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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

6 Posts tagged with the curator tag
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One of my curatorial predecessors Randolf Kirkpatrick (1863-1950) thought that larger benthic foraminifera (LBFs) were so important that he published a theory that they were vital to the formation of all rocks on earth. Our collection of LBFs has received relatively little attention over the 20 years I have been at the Museum, but recently it has been the most viewed part of the microfossil collection.

 

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Some images of larger benthic foraminifera (LBF) taken by Antonino Briguglio, a recent SYNTHESYS-funded visitor to our collections. The images represent specimens roughly the size of a small fingerprint.

 

Traditionally LBFs have been difficult to study but new techniques, particularly CT scanning, are changing this perception. This post tells the story of Kirkpatrick and explains how the collection is currently being used for studies in stratigraphy, oil exploration, past climates and biodiversity hot spots.

 

Larger benthic foraminifera (LBF)

 

Larger benthic foraminifera are classified as microfossils because they were produced by a single celled organism, but they can reach a size of several centimetres. Their study is difficult because it usually relies on destructive techniques such as thin sectioning to make precise identifications. My first line manager at the Museum Richard Hodgkinson was an expert at producing these thin sections. He described the technique of cutting the specimens exactly through the centre as an art rather than science. Sadly there are very few people in the world skilled enough to make these sections, but thankfully the Museum collection is packed with LBF thin sections available for study.

 

Randolf Kirkpatrick's Nummulosphere

 

Randolf Kirkpatrick was Assistant Keeper of Lower Invertebrates in the Zoology Department of the British Museum (Natural History), and worked at the Museum from 1886 to his retirement in 1927. He published on sponges but is most famous for his series of four books entitled The Nummulosphere that he had to pay to publish himself because his ideas were so unusual. In the Introduction to part four he writes:

'Fourteen years have passed since the publication of Part III of the Nummulosphere studies, but the scientific world has entirely ignored the work to its own real and serious loss... I think it not amiss to call attention to the financial aspect. Since its beginning in 1908, this research has cost me much over £2000, all paid out of a modest salary and pension, and certainly by a cheerful giver.'

 

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Kirkpatrick developed a theory that at one stage Earth was covered with water and LBFs of the genus Nummulites accumulated into a layer he called 'The Nummulosphere'. He went on to suggest that all rocks we see now were subsequently derived from this nummulosphaeric layer and he figured examples in his books of supposed nummulitic textures he had seen in granites and even meteorites.

 

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I think that Kirkpatrick would be very interested to hear that scientists are looking for evidence of life on Mars and that meteorites may hold the key to this. Obviously the evidence of life, if it arrives, is almost certainly not going to be a LBF. However, I think that if he were alive today, Kirkpatrick would be very interested to hear of the renewed interest in our LBF collection and that his earlier publications on sponges have also received renewed interest. These publications had been largely ignored because of his later publications of the Nummulosphere theory.

 

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Image of palm-sized model of a nummulite made in plaster of Paris based on an original illustration by Zittel (1876), showing strands of protoplasm colonising its complex shell.

 

Find out more about Kirkpatrick from the Museum Archives or read the article entitled 'Crazy Old Randolf Kirkpatrick' by Steven Jay Gould in his book The Panda's Thumb: More Reflections in Natural History. Read on to find out about some of the projects that the collection has been used for.

 

Evaluating past climates and extinctions

 

Naturalis Biodiversity Center researcher Laura Cotton studied for her PhD in the UK and has been a regular visitor to our LBF collections. She borrowed some rock sample material from Melinau Gorge in Sarawak, Malaysia that was worked on by one of the leading LBF workers of the time, former Natural History Museum Palaeontology Department Associate Keeper Geoff Adams (1926-1995). It would have been almost impossible to arrange for this material to be recollected.

