth Science department here at the Museum. It states “the amount of anthropogenic greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere means that Earth is committed to a certain degree of warming”. However, “The geological record provides powerful evidence that atmospheric CO2 concentrations drive climate change, and supports multiple lines of evidence that greenhouse gases emitted by human activities are altering the Earth’s climate”.

Tuesday – a day of home schooling

It seems strange to take a day off as soon as I have come back, but after the end of January we cannot carry over more than 10 days of leave into the next leave year. Having been on furlough for most of June and July, like many of my colleagues, I have excess leave days to take in January. My two children Pelham (10) and Blossom (9) are at home so I am able to give my wife a break as she has done all of the home schooling. I try to convince them to watch the Royal Institution Christmas lectures particularly the one on the geological history of the earth . Some of my curatorial colleagues and various borrowed Museum specimens make an appearance in the series and I am pleased to hear Foraminifera being mentioned as key indicators of climate change. Unfortunately my children are more interested in watching YouTube videos of other people playing the computer game Minecraft, bartering for neon fly-ride cats in Roblox-Adopt me and a game that they play on-line with their friends called Among Us. Discussions about these games often dominate the conversation at the kitchen table and I wonder if this would be different if my children could actually see their friends in real life. Maybe not….

Driving a forklift at our outstation as preparation for the Urban Nature Project and the arrival of Dippy. Photo by Paul Kenrick.

Wednesday – Dippy is back

Dippy is temporarily back in the museum after being moved from Rochdale and before moving to the final tour destination in Norwich this summer. It’s good to see the Dippy Tour getting publicity in the Channel 5 documentary Natural History Museum: world of wonder as well as the work of many of my colleagues from around the museum. Today the Dippy cases are arriving at our outstation for storage. Last year we were told that we would have to temporarily accommodate the transport boxes that take up a lot more floor space than the fully assembled skeleton. As Dippy has been on display for 110 years prior to its tour, there is no room behind the scenes reserved for Dippy. Why’s that a problem for a Micropalaeontology curator? Well, part of my role as Senior Curator in Charge for my division’s collections is to manage two of the rock stores at our outstation. A number of unsung heros across the Earth Science Curation Team have worked really hard since we were able to return from the first lockdown, to rationalise the collections areas at our outstation to find space for Dippy. We have also needed to temporarily store large acquisitions for the Urban Nature Project that will transform our garden spaces facing the Cromwell Road at South Kensington. This type of curatorial work underpins the glamorous side of the museum as shown on Channel 5 but rarely gets the mention or the credit that it deserves.

Each square represents a functional unit footprint of the collection. The Scenario Recommend Group had to chose 40% of these collections to move to Harwell for each of the 6 scenarios. The Micropalaeontology collections are one of the brown boxes in the bottom right.

Thursday – a move to Harwell?

Shortly before lockdown in March 2020, the Museum was allocated £190M in the budget to set up a new site and move 40% of our collections to the Harwell Science Campus in Oxfordshire . From October to December last year I was part of a cross-Museum group that worked to recommend a series of 6 possible scenarios for the collections to move from South Kensington and our outstation, to a new home in Harwell. Today there is a Town Hall meeting that will announce the final three as chosen by the Project Board. One of the three chosen scenarios will mean that the Micropalaeontology collections will move there in 6 years time. The rest of this year will involve gathering more data and scoping these three scenarios to see which is the most viable. We’ll find out later this year which is the final one chosen by the Project Board. Whatever the outcome, the NHM@Harwell project will dominate our working lives for the next 6 years.

A trip to the museum also allowed me to rescue my samples that have been in acid since March 2020.

Friday – a rare visit to S Kensington

I have only been to South Kensington four times since the first lock down in March. We are only permitted to attend site to work on a small number of key projects or to work on time limited projects, usually to satisfy grants, consultancy work or to  support students. The Palaeontology Building is having a facelift which will involve replacing all the windows in the early part of the year so we have all been asked to clear the area within 2m of the windows in our offices. There are also several retired members of staff offices and the Heron-Allen Micropalaeontology Library that need to be cleared. My PhD student Anna at the University of Leicester needs some thin section preparations done so I am also able to deliver these specimens with instructions to the lab. It’s strange being on site as it is so quiet with nobody around in the galleries and offices but it is also a nice change from homeworking. A short trip with a short list of objectives that are achieved seems a satisfying end to the day.

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