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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

4 Posts tagged with the fossil tag

The quick answer to this is no. If you read my post on who visits our collections and why? you will see that we host visits to the microfossil collections from local amateur groups, artists and very occasionally historians. One of my visitors last week, artist Jennifer Mitchell seemed genuinely surprised that we so readily open the door to visitors who are not scientists in professional positions, or university students. This post investigates how she found us and whether we do enough to encourage visits from non-scientists.


Haeckel and the radiolarians


Jennifer was enquiring about the historical collections of famous evolutionary biologist Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919) and in particular material collected on the H.M.S. Challenger Expedition of 1872-1876. Haeckel published some amazing illustrations of marine life including illustrations of the microscopic radiolarians. Haeckel's work inspired the famous father and son Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka to create glass models of radiolarians, examples of which can been seen in our Treasures Gallery. Jennifer wanted to see the original material from which Haeckel's illustrations were created.


Eucyrtidium_Haeckel_Plate.jpgSome artwork from a monograph published in 1862 by Ernst Haeckel on the radiolarians, alongside a Blaschka glass model of a radiolarian inspired by Haeckel's work and displayed (on rotation) in our Treasures Gallery.


I was interested to hear how Jennifer knew to contact me to arrange access. Her initial enquiry came via the Museum Archives web pages. The archivist responded that Jennifer needed to contact my colleague Miranda Lowe in Life Sciences and Miranda passed the enquiry to me when she realised that it related to our microfossil collections.



One of the Ernst Haeckel slides that Jennifer Mitchell viewed during her visit. Haeckel created sets of slides that he sold to various museums including the British Museum of Natural History.


Less than 5% of our enquiries about the microfossil collections come via the Museum website, where there is a link to a general enquiries e-mail. This general email then gets forwarded to the relevant curator or researcher for them to deal with. The vast majority of the enquiries I get are direct from people that have had some prior connection with me or the Museum.


Does this mean that people find it difficult to know who to contact and are therefore put off enquiring about our collections? Jennifer's example suggests that this might be the case, although she did finally find the relevant person via several emails.


Let's digitise


Are we doing enough to let people know about our behind the scenes collections? Our website gives some details but the vast majority of our microfossil collections are not findable via a search facility on our site because they are not computer registered. Mainly visitors know of our collections because of the publications that cite them.


The Museum is engaging in a major digitisation project aimed at digitising 20 million of our specimens in the next 5 years. This will almost certainly help, but my experience of delivering collections information to the web is that you still need to keep telling the relevant audiences that you can search for specimens on our site by advertising the URL.



This is what Haeckel saw down the microscope. It's amazing to see the material he used to create the illustrations in his famous monographs. Even with modern microscopes the depth of field issue means that the specimens are never all in focus at once hence the blurry nature of this image.


Would we get more enquiries if we more proactively advertised contact details and that we facilitate access to our behind the scenes collections to a wider audience by appointment? Almost certainly we would. I see it as an important part of my role to make people aware that our collections are here to be used by whoever wants to use them. This was the over-riding reason for me in starting this blog.


However, hosting an increased number of visits and maintaining visitor facilities is a major drain on resources such as staff time. I firmly believe that it is our duty to make these collections available to everyone, but it does come at a cost.


A wider reach with limited resources?


Some of my colleagues in charge of popular and high profile parts of our collection host a constant string of visitors, so advertising to a wider audience would not be appropriate because resources are not available to cope with increased visitor numbers. I would argue that the Museum galleries allow access to a wider audience for these types of collection (e.g. dinosaurs, meteorites, early humans, mammoths).


For the microfossil collections, where we have virtually nothing on display, it is a balancing act between advertising to promote access and encouraging so many visitors that we don't have the resources to deal with them.


So our collections are available to a wider audience beyond professional scientists and students, but I would argue that we could do more to advertise our microfossil collection to all audiences by appointment. Jennifer suggested 'to be able to contact the curator or appropriate person directly from the website and let them deal with the request directly would be more efficient for everyone especially the curators'.