 

In a study published earlier this year, Laura carried out destructive techniques on these samples to release whole rock isotope data that has provided information about the position of an isotope excursion that relates to a period of global cooling and climate disruption. Laura showed that an extinction of LBFs previously described by Geoff Adams occurred prior to this isotope excursion, a situation she had previously described in Tanzania. This suggests that this Eocene-Oligocene extinction of LBFs is a global phenomenon, closely linked to changes in climate around 34 million years ago.

 

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Boxes at our Wandsworth stores containing samples from which much of our larger benthic foraminifera (LBF) collection was obtained. Please note that the temporary box labels in this 2007 picture have now been replaced!

 

Most of our micropalaeontology rock sample collections are housed at our Wandsworth outstation and this project is a very good example of how duplicate samples are valuable resources for later studies using new techniques.

 

Studying hotspots of biodiversity in SE Asia

 

Naturalis researcher Willem Renema has been studying LBFs from SE Asia as part of a large multidisciplinary group including my colleague Ken Johnson (corals). The 'coral triangle' situated in SE Asia contains the highest diversity of marine life on Earth today. Back in time, water flowed from the tropical west Pacific into the Indian Ocean (Indonesian Throughflow) but this closed during Oligocene - Miocene times roughly 25 million years ago.

 

This interval in geological time is characterised by an apparent increase in reef-building and the diversification other faunas including the LBFs and molluscs, leading to the formation of the present day 'coral triangle'. The project aims to investigate how changes in the environment led to the high diversity of species present today.

 

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Some slides from the Geoff Adams Collection from SE Asia scanned by Malaysian intern student Zoann Low.

 

Our LBF collections are very strong from this area of the world following the work of Geoff Adams. Two curatorial interns Faisal Akram and Zoann Low from Universiti Teknologie PETRONAS in Malaysia have helped greatly to enhance this area of the collection by providing images and additional data relating to Geoff Adams' collection and allowing us to prepare data to be released on the Museum data portal and for this 'coral triangle' project.

 

Supporting Middle East stratigraphy

 

One of our most important collections, the former Iraq Petroleum Collection contains many LBFs that help to define the stratigraphy of oil bearing rocks of the Middle East. Some significant early oil micropalaeontologists such as Eames and Smout of BP also contributed to the collection.

 

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Recent donation from Oman of some Permian larger benthic foraminifera (LBF) of the genus Parafusulina.

 

A major publication on the collection by Museum Associate John Whittaker and others is being updated by John and a team of scientists including our own Steve Stukins and Tom Hill. We look forward to seeing this published in a major book in the next couple of years.

 

Atlas of larger benthic foraminifera

 

LBF worker Antonino Briguglio was successful with an application to SYNTHESYS, a European fund that facilitates visits to museum collections for European researchers. He visited us in March at the same time as Russian LBF worker Elena Zakrevskaya as part of work to compile an Atlas of LBFs. Antonino's work has included CT scanning LBF specimens and a video showing the architecture of the internal chambers of Operculina ammonoides:

 

 

 

 

CT scanning has opened up a whole new method for studying LBFs and made it much easier to create virtual sections through specimens without the need for expert and time consuming thin sectioning. We hope that our collection can be an excellent source for those wishing to CT scan LBFs and recently we were in negotiations with long term Museum visitor Zukun Shi who is studying fusuline specimens like the ones illustrated on my hand above.

 

This collection may never be as important as Kirkpatrick thought it was. However, it is a really excellent example of one that has become more relevant recently as new techniques are applied to its study. 

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A few weeks ago the Center for the Future of Museums blogged on how to get your museum blog widely read, sadly stating that writing for a niche audience like micropalaeontology is unlikely to be successful. As a reply I thought I would share my own experiences on what has worked for me and what hasn't, with nine tips for museum bloggers.

 

Choose an eye-catching title and subject

The title and subject ultimately convince the reader whether to visit your post or not. I agree with the Center for the Future of Museums that blogs with titles and subjects that are of general interest will be more widely read, as the post asking Do we need specialist curators? has shown. However, it is also possible to write about your specialist collection and make it relevant to a general audience, such as What microfossils tell us about early humans in Britain or When microfossils meet dinosaurs. Other more specific posts describing collections, databasing or risk management have not been so well read.

