So, having figured out how much (or how little, as the case may be) progress had been made on the foreign bird mount collection in the past, this week I was ready to get down to work and start curating some birds.
It was a slow start, as I discovered half a cabinet that had been missed previously and had to back-track a little from the place I thought we’d be starting at, but good progress was made:
One shelf of pigeons was fully documented and photographed, and we made a start on the next shelf, containing parrots, including a beautiful glass case of 5 birds posed on some artfully arranged vegetation with a lovely painted background.
I even managed to identify a couple of birds that had no data on them, by comparison with other specimens (only the obvious ones. For example, there were two birds labelled as crested pigeons (Ocyphaps lophotes), and a third with no label that looked just like them. As there are no other species of crest-bearing pigeon with which it could easily be confused, it was a fair assumption that they were all the same species).
It’s a good feeling to be doing some real curatorial work, and to be able to do it – it’s a great boost to the confidence to be given a job and then left to get on with it, knowing what I’m doing and not needing supervision! It’s not very glamorous, though…many of the specimens are very old and covered in nasty substances (arsenic, mercury, methyl bromide, who knows what else…), so we have to wear lab coats, gloves, and gas masks when handling them. It’s not a good look. The masks are really uncomfortable, and a bit hard to breathe in, but I suppose it’s better than inhaling lots of arsenic dust!
For the benefit of my non-museum readers (which is probably a good half of my readership of about 10 people!), I suppose I should explain exactly what I’m doing, because museums are rather odd, esoteric worlds to those not in the know!
The procedure for curating/documenting a collection is fairly straightforward (if a little long-winded. Sorry):
When an object enters the museum (e.g. through a donation/purchase/bequest) it is given an accession or entry number, and a form is filled out with details of what it is, where it was collected and who it came from (if these details are known). Often a group of material will be acquired in one batch, and the objects will all be given the same accession/entry number.
Each item is then given an individual and unique register number, and the details of the specimen will be recorded in a register book (or on a computer database – some museums no longer use paper records much). There are recognised standards for the documentation of museum material, and the most basic standard requires that records include: what a specimen is, where it’s stored within the museum, and that both the record and the specimen bear the register number (so that you can find it again, obviously!).
However, over time information about specimens may be lost (Bristol Museum, for example, lost both a lot of information and a lot of specimens in WW2 when the museum was bombed), or the specimens may become disassociated from any information about them, or accessioned material may never get as far as being registered. Many museum collections include material that is variously: fully accessioned and registered; accessioned but not registered; either of the above but the information has been lost/disassociated; lacking any data at all.
So that the museum knows what it has and where everything is, it is important that each specimen has some documentation. This is where I come in:
- Each shelf of foreign bird mounts is decanted, and the birds are sorted into those that already have register numbers attached to them, and those that don’t.
- For the ones that have register numbers, it is simply a case of checking that their records and labels contain all the same information, and that the information is correct.
- The ones that don’t have register numbers are given shiny new register numbers and all of the information available on each specimen’s label (if there is any) is entered into the register book. If they have no information, they are still given a register number but just have to go into the book as, e.g., ‘unidentified parrot’. A label is attached to any specimens that don’t already have one.
- Every specimen is then photographed (making sure the register number is visible in the photo so we can match photos to the correct specimens later), and checked for any evidence of pest damage.
- The shelf the birds came from is cleaned, and the birds returned to the shelf, in taxonomic order where space allows (with the prettiest ones to the front to impress visitors to the store!).
- All of the records, and the photographs, will eventually be transferred onto the computer database, where they will be searchable via the internet.
- Once the whole collection is documented, they will then be sorted properly into taxonomic order (they are currently roughly in order, but somewhat mixed). This is important because it makes specimens easier to find when they are in a recognised order. There are other systems for ordering collections used in museums (including alphabetical), but taxonomy is a more useful system because it puts related species near each other and more findable if, for example, someone requires members of a particular order or family for research.
So, that’s what I do! Exciting, isn’t it? Hello? Anyone there…? Oh, you’ve fallen asleep. Never mind, then. I’ll let myself out quietly…