It will be really interesting to see how enquiries access is handled when the current project to revamp our Museum website is finished. I'd also love to hear any opinions on access to behind the scenes collections, particularly if you have ever tried to find out about and arrange a visit to our microfossil collections.


Search our digitised microfossil collections


How do our visitors know what's here and why do they arrange visits? The microfossil collections are not on display in the Museum galleries and many people are unaware that we have such large collections behind the scenes. Despite this, last year I hosted over 300 visitors to our microfossil collections.



A selection of books and monographs, mainly published in the last 6 months, which illustrate and provide details of over 1,000 of our specimens.


In this post I provide some ranked lists covering the questions 'How do visitors know about our collections?' 'Who are they?' and 'What do they do when they visit the microfossil collections here at the Museum?' Finally there is an interactive panoramic shot of the view most visitors see as they enter our collections.


How do visitors know about our collections?


  • Scientific publications that refer to our collections. I have rated this as the highest factor and many enquirers request to see material that has previously been published, particularly when images in older publications do not provide enough information. Modern techniques for imaging including scanning electron microscopy have helped with this, but often there is no substitute for being able to view the specimen down the microscope yourself.
  • Reputation/strength of the collection. There are some collections at the Museum, for example the fossil fish collection, where this factor would be at the top of the list. However, I think this factor is not as strong with the microfossil collections as it is often easier for researchers to go and collect their own material to work on.
  • Online presence (blogs, Twitter, online catalogue, listservers). This was not previously a driving force in pointing potential visitors to our collections, mainly because so little electronic information was available online. Our collections are now well-represented online and this is an increasingly important method for advertising our collections.
  • Advertising by staff word-of-mouth. When I first came to the Museum we had four research micropalaeontological staff here who would be attending conferences all over the world and would often encourage visitors to the collections. This factor is less significant now but still very much part of our remit.


Who are they?


  • Researchers from universities or other research establishments. These are the main users of our collection and probably always will be.
  • Grant-funded visitors e.g. SYNTHESYS. These could be counted under the heading above but they make up an increasingly large proportion of our visitors and a major grant from the EU provides us with funds to support their visits.
  • Students. These are mainly undergraduates and postgraduates, some of whom are supervised by myself, Steve and Tom.
  • Scientific Associates and long-term visitors. Retired former members of staff or retired academics who use our facilities make up the majority of these visitors.
  • Volunteers/work experience. We currently have several volunteers. Details of volunteering opportunities are available on the Museum website.
  • Commercial enquirers. These are usually from oil companies, mining, environmental or archeological consultancies.
  • Local enthusiast groups. These are mainly local geological societies.
  • Personal contacts. We all have friends and family visit us once in a while...
  • Artists. This category is a new entry but is rapidly rising up the list.
  • Media. Occasionally journalists visit us, but not as often as we would like.



Dr Steve Stukins giving a tour for MSc students from the University of Birmingham Applied and Petroleum Micropalaeontology course during the recent Micropalaeontological Society conference held at the Museum.


What do they do?


  • Pop in for very short visits while or before attending major meetings at the Museum or elsewhere in London..
  • Work on research or curation projects with members of staff.
  • Attend tours arranged usually for university students or local geological societies.
  • Deposit specimens or return loans.
  • Use the Heron-Allen Micropalaeontology Library and other facilities.
  • Look for artistic inspiration.


Heron_Allen_panorama.jpgThe image above is part of a panorama of the Museum's Heron-Allen Library,  where we host our visitors. Most of our micropalaeontological collections are held here, along with a world-class collection of micropalaeontological books. The mahogany door you can see in the panorama is one of a pair from the entrance to Edward Heron-Allen's library at Large Acres, Selsey. The house is sadly now demolished.


Hopefully this has answered the question 'who visits our behind the scenes collections?' You may think that the short list I provided does not give exact details of how visitors use our collections. More details can be found in other blog posts I have written on ocean acidification, ancient climates, climate change, early humans in Britain, dinosaurs, exhibitions, students, volunteers and artists.


My work diary of last week, in which members of the public put a valuable part of the collection at risk with their smart phones, tiny floating snails cause a flurry of visitors and microfossils are mentioned on the Test Match Special cricket commentary(!) in a varied week for the curator of micropalaeontology.