 

Utilise social media to advertise

I quickly realised that there was no point in posting and just hoping that people will automatically find what you have written. Posts tweeted by @NHM_London, which currently has over 400,000 followers, receive significantly more hits than others. We started the @NHM_Micropalaeo Twitter feed to provide micropalaeontology news from the Museum and to advertise posts from this blog. Other relevant advertisement vehicles have been sites such as Facebook, Reddit or LinkedIn, while #AskACurator day on twitter was also a great opportunity to publicise our collections by highlighting previously published blog posts.

 

Build links with other bloggers and webmasters

Link regularly to associated websites and write to the site owners to let them know that you have done so. I link regularly to the Geological Curators' Group, Forams.eu and The Micropalaeontological Society and they have all provided reciprocal links. Other sites such the Museum website, Focus Magazine and blogger Tony Edger have provided links to my writing, prolonging the reading life for some posts way beyond the point when they are not visible on the blog front page. 

 

Link to other sites clearly

The visibility of your blog to search engines such as Google is significantly enhanced if you link via a string of text that describes the link. For example, it is best to link to The Micropalaeontological Society rather than writing 'click here'.

 

Run your own email distribution list

Most sites, like this one, have the option to subscribe and receive updates when new posts go live. This works reasonably well if a lot of people make the effort to create an account and log on to follow your posts. However, most readers I have spoken to do not do this. I have lost count how many times I have heard people say 'I like your blog but I haven't looked at it recently'. I have set up a mailing list based on people I regularly deal with and send a message out every time I post a new blog. Posting blog links to relevant academic listservers has also been successful in generating additional readers.

 

Write for an audience

I write all posts as if I am explaining to my mother or mother-in-law, but at the same time making the post interesting to experts in the field of micropalaeontology wanting the latest news from the Museum. I feel confident that I am reaching my target audiences as I have been pleased to receive feedback  from a wide range of readers, including:

  • university academics
  • students
  • school teachers
  • amateur micropalaeontologists
  • members of the public

 

Think carefully about your reasons for blogging

In my first post I gave the following reason for starting this blog: 

In this age of austerity, I believe that we should be highlighting the good news coming from the Museum so that the applications and relevance of our collections, including those from micropaleontology, are brought to people’s attention.

Even when writing more general posts like this one, I have this theme in my head while writing so it is always possible to include information about our collections and their relevance.

 

Get your timing right

There is no point in publishing a Microfossil Christmas card blog piece on Christmas Eve and hoping that lots of people will be logging on to read it. Similarly if you are going to tweet about your latest post it is best to do it at at time when most people are likely to read it. My successful post on How to become a curator? was timed to coincide with half term and a gallery exercise called 'curious curators'. Another post went live to coincide with the opening of our Treasures Gallery at the Museum.

 

Include a good balance of personal narrative

How much you write about yourself and your feelings depends on your writing style and subject of your blog. My blog highlights the collections and their use and not myself, so I sometimes feel that I do not include enough of my own personal story. Posts where I have shown how passionate I am about collections and collecting like my post on 'How to become a curator have been well received though.

 

Post regularly

If you don't get overnight success then don't give up. It takes time to gain a following, build relationships with other bloggers, webmasters or fellow Tweeters. By definition the more often you post, the more hits you'll get. People are more likely to follow or keep checking a blog that is active.

 

It has been hard work but as a curator I feel that blogging about my collections has had a major impact on their profile and I would encourage any curator to do the same. In summary, if you write interesting material that gets tweeted and retweeted around the internet then people will read it, whether you are writing about 'niche collections' or not.

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This is my 50th blog post, so I thought I would look back and make a list of benefits that have come directly from blogging about my job and the collections in my care. These include an enhanced profile of the collection, help with collections management, fundraising, research collaboration offers and an enhanced personal profile.

