Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Swop Shop II | from one dinosaur to the next

Neighbouring curators successfully swop knowledge and gain specialised skills and peer networks.


Earlier this year I interviewed Louise Tomsett, Curator, Mammal Group, Zoology Department at the Natural History Museum  [NHM] and Milly Farrell, Curator, Odontological Collection at the Hunterian Museum [HM] housed at the Royal College of Surgeons on their experience of a skill sharing scheme.  Swop Shop I explores the scheme’s challenges and knowledge sharing opportunities and explores how, in times of cuts and restraints, a fluid approach enabled these museum professionals to develop their curatorial and inter-personal skills by working with each other’s colleagues and collections.

I’d like to take you through their journeys using the curators’ own voices…..


Enquiry 1 | Who are Louise and Milly and what do they do?

Louise Tomsett, Curator Mammal Group, Zoology Department, Natural History Museum: ‘It’s a very varied job, we do so many  different tasks.’


Louise Tomsett and
Martyn Cooke, Conservator at the Hunterian Museum
‘I work in the Mammal Section at the Natural History Museum (NHM). The section is part of the Zoology Department and has an estimated three quarters of a million objects.  The key work of the NHM is taxonomy and systematics.

People often ask what my job is and it’s rather difficult to sum it up.  The role of a curator at the NHM is probably very different to some others because it’s so multifunctional and multitasking. 


The basic role is:
  • To look after the collections and preserve them for the future. A curator acts as a guardian for the collections and it’s a fine line between providing access for use of the objects and ensuring their survival for future generations There is no point of having [collections] if you are not going to access them and use them but we need to control how they are used to ensure their preservation.
What I actually do day to day is:
  • host academic visitors from all over the world: mostly scientists but also artists and historians.  You name it, people use the collections for it. Sometimes their research isn’t linked directly with science. They might be looking at an animal for other reasons [for example] an architect might be interested in bone structure and use that as inspiration for their designs.
  • I deal with a large number of enquiries and identifications.  Enquiries can be from all sorts of different sources including the general public, media and scientific institutions.
  • Identifications comprise a large amount of our work. These may be scientific, public or media, just to name a few.  Items that need their identity confirmed or have been smuggled or illegally traded are brought to us from wildlife crime organisations.  We are also asked to identify objects that might have animal material components in them, like ivory, fur or bone.
  • try to digitize the collection. We have an estimated 70 million specimens in the museum, so we’ll be doing it for quite some time.
  • process destructive loans.  This involves taking samples from specimens, e.g. skin, bone or dry tissue samples, and supplying these for isotope or DNA analysis.
  • Then you have Integrated Pest Management, imaging, conservation, preservation, specimen preparation, taxonomic re-organisation, archiving, editing, giraffe vacuuming and 101 other tasks and roles…’


Milly Farrell, Curator, Odontological Collection, Hunterian Museum: ‘since I started three and a half years ago I’ve done a lot of cataloguing and a lot of re-boxing objects in the collection.’


Milly showing a pig skull with overgrown lower canines.
'I'm the curator of what’s called the Odontological collection. That is a collection of around 11,000 skulls: skull portions and teeth.  It’s largely animal but there is a set of human cranial remains.  It’s a huge array of comparative anatomy.

I was taken on initially to document and promote the Odontological Collection.  Initially, there was a lot of re-boxing.  I’ve worked my way through the 3000 primates.  I started with the human material first and this was catalogued and sorted in the first 6 months. Then I moved onto animal material. I’ve had to take on volunteers to help with this, and I’m gradually chipping my way through the rest of the collection.

The collection wasn’t that well used, so I’ve been promoting it non-stop since I started and it’s now used in quite a lot of research studies; from post-doc researchers working at universities through to Master students that just need to measure a few skulls for part of their sample size for their dissertation.

On top of that I’ve had the opportunity to display some of the material in exhibitions which has been a great experience.’