First up is a trip across the Museum to the Nature Live Studio with some delicate specimens that will be the subject of my two public talks later in the day. We can't move large items across the Museum during opening hours and, with the galleries filled with summer visitors, this is more than sensible at present.


In the Nature Live Studio with host Tom Simpson - a CT-scan of a Blaschka glass radiolarian model on the screen.


All of the specimens in my care bar the one in the Treasures Gallery are housed behind the scenes, so regular visitors might not even know that we have microfossil collections. A previous head of palaeontology collections calculated that we have as few as 0.001 per cent of our fossil collections on display.


If you haven't been to one yet, the Nature Live events are a great way to bring these parts of our collections out for the public and allow us to talk about our science. The incredibly delicate and unique Blaschka Glass models of radiolarian microfossils are always a big hit, but we have to ask a smart phone-brandishing throng of children and their parents to move away from the specimens after the first show as a mother leans over the barrier and takes a picture on her phone from right above the specimen. We add two extra barriers for the second show!



I've had an enquiry from The Geological Magazine asking me to review a book that I have almost finished reading. I have to think carefully about saying yes or no. Receiving a free copy is the usual bonus for undertaking these tasks but, as I have a copy already, dedicating a lot of time to a review does not seem so appealing.


I decide that I shall send the extra copy to my student in Malaysia but I think I will wait until after she has finished writing up her MSc thesis. Her first chapter arrives today for comment as do some proofs for a book chapter on microfossil models that I have written. Much of the day is spent checking these and providing additional information requested by the editors of the book. It will be about the history of study of microfossils and will have an image of one of our microscope slides on the cover.




The galleries are packed with summer visitors but it is relatively quiet behind the scenes with many staff on annual leave, away on study trips, conferences or fieldwork.


This quieter period is a good time to catch up on some of the documentation backlog so today I finish documenting a new donation, continue to work on a large dataset relating to specimens from the Challenger Collection, and register 30 Former BP Microfossil Collection specimens that are due to go out on loan to the USA.


I spent my first 6 years at the Museum on a temporary contract curating the Former BP Microfossil Collection so it is always satisfying to see it being used by scientists. We have big plans for this collection in the future. However, I feel that I will need to do more than wait for a rare quiet day if I am to meet my part of the databasing targets set by the Museum. We plan to have details of 20 million of our specimens on our website within 5 years.




An enquiry has come in this week about our heteropod collection. These are tiny planktonic gastropods, or literally floating snails. They are of great interest to scientists looking to quantify the effects of ocean acidification because they secrete their shells of calcium carbonate directly from the seawater that they lived in.


Measurement of carbon and oxygen isotopes from fossil examples can give details of the composition of ancient oceans and help to quantify changes over time. I mention the enquiry to staff in the Life Sciences Department and three visitors arrive to look at our collection within a day, including two from the British Antarctic Survey looking to develop projects on ocean acidification.



It is back to documentation again, a task I often save for days when the cricket is on. I am amazed when I hear dinoflagellates mentioned during the Test Match Special commentary. Dinoflagellates are protists that are a major consituent of modern and fossil plankton. We have thousands of glass slides of them here at the Museum within the micropalaeontology collections.


straussii_cookii_montage.jpgNew species of Australian Jurassic dinoflagellate Meiogonyaulax straussii (1-4) and Valvaeodinium cookii (16-20) published by Mantle and Riding (2012). Images courtesy of Dr Jim Riding, British Geological Survey.

A regular visitor to our collections who works at the British Geological Survey in Nottingham has described two new species of Jurassic microfossil from the NW Shelf of Australia and named them strausii and cookii after the former and current England cricket captains and Ashes-winning opening batsmen. It causes much merriment in the Museum microfossil team as another former England Captain, Michael Vaughan, remarks on the radio that they look rather like omelettes.


Cricket is the theme for today as I attend a lunchtime retirement party for a former cricketing colleague at the Science Museum next door. I leave a colleague to take a visitor to lunch but come back to find that he has gone home sick and the visitor is still here with a list of requests that account for the rest of the day...


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.




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



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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