 

There are probably more that can't be directly measured but here are 20 to be going on with:

 

Press coverage

1. The post on microfossil Christmas cards inspired an article in the Independent in December 2012.

2. The item on specialist curators was published in full on the Museums Association (MA) website.

3. The same post was one of the most read for 2012 on the MA website.

4. The Guardian used my post on specialist curators as a basis for an on-line poll.

5. The first paragraph of my post on volunteers was quoted in the Museums Journal under the title 'Best of Blogs'.

6. Images of slides from the collection were reproduced on the ScienceFocus website.

 

Collection management

7. I have been able to answer a number of internal and external enquiries by providing a link to blog posts.

8. A researcher from University College London has offered some grant money towards CT-scanning some of our holotype specimens.

9. Some readers have provided information to enhance the collections by identifying unnamed specimens.

10. I have been able to expand my knowledge about some important parts of the collection that previously I knew little about.

 

Collection usage

11. We have had a marked increase in the number of artists using the collection.

12. Some collection images featured on the blog have been sold via the Museum's Picture Library.

13. We have had three exhibition loan requests to display microfossil-related items, including a CT scan.

 

My research

14. I was asked to co-author a paper following my post on virtual loans.

15. I have had a request to participate in an exciting research project on ocean acidification that includes funding for more CT scanning.

16. A high profile journal has asked me to review a microfossil-related book.

 

Advisory role

17. A number of people have requested career advice, with one recently accepting a job in collection management.

18. We were approached by PalaeoCast to make a podcast about micropalaeontology.

19. I have had requests for advice on starting a blog.

 

And finally, relating to my personal development ....

 

20. I feel that blogging has helped me to write faster and more concisely.

 

I hope you will agree that this blog has enhanced the profile of the micropalaeontology collections both within and outside the Museum. There are still plenty of interesting issues and collections to write about. Please keep reading to find out how our microfossil specimens play a major role in climate studies and how a microfossil sculpture park in China relates to our collections.

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This week I celebrate 20 years at the Museum, and my diary has included preparing for a researchers' night highlighting museum science, Tweeting as part of #AskaCurator day and visiting a miniature steam railway.

 

Monday

 

Most of today has been spent preparing for Science Uncovered, our EU-funded researchers' night on Friday 27 September. The doors of the Museum will remain open after usual closing time and scientists like myself will be available to talk about our science, show specimens and chat. Presentations in the Nature Live Studio will also be held and it will be possible to book tours to areas of the Museum not normally open to the public.

 

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This core from the Atlantic SW of Ireland represents the last major glacial period showing glacial dropstones from colder periods (left) and white sections composed almost entirely of warm water microfossils (right). The green packets and plastic sleeve maintain an oxygen free environment.

 

We are showing some deep sea cores taken from the Atlantic Shelf off SW Ireland through sediment that was deposited during the last glaciation. It's a great opportunity to show the key role micropalaeontology plays in quantifying and dating past climatic episodes. The core relates to periods when icebergs broke off glaciers and traversed the North Atlantic.

 

Tuesday

 

A major part of my job is dealing with enquiries about our microfossil collections and subsequently hosting visits or preparing loans. Two main collections are our most requested, the Challenger Foraminifera and the Blaschka glass models of radiolarians. Since three specimens from our Blaschka collections have been on display in our Treasures Gallery, we have had an increased number of enquiries and visitors to view the other 180 specimens that are not currently on display.

 

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Image of one of our Blaschka glass radiolarian models that was widely retweeted during #AskACurator day.

 

Today we are showing the undisplayed Blaschka collection to an artist, last week it was a glassworker from Imperial College and later this week it is a photographer hoping to create a book of images from Blaschka collections across Europe.

 

Wednesday

 

I have spent virtually the whole day on Twitter monitoring questions and providing answers as part of #AskACurator day. Fellow curators from over 500 different museums and 35 different countries have been fielding questions over Twitter causing the hashtag to trend. At one stage it was globally the second most discussed subject on Twitter.

 

I answered questions like:

 

'Do you require a masters degree to become a curator?'