Enquiry 2 | With busy curatorial jobs already why did Milly and Louise choose to take part in a skill sharing scheme?


Louise:  ‘it was an opportunity to work with Martyn Cooke [Conservator at HM] and learn about preservation of ‘wet’ material. There’s an awful lot of chemistry involved.  You need to have this knowledge before you start doing work on projects so that you can make the right choices. Martyn is an unending source of knowledge and expertise.’


One of Louise's specimens.
'A field-dressed specimen; some specimens were never
fully prepared on past expeditions and still need to
be cleaned so that they are more accessible for morphological study.' [1]

‘I did a degree in Zoology, Paleontology and Ecology and have just finished a Masters in Wildlife, Biology and Conservation, which I did whilst working..  One of my particular interests is conservation and how we can use the collections for work such as forensics for animal wildlife trade and conservation, identification guides for surveys, historical species range information and population genetics.

I never had it in my mind that I wanted to be a curator.  Apparently, I don’t remember it, but I would always drag my mother to the Natural History Museum. I liked the natural world generally.  I also liked the historical side too, the voyages, collectors and expeditions. I loved seeing the museum displays and used to see people disappearing through doors and wondered where those went. I didn’t actually know about the role of a museum curator or that it could be a possible job.  I didn’t know you could turn your passion into a job.  

The first time I actually worked in a museum I must have been fifteen or sixteen and that was a couple of weeks work experience.  I loved the mixture of history and science.  When I was at university I volunteered for half a day a week in the Palaeontology and Zoology departments working on various projects and (whilst I waited for a paid opportunity) I worked in various retail and service roles.  A job became available as a tour guide in the Darwin Centre.  I was in that role for two years and worked in all the Zoology curation departments as a result. This gave me a good picture of both sides of the museum, the public domain and behind the scenes.  Then I was lucky enough to get a job in the Mammal Section so I have now been at the museum for almost ten years.

The museum used to have people specifically responsible for preparation of specimens. We had taxidermists, bone preparators and an histology section (preparing slides etc.).  We don’t have these anymore so [the scheme] offered an opportunity to learn some of these skills from Martyn Cooke, the Conservator, and gain to practical, hands-on experience from an expert, which you just can’t get nowadays.

The collection at the Hunterian Museum is also very different to ours in that it is used for a lot of teaching and handling and for display.  I noticed as we were going through the scheme that there were quite a lot of aesthetical touches put on specimen jars.   Okay, we are not going to use this particular technique in the vast majority of our collections, but for objects from famous voyages, I’m hoping that I can use my new knowledge to preserve the historical aspect if we have to change or conserve the storage container for the good of the specimen.’

Milly: the aim [was] to build a relationship between the Royal College of Surgeons museums department and the Natural History Museum mammals department.  Largely because the Odontological collection is a very different collection.’


Milly showing the mandible of a boar that has had the occluding
upper teeth removed to promote tooth growth of the lower teeth.
These canine teeth continue to grow in a circle, often penetrating the jawbone.
They are often used as jewellery items.
‘My masters was in skeletal and dental bio-archaeology, which is basically skeletal forensics.  On the back of that I volunteered at the Museum of London. They have a collection of about 17,000 skeletons and I worked in the Centre for Human Bio-archaeology helping out three osteologists who are slowly working through the specimens It was a matter of getting out each skeleton, laying it down anatomically and then recording every single bone and all the pathologies. I was still in training at that point so I wasn’t nearly at the same stage as them.  I learnt a lot watching them and working in the stores as well.  When I finished my Masters I found this opportunity with the Odontological collection at the Hunterian Museum.

The Odontological material is mainly comparative anatomy so it’s been really useful to work with the NHM zoologists.  The Odontological collection consists of skulls from a wide range of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, birds and fish.  It’s been really useful to work with the NHM zoologists, given the diversity of specimens that I am responsible for.   I’ve been able to better my knowledge and understanding of zoology through working with them. [This knowledge] really contributes to the work that I am trying to undertake with regards to cataloguing at the HM, because my background is in human forensics. 

