Skip navigation
You are here: Home > NaturePlus > Blogs > Tags

Blog Posts

Blog Posts

Items per page
1

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.

2

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?

 

Cornwall_diary_field_sketch_1975_blog.jpg

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.##

0

Making a reference collection, taking high quality images of key species, identifying them and publishing the images on the web and in peer reviewed scientific articles are all ways in which expertise can be locked up in the Museum collections. NHM Scientific Associate Tim Potter has been doing just this during his time at the Museum. He studies acritarchs which are an enigmatic group of organic plankton that are present in marine rocks up to 3 billion years old.

 

Acritarchs.jpg

Some Lower Palaeozoic acritarch images created by Museum Scientific Associate Tim Potter. In general acritarchs range from about 5 to 200 micro meters.

 

Although we don't know exactly what acritarchs are (the name means unknown origin), they are very important organisms as many are probably primary producers and therefore could be responsible for generating oceanic organic carbon in some of the earliest oceans including the Cambrian Period roughly 500 million years ago. The Cambrian Period was an exciting time for the development of life with many strange organisms arriving and subsequently becoming extinct during the 'Cambrian Explosion' of life. Like many microfossil groups, the acritarchs have potential for dating rocks and subsequently the timing of some of these important events.

 

Acritarchs can also tell us about conditions in some of these ancient oceans; periods of glaciation and major oceanic carbon fluctuations are known to have occurred. Carbon isotopic studies of rocks suggest that the global carbon cycle was disrupted in the late Cambrian about 500 million years ago with increased carbon in the oceans at this time. This is referred to as the SPICE event but the link between this event and acritarch diversity is yet to be proven.

 

Tim studied acritarchs of Cambrian age for his PhD prior to a long career with Shell. After retiring he decided to publish the findings of his thesis and came to the museum to update his identifications using the amazing resources we hold like the John Williams Index of Palaeopalynology. In February, Tim published a key paper on acritarchs with co-authors Susanne Feist-Burkhardt and Museum PhD student Brian Pedder, expanding on work done by Brian for his masters project.

Fieldwork_Ludlow_ 055_blog.jpg

 

Tim Potter, Brian Pedder and Susanne Feist-Burkhardt lined up by chance 'in publication name order' in the Welsh Borderland during a collecting trip for acritarchs.

 

Back in 2007, Tim, Susanne, Brian and myself carried out fieldwork specifically to collect samples to fill gaps in the Museum acritarch collections and to support Museum research that was being undertaken at the time. This fieldwork covered classic sites in the Lower Palaeozoic of the Welsh Borderland from the Cambrian to Silurian periods roughly 500-420 million years ago.

 

Fieldwork_Ludlow_ 090_blog.jpg

 

Tim Potter collecting a sample from the bottom of a stream near Comley, Shropshire. There are very few exposures of Cambrian rocks in the world and in the UK you have to search hard to find potential sampling sites. This is not an uncommon situation for Lower Palaeozoic fieldwork in the Welsh Borderland!

 

To obtain acritarchs from the rock samples collected, laboratory processing using nasty acids like hydroflouric acid is neccessary. It is not a particularly strong acid but it is deadly as it dissolves pretty much everything apart from the organic constituents of rocks. Splash a bit on yourself and you would not last long! A laboratory with special fume cupboards and much protective clothing is neccessary for processing samples safely. Fortunately for Tim, these samples were expertly prepared by technician Jonah Chitolie.

 

Once processed, the residues were analysed by Tim and single specimens picked out so that they could be mounted and viewed on glass slides. Because the specimens are so small, this is a particularly fiddly technique that requires a lot of patience. Most slides of acritarchs are strew mounts; a small amount of processed organic sample is pressed and cemented between two glass slides using resins like Canada Balsam. For these types of slides, an assemblage is preserved rather than a single indentifable specimen.

 

Acritarchs_web.jpg

 

 

Some images of acritarchs from the Museum database.

 

The single grain slides that Tim produced have been photographed and the details and photographs released on the web via our specimen registration system. Tim has been happy with the identifications of most of the Cambrian specimens but would welcome comments on identifications of some of the younger Ordovician and Silurian examples. The Museum database is able to record re-identifications. It is hoped that other experts will log onto this resource and suggest alternative indentifications or back up the published indentifications, further increasing the value of this resource.

