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Patrick Campbell documenting specimens in a register in one of the Museum's old offices.

Patrick Campbell on being young and black in science

Patrick Campbell has been at the Museum since 1986. When he was made a fish curator in the Zoology department, he became one of the institution's first black curators.

Patrick spent 25 years caring for the Museum's collection of 800,000 fish specimens, before changing sections to reptiles in 2011 where he soon became a Senior Curator.

He has travelled across the world over his long career, and his work has seen him diving with the Royal Air Force (RAF), studying the effects of tsunamis and recovering stranded whales.

Describing what it was like to join the Museum as a young man in the 1980s, Patrick says, 'I was a pet lover as a child and wanted to be a vet. I used to visit the Museum every summer.

'My mum felt it was a good place for us to learn new things, as a supplement to our school life. I'll always remember the musty smell of the exhibits - there seemed to be more taxidermy specimens on display back then.

'I started working at the Museum virtually straight out of school, and gradually began to build my curatorial and group specialism expertise by spending chunks of time in the various sections in the Zoology department. Eventually I settled in the fish section and remained there for the next 25 years.'

Patrick (far right) carrying a spotted ray into the Darwin Centre in 2001.

Patrick (far right) carrying a spotted ray into the Darwin Centre in 2001.

 

Diving for knowledge

Just as Patrick was starting to take a deeper interest in seeing fish in their natural habitat (as opposed to their lifeless forms in glass jars) an email was sent to all Zoology staff asking for people interested in joining the staff dive team.

Patrick says, 'A lot of junior staff showed an interest, but you had to pass a gruelling fitness test at Harley Street before you could be put forward for the three-year training. Only a handful got through the medical.' Following this, Patrick went diving with the RAF to survey the damage caused by the 2004 tsunamis in Thailand.

The Boxing Day disaster saw a series of tsunamis rip through the Indian Ocean, killing an estimated 227,898 people in 14 countries. As a specialist Museum diver, Patrick flew to Thailand with the RAF to provide his expertise on marine life in affected areas and to examine how well the ecosystem had recovered since the disaster.  

Patrick (middle) diving in the Similan Islands with the RAF.

Patrick (middle) diving in the Similan Islands with the RAF.

 

Patrick has also been involved in the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme. The Museum started recording whale, dolphin and porpoise strandings in 1913, and is now a partner in the programme to collect and examine the dead animals.

Postmortem examinations reveal information about causes of death, diseases, environmental contaminant levels, reproductive patterns, diet and baseline data on UK populations.

Patrick led the curatorial defleshing team that worked on the Thames whale, a northern bottlenose whale that swam into London in January 2006.

The whale was a juvenile female, under 11 years old and measuring 5.85 metres in length. It died as a result of several factors, including severe dehydration, stranding-related injuries and organ failure.

The Museum whale strandings team leading on the defleshing of the Thames Whale in January 2006.

The Museum whale strandings team leading on the defleshing of the Thames Whale in January 2006.

 

Patrick says, 'A team from the Museum worked together to deflesh the whale and bring it back for further study and subsequent display. We are interested in gathering long-term data about the populations and habitats of marine mammals around the UK.'

A diversity ambassador

In 2011, Patrick stopped looking after the fish collections and made the leap into reptiles and amphibians. The mid-career move meant he needed to learn all about a completely new collection, which proved a big challenge.

He continues to manage and maintain the reptile collection, and his duties include preservation and conservation, receiving specimens, undertaking fieldwork, answering enquiries, hosting visitors, managing collection access, plus facilitating and conducting research.

Patrick is steadfast in continuing his work in enhancing the collection, fostering international collaborations and being an ambassador for the Museum.

Patrick inside the Museum's tank room, which houses some of the fish collection.

Inside the Museum's tank room, which houses some of the fish collection.

 

He says, 'I also want to champion diversity in any way, shape or form, both internally and externally. It is a mission close to my heart, knowing that there is an untapped resource among the underprivileged and under-represented.  

'When I first arrived here, the Zoology department was full of eminent senior staff. The caricatured view of a bearded, sandal -wearing scientist was no exaggeration of the way things were.

'Then I arrive, much younger than the rest, from a diverse background and of Caribbean heritage. It was an interesting introduction to the world of work in a scientific institution. There has been some change since then but the pace has been far from rapid.

'When I arrived, there were few faces of colour in the Museum, and there still aren't many on permanent staff within science. Given time, I'd love to search the archives for people with an African or Caribbean heritage who worked here before my time.'

We want to know more

Libraries and Archives staff at the Museum believe Patrick may have been the first black curator appointed to a permanent position in the institution.

If anyone has further information on this aspect of the Museum's history, we'd love to hear about it. Please email Katie Pavid on k.pavid@nhm.ac.uk.