'Which museum, other than your own, inspired you recently?' (the Foraminiferal Sculpture Park in China)

'Which specimens in your collection give you goosebumps when you see them?' (Blaschka glass models

'What sparked your interest to become a curator?'

'Do you need to be an obsessive to be a curator?'

'Which specimen not currently on display would you like to see being displayed?' (100 year old microfossil Christmas card).

 

Many of the questions I was able to expand on using links to blog posts, particularly the one entitled 'How to become a curator'. I started to reply to the 'what is a curator?' question but could not cram 'someone who cares for a collection by enhancing its documentation and storage, maintains access to it by facilitating loans, visits and exhibits and promotes its relevance by engaging with potential users' into 140 characters.The day certainly showed what a varied job we all have, how passionate we are and that one day is never the same as another.

 

Thursday

 

My colleague Steve has worked out that we had 65 new interactions (messages, favourites, retweets, new followers) during #AskACurator day yesterday as well as some more hits to this blog. However, I am saddened as I read a well known museums blog that says that the best way to reach a wide audience is to avoid niche subjects like micropalaeontology and links direct to my blog as an example. It starts me wondering if accumulating vast numbers of hits really show that a blog is successful?

 

A string of meetings are scheduled too; we are applying for funding for a major 3 year conservation project, the photographer arrives to discuss his project and we are finishing an application to hire a new PhD project studying traits of evolution. Microfossils are extremely useful as their fossil record is relatively complete compared to other fossil groups and collections can be made relatively easily across large geographical areas.

 

Friday

 

Earlier in the week I got to work to find two of my train mad, three year old son Pelham's Thomas the Tank Engine stickers on my socks. On Monday he is starting nursery school so today we are taking him and his younger sister Blossom to one of our favourite places, the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway in Kent. I feel that this family day is a suitable way to celebrate the 20th anniversary of my arrival at the Museum as a volunteer.

 

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I'm very excited to see that the Museum is running a half term activity called Curious Collectors. As a child I would have loved this as I was an avid collector and had my own rock collection under my bed. Some of my Geology undergraduate colleagues may even remember me at the end of a field trip to Cyprus sitting next to an enormous pile of rocks I had collected and telling me 'you can't possibly take ALL those home on the plane...'

 

My passion for collecting and collections led me to a career as a curator at the Natural History Museum. What path led me to that dream job and more importantly, what do you need to do to become a curator?

 

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My first field sketch aged 7 and my holiday diary recounting a visit to the Lizard, Cornwall to collect some serpentinite. (Yes serpentinite has purples, reds and greens!). I still have the specimen I collected that day with the help of family friend Chris Moat, frequent donor to 'Museum Giles'.

 

First off though, what is a curator? This question is probably worthy of a separate blog post and frequently leads to differences in opinion. 'Curator' can mean different things in different types of museums and in different parts of the world. In North America a museum curator is hired to do research and there my job would probably be labelled 'Collections Manager'.

 

I like the idea that in Australia a curator prepares the pitch for test match cricket but I'm inclined to agree with University College curator Nicholas J Booth who prefers to restrict the use of the term to museums. For the purposes of this blog post I shall say that a curator cares for a collection by enhancing its documentation and storage, maintains access to it by facilitating loans, visits and exhibits and promotes its relevance by engaging with potential users. With that, here's how to become one:

 

  • Take advice on what to study at University

To work as a curator at the Museum you need to have a relevant science degree. My degree choice of Geology was entirely driven by my desire to find out about the specimens in my personal collection. I remember coming to the Museum in the early 1980s to ask my family friend, the late John Thackray, what A-levels I required to study Geology at University and being dismayed at his answer of 'Maths, Physics and Chemistry'. You will notice that I did not study Biology. At the time I did not know that I would be so inspired to take further studies on microfossils and become a Palaeontologist.

 

  • Take a further degree?

