I have just said goodbye to retired curator Richard Hodgkinson who left the Museum 54 years after taking up a junior position here. His knowledge of the microfossil collection is second to none. Another colleague Andy Currant is about to retire after more than 40 years of service. Can we replace this sort of specialist knowledge? As the curator of a collection of over a million objects that is consulted regularly by scientists, I would argue that specialist curators are vital. Here are 10 points illustrating why.
First I'll start with my definition of a specialist curator. This is someone who has in depth knowledge about the collections in their care, an appreciation of their significance and a working knowledge of the external community likely to use them. Some curators publish research papers on their own areas of expertise but I'm not including that in my definition. Nobody in the world is an expert on the range of subjects that micropalaeontology covers!
The million plus items in my collections are unlikely to be databased individually during my lifetime. Some knowledge of the relative importance of different parts of the collection helps decide on priorities so limited databasing resources are used to their best potential. Updating identifications of our specimens is also important so knowing 'who is publishing what' can pay dividends.
As with databasing, important decisions need to be made on what needs conserving. Conservation is one of the main remits of the museum and is vital to maintaining the heritage locked up in our collections. Having someone to argue scientifically why something needs conserving helps to prioritise conservation projects.
It's important to provide accurate information to enquirers. While useful information can be gleaned from Museum card indexes and registers, these rarely include historical details. I've been here for 18 years now and have a pretty good feel for the microfossil collections but I still occasionally rely on retired members of staff to point me in the right direction with an interesting anecdote or two.
Some of my fellow curators are always being called on to make statements about news articles related to their subject. Meteorites, human fossils or dinosaurs are in the news every week. These high profile judgements emphasise why the Museum is important and the public expect such authoritive statements from specialists at the Museum. OK I hear you say - micropalaeontology rarely makes it to the news. That is one of the reasons why I decided to start this blog!
Before our collections are sent out on loan we need to make judgements on their travel suitability and value for insurance purposes. Sometimes loanees want to carry out destructive techniques on the specimens so curators have to advise senior managers about whether these should be allowed.
- Disaster and risk management
We know where our most important specimens are so they can be rescued in the event of a disaster (fire, flood, earthquake). You would think a specialist curator is not required if we have lists already. However, I came to work last Monday morning to find my second floor office and part of the collections area outside flooded. This is strange because I am two floors below the roof! Knowledge of the collections present in the affected cabinets was vital to quickly dealing with the issue. Some people think that databasing all our collections is the answer to replacing specialist curators but this would not have helped in this instance.
Should we acquire a collection or not? Knowledge of collectors and their history is useful as is knowledge of the site where it was collected. My experience is that having a specialist on the books also encourages donations. Specialists build up relationships with potential donors, enhancing the value of the present collections by encouraging new donations.
- Exchanges and disposals
These follow the same principles as acquisitions but in reverse. I've heard several horror stories over the years where collections or specimen related documentation have ended up on the skip because the people disposing of them had no idea of their value. Many curators can't bear to think that their collections should be disposed of or exchanged. However, these projects are neccessary so some knowledge of value is essential before disposal decisions are made.
People come from all over the world to visit our collections sometimes at vast personal expense. Before planning a trip they need to know for certain that we have collections that suit their specialist needs. Sometimes we need to encourage use of our collections from relevant external stakeholders. I am glad that my colleagues Tom and Steve have been brought in specifically to help me with this remit.
Educational activities include roadshows like the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, public speaking e.g. Nature Live or input to displays in the galleries of the Museum. Without specialist knowledge, specimens can be poorly interpreted or interesting stories not brought to public attention. All of these activities make the specimens more relevant to members of the public.
So you can tell that as a specialist curator I'm in favour of them. No surprise there. I'm not criticising non-specialists either. In these days of austerity, curatorial support is becoming stretched increasingly thinly and staff expected to cover wider subject areas. The days of a person like Richard Hodgkinson staying their entire career in one museum job on one subject may be over but it does not pay to overlook the importance of specialist curatorial knowledge.
If you are interested to join in the discussion on this subject, my colleague Dr Tim Ewin is taking part in a question and answer session entitled "In defence of the curator" at the Open Culture event on 27th June at the Kia Oval in London.