It was an [opportunity] I couldn’t pass up. On the career development side it made complete sense for me to try and increase my training in this area and it [would] directly benefit the work I am doing at the HM. 

There are certain issues I come across at the Hunterian Museum in my day to day work that my colleagues here wouldn’t be able to help me with because they are not in zoology or they don’t have the kind of knowledge about sending protected specimens abroad for research.  That’s the kind of advice I could get from people that were working in the NHM, because it’s something they do on a daily basis.’

We can see here that Milly joined the scheme to gain Zoology collection care, loan, handling, and preparation skills.  The opportunity to learn hands-on with museum professionals enabled Milly to fill in the gaps of her curatorial training.  Louise used the opportunity to develop specialised skills working with a Conservator, gaining new knowledge around handling, preparation and aesthetics that can be applied to her working practice. In effect topping up specialized knowledge through practical training.  Milly and Louise are not shy of long hours – their commitment and passion is evident in their description of how they came to be Curators.  They are both motivated professionals taking ownership of their own career development.


Enquiry 3 | Now we’ll look at what the skill sharing actually involved

The scheme was very flexible, which enabled it to be adaptable to individual learning needs and busy work schedules.

Louise: ‘We’re not making work for the sake of the scheme, we’re actually using a real life application.'


‘We’re both exceptionally busy, so we didn’t start off with set dates or a commitment to it being every Friday.  We just fit it in when we can manage.  I actually started in late November/early December [2011], when both of us had a busy period,. so I did a couple of weeks and took  a break and came back last week.  Now we’re trying to do it every other week where possible. We’re trying not to leave too much of a gap as the specimen needs to be worked on and we want to keep up the momentum of the learning.'

Louise and Martyn working on a new seal for a jar,
having replaced the preservative fluid and re-threaded and re-hung
the specimen to show the pathology (a heart with an ulcer).
We’re not making up tasks to do, we’re actually working on specimens that need work.  For example, with all fluid-preserved specimens, no matter what you do to them, there’s always a problem with evaporation. The fluid level drops and the specimen becomes exposed or you can see that it will become exposed in the near future.  So, preferably before that’s happened, you want to address the problem and that involves topping up the fluid or replacing it and re-doing the seal.  Very simply, that’s what we’ve been working on. Lots of specimens here [HM] are on display and we are trying to display certain aspects of the preparation, particularly the pathology. They have to be tied and mounted to show that.'

Milly: ‘I was reminding myself when I was going over my notes and writing them up just how unusual some of the work I was asked to undertake was. However, on the flipside, how normal that is to someone working at the Natural History Museum in the mammals department.’


‘I was fortunate enough to do one day a week for ten weeks and I started in September 2011. I worked all the way through to November, pretty much every Friday.  Within those set hours I got to go all around the Museum.  I got to have meetings with people in different departments.  From day one everyone was so welcoming, which was good because I really thought I was going to be a bit of an irritant.  Everyone is extremely busy as it is, and here I was turning up and taking up even more of their time, but they were just so accommodating. 

I spent a bit of time with a loans officer who gave me a set of the NHM policies to have a look over and talked me through some of her loans procedures.  Looking through their official documentation and then directly comparing it to ours I have been able to directly contribute to the re-drafting of some of our policies.’

The skill share scheme was a focused, hands-on practical learning programme.  Both Curators worked on existing projects rather than projects that were created for the scheme’s sake.  This has allowed each Curator to gain skills of value in a short space of time to be used in their everyday working practice.


Enquiry 4 | What are the benefits of skill sharing?

Louise: ‘That’s what I’m enjoying the most, absorbing all this information.’


