Curator of Micropalaeontology | Diary of a Principal Curator June 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 June entry, I provide my fingerprint and quote for an art project, review our sectional documentation, review a paper on the Downton Gorge in Shropshire, put together a grant proposal and have a late night call out to mitigate a leak threatening the collections.

Monday – art finger print statement

I’ve been contacted by artist Elaine Robinson to provide a finger print, image and quotation for her project “Spot Time”. Elaine has been travelling and collecting finger prints from members of the public and some prominent public figures such as Chris Packham and Joanna Lumley. Her webpage quotes:

What started out as an artwork about human identity has evolved into a large artwork recording a shift in acceptance that we all play a part in conservation & biodiversity and it is a fundamental part of our identity. Conceived in Bristol in 2015, the artist walks all day to gather fingerprints from all sections and areas of society. The finished artwork will include panels of fingerprints held in clear resin, and collected from cities visited across the UK and also different time events emerging as a relevant social document. Elaine has captured the changing political arena by asking the UK and European Parliaments and Assembly’s to contribute to the emerging installation.”

I provide her with a finger print and picture with the following quotation:

The Natural History Museums of the world have never been as relevant as now, in showing our place in the world and how we have affected it. Let’s use them to create advocates for our planet

Documentation describing the contents of slides from the Aberystwyth Micropalaeontology Collection. These documents take up more space than the collections they describe and space is needed for them in our new collections facility at Harwell.

Tuesday – Collection on the move to Harwell

News has come in this month that the Micropalaeontology collections will be moving to our new Collections and Research facility in Harwell when it opens in about 6 years. We’ve been gathering data over the last year to estimate the volume of our collections to help with planning this new facility. So far we have focussed on collections but there are lots of associated items that also need to move with the collections. Today I meet with Chris Dean and together we record details of collection related card indexes, documentation relating to fieldwork and acquisition, images taken of collection items, reprints of scientific papers and unsorted filing cabinets left by retired staff. I’m concerned that we have not planned sufficient room for these items and that rationalising them will be a big job. While recording details I think how nice it would be nice to get someone else to do this for me, but the knowledge and experience of almost 30 years as a curator is vital to making decisions on the future of this type of material.

An approximately 4x5cm portion of the Ludlow Bone Bed. Similar to the Downton Bone Bed, it contains spines and scales from early jawless fishes from the Silurian Period about 425 Million years ago.

Wednesday – two review requests on a very similar subject

Almost simultaneously I am sent a request to review a paper on the Downton Bone Bed as well as a chapter on the Geology of the Downton Gorge in Shropshire. I’ve been asked mainly because I have published several papers referencing these sections and last year was part of a publication that dated the Downton Bone Bed using the mineral content. It would be great if each publication referenced the work of the other but of course I cannot pass the work on to each author. Instead, I attempt to put them in contact with each other in the hope that they can cite each other’s work. The review of the paper takes a very long time and quite a few late evenings as I have a lot of comments but would also like to see it published as I know that a lot of hard work has gone into putting it together.

Thursday – a grant proposal to the Arts and Humanities Research Council

We are working with a team at the University of Illinois in the USA towards a grant proposal to the Arts and Humanities Research Council. We are looking to release details from our archive and collections on HMS Challenger, to a large on-line database but need to hire some digitisers, a transcriber and a paper conservator in order to facilitate this. The HMS Challenger was the first oceanographic voyage to study the bottom of the ocean as it sailed across the world’s oceans between 1873-1876. There are historically interesting documents in our archives that would be of great interest to Challenger scholars, especially in the run up to the 150th anniversary of the voyage. I have to put a temporary hold on all other work (including blog writing…) in order to prepare the documents for the application in conjunction with our American colleagues and colleagues from Library and Archives here at the Museum. Work continues until right up to the deadline and we now have to wait until later this year to find the outcome of our application.

I’m not going to show you a picture of a puddle. Instead, here’s a firework display at Wandsworth Bridge that I was treated to on my way home.

Friday – A late night call out

I am a member of the salvage team so if there are any issues with the Earth Science collections at either South Kensington or our outstation in SW London, I am on a call out list. Today I receive a call late in the evening from security because a puddle of water has been found in the Micropalaeontology collections area. A WhatsApp video call with Security follows and I make the decision that I need to come into the Museum to move two cabinets that contain collections. Incidents like this underline the need for a new collections facility. While many of us are reticent to relocate to Harwell we recognise the need for us to protect the national collections and this new facility will significantly upgrade our storage.