"Is it a bird? Is it a plane?…Oh wait, it is a bird"

So, after a few weeks spent helping some apprentices in the learning department of Bristol Museum catalogue and identify the learning and handling collection (which mostly consists of taxidermy), and feeling like a fairly useless zoologist at times (“Umm…it’s a bird? Possibly a house martin?” (it wasn’t, it was a sand martin, but I was damn close! My bird identifying abilities are somewhat patchy. I’m working on that – I even bought a monocular (never really got on with binoculars) and Bill Oddie’s Birds Of Britain And Ireland (What else? The man was a Goodie, he’s a living legend!) to be able to go out birdwatching)), I am now back to my usual routine of Tuesdays in the Biology department (wow, that was a long sentence! Possibly a record even for me).

And I get to do some real curatorial work! Not that most of the stuff I do at the museum isn’t curatorial (there’s always lots of cataloguing and ferrying around of specimens, moving things in and out of freezers, etc.), but I now have my very own project to work on: I (and one other volunteer) will be responsible for the curation and documentation of the foreign bird mount collection. This was started in 2006 by the previous curator and a volunteer, and despite the project plan having a time estimate of 3 months on it, 5 years later it is still unfinished, stuck in Museum Limbo along with many other projects started by one curator and never completed after their departure. This seems to be a common problem in the museum world, and I suspect in many jobs: when one person leaves, there isn’t always a handover to the next person, or any documentation left to explain what they were working on and how far they’d got. It just isn’t always possible. But it does mean that, when someone eventually comes to pick up a predecessor’s work, they are left scratching their head trying to figure out what has and hasn’t been done.

Which is what I spent most of yesterday afternoon doing! As it turns out, there is more work to do than we originally thought, but it is less daunting than it originally looked. Having found the MDA card catalogue for the collection, the relevant register book, and having looked through the cabinets to check the progress already made, I think I now have a workable system figured out for dealing with the documentation of the specimens. It’s just a shame that I can’t be at the museum full-time…it’ll take months on only one day a week, but I could probably get it all done in a few weeks if I was there full-time! But never mind. It feels good to be able to do some work that will be of real, lasting benefit to the museum: in (hopefully) somewhat less than another 5 years, they will have a beautifully catalogued, photographed, and taxonomically ordered collection of foreign birds!


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