There is no right or wrong answer here. When I first came to the Museum I was are rare example of a curator in my department with a PhD. A further degree in a relevant subject certainly helps but is not absolutely neccessary. In some ways, curatorial jobs at the Museum are unusually specialised as our main interactions are with research scientists. For positions in other museums it can be more advantageous to have a broader background because you would usually be expected to responsible a much wider range of collections and focus on different tasks. A masters in Museum Studies is often a requirement in these situations. Having said that, the majority of my curatorial colleagues do not have this qualification.

 

  • Get some work experience

Specialising made my career prospects narrower and my PhD was followed by a lengthy period of job seeking. I was not getting interviews because I had qualifications but no experience. I decided that a spot of volunteering was what was required to boost my CV and get me on the career ladder so I moved from Leicester to London to volunteer at the Museum. It's never too early to start thinking about getting some experience and school work experience students often come to the Museum. Volunteer and work experience opportunities are advertised regularly on the museum web site.

 

  • Be in the right place at the right time

I was lucky to be in the right place at the right time as I volunteered just as a new microfossil collection had been donated that was relevant to my PhD. Shortly afterwards a temporary position became available as Curator of the former BP Microfossil Collection. I held this temporary position for 6 years until I was successful with an application to get a position on the permanent staff. It's the same in almost any profession. Being in the right place at the right time can make a big difference and sometimes you have to be patient before the right opportunity comes up.

 

  • Find out more

If you'd like information about curators and their activities then consider joining the Geological Curators' Group or the Natural Sciences Collections Assocation (NatSCA).  There are many curators like myself blogging and you can also find out more about their daily activities through Facebook or Twitter (follow us on @NHM_Micropalaeo). The Museum web site includes a fossil hunting guide if you feel inspired to go out and do some collecting yourself.

 

  • Start now!

Don't leave it too late to get involved like I did. If you can get to London between 18th-22nd Feb then why not sign up to be a Curious Collector?  If you can't get to London then why not contact your local museum and get involved in similar activities? It's a great way to start gathering that experience needed to help you become a curator.##

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Me, why and what's to come

Posted by Giles Miller Jun 21, 2011

As my first post to this new blog I’ll introduce myself and explain why I’m starting it, but first here are some of the questions I plan to answer through this blog, about micropaleontology at the Museum:

 

How does micropalaeontology help dinosaur research? What can microfossils tell us about sex in the Cretaceous? How do school age children learn about micropalaeontology at the Museum? How much are microfossils worth if you can’t buy them? Who visits us? What’s a typical day for me? ..and more.

 

Also feel free to post comments to suggest topics for me to cover.

 

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Outside the Museum

 

Now a bit about myself and my motivations for this new blog:

 

I’ve been working at the Natural History Museum since 1993 where I am now the Curator of Micropalaeontology. I came to the museum straight from University where I first studied Geology as an undergraduate before specialising in micropalaeontology for my Ph.D.

 

At the Museum I initially worked as a volunteer, then I had a number of short term contracts working on a collection donated by BP. From 2000 onwards I have been on the “permanent” staff. For more details see stuffy, standard work-style web page about me.


So why the blog? I’m starting it because you might be hard-pressed to know if you visited the Museum that we have a vast microfossil collection. (However, if you look very carefully in the currently running Age of the Dinosaur exhibition you can see two small pictures of microfossils). There are so many interesting things happening behind the scenes that would go unnoticed if an effort wasn’t made to tell people about them.

 

The other reason for starting the blog is that, in this age of ‘austerity’, I believe that we should be highlighting the good news coming from the Museum so that the applications and relevance of our collections, including those from micropaleontology, are brought to people’s attention.

 

Needless to say, I shall enjoy thinking up topics for the blog while I cycle to and from home where I live with Natasha, one year old Pelham and our tiny girl bump due in October. I hope you will enjoy the blog too, and any feedback or questions will be most welcome.

 

Giles Miller

 

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Giles Miller

Giles Miller

Member since: Apr 21, 2010

This is Giles Miller's Curator of Micropalaeontology blog. I make the Museum micropalaeontology collections available to visitors from all over the world, publish articles on the collections, give public talks and occasionally make collections myself.

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