What would you ask if you could ask a curator anything? This Ask a Curator Day we brought together a panel of experts from across the museum to answer your burning questions on collections, research, preparing millions of specimens for the move to Harwell Campus and much more. In this blog we share some of the highlights.
First some intros from the panel…
Katie (Curator, Benthic Molluscs): Hi all! I’m Katie (they/she) and I look after the fossil benthic molluscs (the clams, snails, tusk shells, chitons, and their weird and wonderful relatives – but not cephs) at the museum!
Jen (Communications Manager, Digital Collections Programme) & Lizzy (Senior Digitiser): Hello! This is Jen and Lizzy from the digitisation team at the Museum. We are digitising the 80 million specimens in the collection from the smallest fly to the biggest blue whale and looking at the challenges that come with this!
Katy (Collections Assistant): *waves* I’m Katy, and I’m a Collections Assistant in Earth Sciences. I work across the collections (lucky me!) on a range of projects, mostly focused on developing workflows and collecting important data in preparation for the move to Harwell.
Simon (Principal Curator in Charge, Vertebrates): Hi, I am Dr Simon Loader, Principal Curator in Charge of Vertebrates. I have the privilege of managing around 3.5 million specimens including all our Mammals, Birds, Reptiles, Amphibians and fishes. We hold some truly priceless objects in our vaults and my job is to ensure their safe care and unlock their potential for natural history science.
Amy (Curatorial Assistant): I began with the Museum in 2012 as a volunteer. I have been part of the NHM@Harwell Programme since 2020, before which I tackled priority curatorial projects across the Life Sciences department. I also worked for the Museum’s Conservation Centre, and the Public Engagement Group.
How are you preparing for the move of millions of specimens?
Katie: We’re measuring! (I love measuring) We’re working out how much our collections weigh, their volume, the volume if we rehoused them optimally, and estimating how much space and weight we’re going to have to account for into the future as the collections grow. Since my collections are primarily, well, rocks, the weight is something that particularly concerns me when I think of moving to a new building. I want to be sure that we are doing everything as safely and securely as possible .
Jen & Lizzy: With 27m specimens to move to Harwell we are looking into how these can be recorded digitally to ensure specimen safety. Much easier for some collections than others. We are developing workflows for varied collections, such as the huge variety of bones in every shape & size.
Katy: Last year we undertook a huge project to estimate the exact volume and footprint of our collections (spoiler alert: it’s big!), and now we are planning and piloting some surveys to assess the needs of collections before they can move (auditing, conservation, packing, etc.). In Earth Sciences we’re currently developing four pilot surveys, looking at everything from collections documentation to hazards!
Simon: Moving 27m specimens to Harwell is big! Probably one of the biggest museum moves! At the moment, we’re collecting core data on our collection. This includes understanding the volumes, where they’re located and how much space they will require in Harwell. Beyond the core data collection, we’re starting to audit our collection which means checking the location and the record of our specimens match. This is the first check towards preparing specimens for moving.
Amy: I am currently working on collections housed in stores that are to be transformed back into public gallery spaces. I have begun work on curating part of the herbarium ancillary collection, then restoring the specimens in archival materials. Restorage is also underway in parts of the entomology collections to provide more stable storage to safeguard the collections when moving. Also, by curating the collections into a more up-to-date taxonomic order will allow for an easier digitisation process, making the collections available to a wider audience.
Why are natural history collections so important for research?
Katie: Collections preserve snapshots of history through time – ‘modern’ and through deep time. By keeping collections, museums provide a vital and frequently updated dataset for scientists around the world to study our planet and its changes.
Jen & Lizzy: The Museum’s collections are a unique record of biodiversity over the last 200 years, and geodiversity over millennia. By digitising and releasing collections data , scientists, policy makers and more can access more evidence and resources for research and decision making. We have 4.9m specimens available through the Data Portal that have been used in >1,500 scientific papers on areas from human health to climate change and conservation. Check out this blog.
Katy: They offer an amazing window into the past to help us understand patterns and changes in biodiversity, environment and climate (among infinite other things!), which can in turn help us to forecast the future of our planet in the Anthropocene.
Simon: Collections are key to understanding the natural world, how many species are there and where are they located. What makes the museum so important is the scope our collections. NHM collections have incredible representation of all known species, geographic scope and because of the age of our institution, a reach back into the past, in some cases over 300 years. The collections are therefore key to understanding how the natural world has changed, both over geological time but also more recently during the Anthropocene.
Amy: Museum collections provide a wealth of data for species over time and locality, which supports research in environmental and conservation issues. Also, species new to science aren’t just discovered in the field…they can be found lurking in museum drawers!
What is digitisation?
Jen & Lizzy: Digitisation is the digital documentation of a physical object, which can be achieved through a variety of means. For mass digitisation we currently focus on capturing data through specimen photography and label transcription. In some collections the most important information is on the label, in others we use specialised equipment to capture data, such as specimens needing 3D Imaging to map surface structure, or requiring high-res imaging microscopes to collect intricate morphological details.
What types of research are the collections used for?
Katie: The strength of fossil molluscs is their long, really complete fossil record. NHM specimens are used to understand evolution through time: through data portals like GBIF for large-scale analysis of patterns, and individual specimens for detailed taxonomic or ecological work.
Simon: Our specimens are important for telling us what was found in a particular place at a particular time. We can compare that with what is known now and if there have been any changes. One example is the Mount Elgon Torrent Frog collected in the 1930’s and 1960’s but not seen since. Collections form the basis for this comparison and key to telling us about declines and potential extinctions.
Do you have a favourite collection to work in or a specimen that is particularly special to you?
Katie: It’s hard to pick! THIS is the holotype of Inoceramus pictus, from the UK Grey Chalk – it’s 100 million years old and yet it still has its colour patterns preserved! Inoceramids as a group were some of the biggest bivalves ever to live – the largest species were 3m long!
Katy: My background is in Zoology and Vertebrate Palaeontology, so my favorite collections are unsurprisingly the vertebrate ones! Here’s me measuring a specimen of Megaloceros giganteus (the giant Irish deer, although it was found all over Europe and Asia!)
Amy: I just can’t pick one, which is why I love the variety of my job. However, I never fail to be fascinated by the spirit collection. A few years ago, I prepared an amazing deep sea fish new to the collection – the Jellynose fish…
More questions for our curators? Ask away in the comments! Or follow us on Twitter to join in to future #CollectionsChat.