  • Professional learning development plan. ‘At the NHM we have a tailor-made competency-based development plan that is individual to each person and is directly linked to their job.  We also have a yearly job plan including what we would like to achieve. Because I wanted to do a curation project on Seba and Linnean fluid-preserved specimens the skill sharing scheme at the HM linked directly into my professional learning development plan.  I needed to go somewhere to gain skills and experience around historical fluid-preserved specimens and this was most the efficient way of doing that.’
  • Knowledge skill exchange. ‘You go away with the knowledge, skills and tools with which to deal with a particular curation project. There are already a few things I have realised I need to know more about before I can even start thinking about other projects.  And there are things I have shared with Martyn that will help with his work, for example setting up a dermestarium.' [see image below and details in footnote 1]

  • Science skills. I don’t really know much about chemistry at all but there’s an awful lot of chemistry involved in the preparation of specimens  so we have spent some time on this.  You need to know these things before you start doing the work so that you can make the right choices.'
  • Theory and practical learning. ‘In a short amount of time, we’ve started tackling the removal of the lid off a specimen container, and all the things you need to consider for that. On the theory side we looked at the chemistry aspect; how do preservatives and fixatives react with the container that the specimen is in? What doesn’t mix with plastic? Why do things degrade and leak or not preserve? Last week we started work on a specimen suspended by thread. They kind of hang in the jar and have been dissected in a certain way to show a certain feature. We worked on tying, the theory of tying; so you won’t damage the specimen, and it won’t fall down over time and how to reduce the stress of thread going through a soft tissue so it doesn’t tear.  We tied, suspended, and part re-resealed the specimen.  It’s a lengthy process.  The next stage is aesthetics, to make the seal look like a kind of tar, and we’re on the first stage of making it look like that.’ [see image below] 
Louise working on the seal's aesthetics.
  • Focused uninterrupted learning time. ‘It’s nice to be away from the hectic daily life with constant pressure phone calls, emails and everyone needing your assistance. .  Because I am so busy and do so many things I rarely have the chance to concentrate on one project and have uninterrupted time working on something. I’m always having to juggle 101 things and it’s nice to be able to work on one particular project. Even though it’s only one day a week and I’m doing basic things, the amount of information and skills I am learning is incredible and I’m enjoying concentrating on one thing. I can actually achieve and finish something.’
  • Knowledge transfer. ‘There are few museum professionals compared to other professions. Even though our collections might be very different, no training like this is ever wasted.  You can apply [the knowledge] to your own collections.  There are many things that I have been looking for for ages: sources of products – suitable modeling clay for example, and Martyn has just said ‘Oh I get it from this place’.  This [knowledge sharing] is hard to quantify but it is invaluable.  Every museum has got their own specialisms and being able to transfer this knowledge or knowing who to contact is valuable, because we can’t know everything.  We’re all exceptionally busy but perhaps, though we haven’t done something like this in the past, we should do more of this kind of linking with people in the future.   Both of us [NHM and HM) have found out things about each other’s collections.  We both have specimens relating to a particular collector.  Researching that collector which would take us [NHM] days, months to do but it’s already been done at the HM. Being aware that we’ve all got the same problems and knowing who to contact helps, as you don’t want to re-invent the wheel.  Because we are all pushed for time and resources anything that can help you work on the collections and save time and follow best practice is always going to be helpful.’


Milly: ‘It was all very much hands-on...’


