Living the dream (if only for a day)

Today I went on an entomology curation training day run by NatSCA, and hosted by the NHM. Which was very exciting! And, most excitingly, I finally got to go through the Magic Door. You know the one, at the end of the Ichthyosaur gallery next to the incongruously placed Megatherium skeleton cast. The fabled door that Richard Fortey talks about in his wonderful book, Dry Store Room No. 1: the door leading to the Palaeontology department.

Not that I actually got to see any of the palaeo department; we were just using one of their meeting rooms as a base for the training course. I did, however, get to go behind the scenes of the Entomology department, including their impressive climate-controlled dry insect store, with row upon row of custom-made metal cabinets housing the wonders of the insect world. And also their common room, which is at the very top of the Darwin Centre and features a roof terrace with amazing views across London. I am so jealous.

The course itself was extremely interesting, and I learned a lot about how the NHM deals with the storage and conservation of its enormous and varied entomology collections. To give you an idea of the scale involved here, when the museum replaced their old wooden cabinets with the new metal variety, around 100,000 drawers of specimens had to be rehoused into new drawers as the collections were rationalised down from the original 12 different sizes of drawers into only 3 different sizes to fit in the new cabinets. That is a lot of specimens, especially when you are talking about tiny flies that you can fit hundreds or even thousands of in a single drawer!

The afternoon featured demonstrations of conservation techniques, including a method for topping up jars of specimens stored in spirit (industrial methylated spirit (IMS)) from which some of the alcohol has evaporated, causing a reduction in the concentration. The method shown by David Notton allows you to calculate the current alcohol concentration in the jar, and the concentration of IMS required to top up the jar and return the solution to the usual 70-80%, all using a handy colour-coded chart. We were also shown several methods for removing insects suffering from verdigris from their pins, including a fabulous device invented by one of the NHM’s curators many years ago which passes an electric current through the specimen to loosen it, accompanied by impressive sparks and smoke! Always a crowd-pleaser, and very effective. Although when I had a go, I failed to remove the moth because the pin was deformed and it got stuck at the bottom. Thankfully it was a worthless data-less specimen used specially for demonstrations such as this, so it doesn’t matter that it lost 3 of its legs and its head in the process!

I was very tired by the end of the day, but I have lots of things to think about, and if I ever get a natural history-related museum job, lots of new skills that I can use! And it was amazing to finally go behind the scenes of a museum that I have loved since I first saw it as a youngish child, even if only for a day.

Bearing Fruit

It’s always a joy to see your work pay off, and last week saw the launch of the website for the University Museums in Scotland (UMIS) project Revealing The Hidden Collections, on which I worked last year at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum. The wesbite is here, and it looks great. Much nicer than the first draft version I saw months ago which had a very scary clown on the front page!

My job (with one other person) was to create very short (we had roughly 250 characters to play with) descriptions of the contents of each and every box/shelf/drawer/cupboard in the museum, which equates to a huge number of objects – there were half a million insects alone! Describing the vast and hugely varied collections in such a brief manner is tricky, but we arrived at a system in consultation with the curators that involved the use of prefixes and standard terms to try and cover everything, with our apprach changing a little in each department to try and accurately describe each collection in its own terms. The records mostly ended up being brief lists of much of the contents of each storage location as we could fit within the word count. We were usually able to be quite specific, but where there were a lot of very different items the descriptions had to be more general.

We were forced to use this rough and ready approach to cataloguing the collections because of the short length of the project (it was scheduled to take only a year), and the large size of the Hunterian’s collections – the other museums involved were all producing object-level records because on the whole they had considerably smaller collections to describe. This wasn’t going to be possible in our case, so it was decided to use short Collections Level Descriptions instead.

There were huge challenges in carrying out this survey, as some parts of the collection were not easy to access (due to boxes that were incredibly heavy or were stored very high up (or sometimes both), lack of lighting in some areas, narrow aisles, etc), and we had issues with winter temperatures in one of the remote stores, but I can proudly say that I am one of only two people who have ever seen the Hunterian’s collections in their entirety. Or maybe more like 99.9% – some of the palaeo material was being moved into new storage while we were working on the project and we weren’t able to access quite all of it, and we missed a few areas of the art collection due to time and access issues.

But it is great to finally see the website up and running, and to be able to see all of our amazingly hard work out there in the public domain. And, of course, to search through it and find favourite objects. One of the records of which I am most proud reads: ‘Zoology: Mammal skins collection: Stoat (inside-out), New World monkeys (including capuchin with terrifying expression due to poor taxidermy), mongoose, coati‘. Which was quite an impressive cupboard, I can tell you!