Curator of Micropalaeontology | Diary of a Principal Curator Feb 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 February entry I cover working in the fabulous Minerals Gallery, helping my PhD student using a mobile phone down a microscope, Zoom fail during a talk to a local Geological Society, writing a digital strategy and finishing a paper about the assessment of the entire museum collection.

A very empty looking Minerals Gallery

Monday – Working in the Minerals Gallery

The Museum is carrying out a review of names and representation across our buildings and websites in the light of the Black Lives Matter movement. Part of this process involves assessing labels on specimens in our galleries. One of my staff is remote working by updating labels in the Minerals Gallery. Some specimens have labels that point to legacies of colonies, slavery and empire, for example using Rhodesia instead of Zimbabwe. However, the images of the gallery that he is using do not always have clear details of the labels for checking. I spend a few hours photographing some specimen labels in the gallery to support this work. It is a breath of fresh air to get out of the house to spend time in this magnificent gallery and does wonders for the state of my mental health. I cannot believe that I am the only member of staff suffering from South Kensington withdrawal symptoms.

Conodont microfossils
An image of some conodont microfossils taken at home using my mobile phone and a microscope attachment. The specimen in the centre is about 1.5mm long. The image is not perfect but good enough to make identifications from.

Tuesday – remotely supporting my PhD student

I am one of several supervisors for Anna McGairy who is a PhD student at the University of Leicester. She started in September but because of restrictions due to the Pandemic, she has not been able to travel to London and meet me at the Natural History Museum. Her labs at Leicester are not available to her so we have been making some thin sections and plan some analytical work on some specimens she has from Vietnam. She’s been sending me some images of microfossils that she has taken down the microscope using her mobile phone. It’s amazing the quality of image you can obtain by doing this. However, there’s no substitute for face-to-face teaching and I hope that we can soon meet up to assess the specimens in person once restrictions are relaxed.

Heron-Allen and Earland slide
Detail of foraminiferal microfossils on one our Heron-Allen and Earland slides.

Wednesday – Zoom woes during an invited talk

This evening I am due to give a talk to the Brighton and Hove Geological Society. I have been sent a Zoom link to join up with members of the society. Everything works fine until I need to share my screen. For some reason they cannot see what I can see on my home screen and they do not see me advancing the Powerpoint slides. We use MS Teams at the Museum so I am not very familiar with Zoom and call upon my 10 year old Pelham to come and help me out as he Zooms regularly with his friends. The confusion is because I’m using two parallel screens, a laptop screen and a separate monitor. Eventually I am able to give my talk including the story of the Heron-Allen and Earland Christmas card slides. Amazingly there are two members of the Heron-Allen Society in the audience.

Thursday – writing a digital strategy for Earth Science collections

It is coming up to planning time for the next reporting year when we will need to set targets and write forward job plans. One of my roles is to chair the Earth Science Digital Group and as part of this we have been writing a digital strategy. Digitisation of information relating to our collection is a key part of the Museum Strategy to 2031. During lockdown we have been able to prioritise this activity but will need to increase this level of work in order to achieve our aims of digitisation our entire collection. The move to Harwell for some of our collections will be a big opportunity to increase the rate of digitisation of our collections.

Collection assessment data
Graphical representation of some of the data we gathered for our collections assessment exercise in 2018.

Friday – Assessing the 80 million specimens in the museum

In 2018 the Museum ran a collections assessment survey that has given us data about the state and status of our collection. This is the first time that we have held such a comprehensive survey of our collection and the data is being used to develop strategies for management of the collection including planning the move to the new site at Harwell. I’ve been involved heavily in the working group that delivered this project and have authored a paper with other members of the team. There are a lot of co-authors on the paper so I have spent several days incorporating final changes after comments on the pre-submission draft. The internal name for the project is “Join the Dots”. You may be able to see why from the image above.

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