 

Specimen_catalogue_web.jpg

 

The Palaeontology Department on-line specimen database search screen

 

To find these details, log onto our specimen database system and choose 'acritarchs' in the drop down list for 'fossil group' and click the box for 'images only' (as above). Tim is constantly adding more material to the collections so hopefully in the years to come this will develop into a very useful resource for students of acritarchs and help to ensure that important expertise is not lost.

 

Postscript. As I was writing this I was sent details of a PhD studentship on acritarchs based at the University of Lille, France.

1

Some of the Museum's most important ostracod specimens were re-examined recently using synchrotron technology. The results published in the journal Science showed that these very delicate but exquisitely preserved fossils gave evidence for reproduction using giant sperm back in the Cretaceous period about 100 million years ago.

 

11563_large.jpg

 

A scanning electron microscope of an exceptionally preserved ostracod from Brazil showing details of unusually preserved soft body parts.

 

From images obtained by scanning electron microscope we have known since the 1970s that the Cretaceous ostracod Harbinia micropapillosa was almost identical in body form to modern day examples. Usually ostracods, microscopic crustaceans that inhabit aquatic environments, leave only their calcareous shells in the fossil record. However, these exceptional fossils from Brazil include details of their organic soft body parts not normally fossilised.

 

These specimens were first found by legendary evolutionary biologist Dr Colin Patterson while he was studying the fossil fish from the same rock formation. He passed them to Dr Ray Bate who published them under the name Pattersoncypris. However, some ostracod workers now believe that they should be classified under the name Harbinia which was first described by a Chinese worker in 1959 and therefore takes naming priority.

 

Grenoble 125_blog.jpg

The European Synchrotron Research Facility (ESRF) at Grenoble in France.

 

In 2007 we had a request by Dr Renate Matzke-Karasz (University of Munich) and a group of co-workers to take our specimens to Grenoble in France to have them analysed in the synchrotron beam ID19. A synchrotron is a giant ring where electrons are accelerated to great speeds and then bent into a circular path by magnets. Strong magents are used which cause the electron beam to deviate and at this point a very bright, intense synchrotron x-ray is emitted. Sometimes synchrotrons are referred to as diamond light sources as a result. These very intense synchrotron x-rays are then focussed into a beam which can be used for analysis at a sub micrometer scale ideal for our microfossils.

 

Some types of modern day ostracods are well known for their use of giant sperm in reproduction. Dr Matzke-Karasz and her co-workers were interested to see if our fossil specimens (Robin Smith thesis collection) contained any evidence for giant sperm or the organs responsible for its production and storage. As the curator of the specimens it was my job to transport them safely to Grenoble and to handle them while they were being analysed. I also took part in the analysis which went on all day and all night for two days. Fortunately we did get some sleep as there were four of us. We took it in turns with two of us analysing the fossils and two analysing the comparative modern specimens in 6 hour shifts.

 

Grenoble 063_blog.jpg

 

Positioning the specimen so that it is aligned with the beam. (Don't worry about the scary red lines. The beam was only switched on when we were all safely out of the room!).

 

Grenoble 038_blog.jpg

Dr Radka Symonova (then at Charles University, Czech Republic), Renate, Dr Paul Tafforeau (ESRF) and Dr Robin Smith (Lake Biwa Museum, Japan) examining some early scans in our experimental cabin home for the two days.

 

The specimens were placed in the beam and then rotated 180 degrees while 1500 x-ray cross sections were taken at regular intervals. These x-ray images were then combined together using specially designed software to produce 3-dimensional images (Holotomographic reconstructions). Although we could immediately see evidence for important internal structures while we were analysing the specimens, a lot of work was still required to produce the final results. The slices that make these 3-dimensional images were analysed for internal structures by Renate and her team back in Germany. Artificial colours were painstakingly added to each slice by hand to show these structures more clearly.

 

Grenoble 054_blog.jpg

 

One of the x-ray cross sections of a fossil specimen before it was combined into a 3-dimensional image.

 

The results clearly showed differences between males and females. The males had distinctive tubes in the position where modern day ostracods have  a sperm pump called a Zenker's Organ. The females had inflated sacks in the position where modern day ostracods have sperm receptacles. These are only inflated once they have been impregnated with giant sperm. Our results had shown that this reproductive strategy had been in place more than 100 million years ago.

 

 

Video of a female specimen of Harbinia micropapillosa. The orange sacks are the sperm receptacles.