  • Dealing with destructive analysis requests. ‘With regard to the actual research enquiries, I’ve dealt with a few now from Australia.  They seem to make more destructive analysis requests.  My time at the NHM really helped, because that’s not really something that we deal with that often at the HM. So it was a learning experience where the skills exchange helped.’
  • Destructive analysis. ‘I was asked to help with some destructive sampling on one occasion by Roberto Portela, a Curator in the mammals team.  It is a very rare occurrence.  We had to pluck some hairs out of different allocated parts from the skins of civets.  It involved plucking 20 hairs out with tweezers, which felt completely wrong because it’s everything you are taught not to do as a curator. But the researchers needed the actual hair follicle in order to test these hairs against the hairs that they were getting from the traps.’
  • New colleagues: peer networks. ‘I dealt a lot with the loans officer, Tracy Heath, and she was fantastic.  I actually called her just last week to ask for some advice about sending some bone samples off to Australia.  Although obviously they [HM and NHM] are completely different institutions, you do kind of almost feel like they are a colleague.'
  • Records management and storage, handling and movement of specimens. I catalogued quite a lot of the big cats, and my job here at the moment is cataloguing the dog collections, so it directly contributes to my [work practice].  Records management was quite a large learning outcome and, in turn, better storage, handling and movement of specimens.’
  • Re-potting wet specimens. ‘Dealing with wet preparations and wet specimens is something that I’d never had to do here before.  But, some of the collections I look after are wet preparations so it was really useful to experience re-potting specimens and topping them up.’
  • Reflection; specimen transport. ‘I have written a log of all my work, it’s just a short paragraph per day. This was really helpful, even just reading over it last week to try and get some further information on specimen transport it reminded me of how varied each day was and how unusual some of the work I undertook was.’
  • Thinking outside the box. ‘The work undertaken at the NHM is directly linked to the work that I am doing here So, for example, the cataloguing, re-storage and re-boxing of items at the NHM has changed the way I do my job here.  It has enabled me to think a little bit more outside the box. Since going to the NHM I suppose I’ve thought of doing things in different ways.  For example, I am drafting a policy for researchers which will take into consideration all of the specific details of their visit from arrival to departure.  I’m more aware of these issues now, as the NHM have so many researchers every day and we only have them once a week or once every other week.’



Milly and Louise’s experience illustrates the benefits of skill sharing, and the relationships and peer networks they have developed are a tangible asset that cannot be ignored.  Through the commitment, trust and flexibility of both organisations an effective knowledge sharing programme was achieved and long term professional development plans are being discussed.  Practical learning through skill sharing is not for the short term! For an insight into skill sharing challenges please read accompanying blog Swop Shop I.

I’d like to finish with a quote that recently came up in a conversation with a museum colleague about why we are passionate about working in museums and our professions: When you stop learning, stop listening, stop looking and asking questions, always new questions, then it is time to die’ by Lillian Smith http://www.worldofquotes.com/author/Lillian+Smith/1/index.html.
We all don’t want to stop learning so we are able to provide good services to audiences, open up access to collections and protect and conserve collections for the future.

To advertise skill sharing opportunities please go to Share London  or contact Rachel Mackay, r.mackay@nhm.ac.uk, Share London Representative about your ideas.

Curator of this human narrative blog (interview, images, composition of knowledge):
Julie Reynolds, LMG Blogger
Editor: Judy Lindsay, LMG Chair

With thanks to: 
Louise Tomsett, Curator, Mammal Group, Zoology Department, Natural History Museum
Milly Farrell, Curator, Odontological Collection, 
Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons
Martyn Cooke, Conservator, Hunterian Museum, 
Royal College of Surgeons,
Stefania Riccini, Visitors Services Manager, Hunterian Museum, Royal College of Surgeons
Sam Alberti, Director, Hunterian Museum, 
Royal College of Surgeons,
Clare Valentine, Head of Collections, Zoology Department, National History Museum
Nancy Groves, Editor, Cultural Professionals Network, Guardian


Footnote [1] 'I remove as much dry tissue as possible by hand and keep that for future tissue samples.  The bones are then briefly soaked in water, sometimes with meat-cubes to make them more palatable for the beetles. We use a colony of beetles to clean the bones. The beetles are actually a pest and would damage the collections so we keep them sealed and locked away in a place called the dermestarium (A dermestarium is a maintained colony of Dermestes beetles.  The beetles and their larvae feed on flesh and are used to prepare skeletal material).'

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