Curator of Micropalaeontology | Diary of a Principal Curator May 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 May entry, I receive a donation in the street outside the museum, we start a new project to put our digital collections on the map, become an Associate Editor for the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology, watch myself give a conference presentation and facilitate the donation of my favourite rock type for the Urban Nature Project.

Nadine Gabriel
Nadine Gabriel who has just started on a georeferencing project. Image by Tammana Begum and © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London 2021

Monday – Putting our collections on the map

Our collections data is delivered from our Collections Management System to our data portal and subsequently to on-line portals including the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). Many of these portals deliver maps that show the location of the collection items. However, these are based on latitude and longitude readings that are mostly absent from our digital dataset for Earth Sciences. This information is locked up in text descriptions of collection locations in paper register entries or specimen label and as national grid references. This month Nadine Gabriel is starting a new internally funded project using datasets such as Mindat to help us georeference our collections by adding latitude and longitude information. I carry out a lot of administrative work to get this set up and now have 5 full time staff to manage. I think Nadine and this project will have a real impact, so it is time well spent!

Outside the museum
Prof. Bridget Wade (UCL) and her students Alessio Fabrini and Florent Fayolle on a “field trip” to the Natural History Museum to deposit some specimens. Photo Alessio Fabrini.

Tuesday – Street acquisition hand-over

With the government guidelines suggesting we continue to work remotely as much as we can, visitors behind the scenes are still not possible. Our stakeholders have been prolific in publishing over the last year, sometimes requiring to deposit type or figured specimens before publication. We have a choice to make:  we ask them to deposit once restrictions are over and allocate museum numbers only when we receive them (this is our number allocation policy) but after publication, or we meet them in the street where they hand over the specimens. Today I meet three colleagues from University College London who hand over two collections that, as I write today, are now partly published (Fayolle and Wade 2021) with our numbers nicely referenced.

Wednesday – New Associate Editor of J Sys Pal

My colleague Dr Stephen Stukins has recently stood down as Associate Editor dealing with microfossil papers submitted to the Journal of Systematic Palaeontology. I’m taking over from him and sharing the role with Dr Laura Cotton who has recently taken up a position at the Natural History Museum of Denmark. I receive some training and wait for my first manuscript to come in. I will need to make an initial decision over whether it goes out for review and then to choose two suitable experts to provide a peer review.

Thursday – NatSCA Conference

Today is the first day of the annual conference of the Natural Science Collections Association. I had submitted an abstract to present a paper at their 2020 conference but it was postponed due to the pandemic. We were asked to pre-record our talks so it feels really strange sitting in my office watching myself give a conference presentation while looking at comments coming in on Twitter. My talk is entitled “Making the most of a collection that illuminates the debate on climate change” and gives two examples of recent research on our Ocean Bottom Sediment Collection. Much merriment is caused by the term “bottom deposit” and my response to a question asking how I manage to get small things put on the agenda for museum display also provokes the Twittersphere. It feels really strange pre-recording a talk for the first time. Normally I’d just throw some slides together and give a talk on the fly. Knowing that you can go back and re-record the narrative for a slide if you hesitate or miss something out seems to extend the exercise threefold!

Hertfordshire Puddingstone
A small specimen of Hertfordshire Puddingstone

Friday – Hertfordshire Puddingstone for the East Gardens.

Hertfordshire Puddingstone is such a favourite rock type of mine that I have previously taken pieces of it to my children’s school to introduce Geology to them. It is an example of a conglomerate; a sedimentary rock composed of >2mm rounded clasts bound together with finer particles. This rock formation is restricted to the English County of Hertfordshire and derives its name from a resemblance to Plum Pudding. The rounded flint pebble clasts are supported by a hard matrix of iron oxides and silica.

The conglomerate represents a Silcrete which is a fossilised soil. During Eocene times about 56 Million Years ago, the flints were eroded from older chalk formations and rounded on a beach. Shortly afterwards, a period of global warming combined with a drop in sea level raised these beaches and they became part of the soil on land. The stone is exceptionally hard so it has been used as a mill stone. As a good-luck charm it has been used in doorways, gateposts or placed on the tops of coffins.

My volunteer Chris Green is an expert on this type of stone and he puts us in contact with some landowners in Hertfordshire that have some very large examples. Chris suggests that they would be interested in donating them so we could display them in the gardens as part of the Urban Nature Project. News has come in that the Heritage Lottery Fund application for the project has been successful so it looks like this acquisition will go ahead and be visible in our gardens for generations to come.

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