 

So why is this important? As I showed in the dinosaur exhibition blog item, it is vital to know how organisms reproduce so that you can correctly interpret their fossil record and distribution in modern day environments. Ostracods are often restricted to particular environments and can be useful indicators of changes in climate. This particular ostracod species is common in Cretaceous non-marine sediments offshore Brazil and is therefore of interest to oil exploration companies as a marker for key rock formations.

 

Reproduction with giant sperm is not just restricted to the ostracods as other organisms including fruit flies and some types of frog also use this strategy. The evolutionary significance and history of this type of reproductive strategy is still unclear. What is certain is that specimens in the Museum collections show that this was also happening over 100 million years ago!

 

DSCF1135_blog.jpg

 

Some acrylic palm of the hand sized scale models produced from the 3-D synchrotron scans and used at the "Science Uncovered" event.

 

 

0
September 2011 is the 18th anniversary of my arrival at the Museum when I started as a volunteer. I came straight from university as a fresh-faced graduate desperately seeking some work experience to pad out my CV. A brief 3 month spell of volunteering ultimately shaped my future career. Volunteers are vital to the running of the Museum but I would argue that this is not just a way for the Museum to get work done for nothing. Volunteers also gain valuable experience to help them with their futures. Some of my previous volunteers have gone on to jobs in the museum sector, to postgraduate degrees and even to industry.

 

DSCF1114.jpg
My current volunteers Johanna and Daryl working in the Micropalaeontology Library

 

To recruit volunteers we first have to write a simple task description that gets advertised on the Museum's website and prospective volunteers are asked to apply. My two current volunteers Johanna and Daryl were recruited because of the skills they could offer to the museum but also because the tasks needing doing suited the directions they wish to take in their careers.



Johanna is considering training to become an archivist. She originally did a Zoology degree and has always been passionate about the Natural World. "I chose this project because it gave me the opportunity to find out what this kind of work would be like in a Natural History context.
I am enjoying the process of being involved in this project and the historic context of the subject in a museum environment. The experience so far indicates to me that I would really enjoy being an archivist in a Natural History context."
DSCF1175_blog.jpg
Some of the references that have been sorted by Johanna and Daryl

 

Initially Johanna and Daryl both worked on a project checking potentially duplicate scientific literature against lists of materials we have in the Museum already. Over the last 10 years we have accumulated vast quantities of micropalaeontological books and offprints, many of which are duplicate. We are under pressure for space so we need to identify which items can be disposed of to make room for our ever expanding fossil collections. These items are often consulted by visitors to the collections and are a useful resource in managing and documenting the fossil collections we hold.
Curry_D_1933_blog.jpg
One of the pictures archived by Johanna. Dennis Curry, former Director of electrical firm Currys and amateur micropalaeontologist is on the second row. He donated his collections to the Museum and made funding available for their curation.

 

Johanna has subsequently moved on to projects related to archiving, and more recently sorted and documented a series of portraits of famous micropalaeontologists. These will soon be making their way to the Library and Archive collections. Daryl is now working on updating the information about a collection that has recently been published in a book.

Daryl says that, "volunteering within the department has allowed me to experience some of what it must be like to involved in collection management and I can certainly say that it is a path I would like to follow, and I believe that what I have learned, and will learn, is a helpful step towards this.  The cross referencing and alphabetising of articles has also allowed me to gain skills which could be transferrable to other fields."

One of my colleagues recently passed me the letter I wrote to the Keeper of Palaeontology volunteering my services back in 1993. I remember phoning the Keeper's Secretary asking to whom I should address my application letter. Getting volunteer opportunities at the Museum is a lot easier and a lot better organised these days. If you fancy a spot of volunteering then details of current volunteer opportunities are available on the Museum web site.

Johanna and Daryl have certainly made a big impact on the physical organisation of the micropalaeontology section here. I hope that their experiences here will also help them with their long term futures.
2

I have lost track of the number of times I have explained to people what I do and they have replied that they had no idea that this type of work was going on behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum. On Friday 23rd September it was our chance to take centre stage in the galleries in Science Uncovered, the largest 'show and tell' the Museum has ever put on.

 

Science stations-010-23092011_blog.jpg

Using a large plasma screen to bring tiny fossils to life (Photo by Kevin Webb and copyright Natural History Museum)

 

Explaining about microfossils can be a difficult task considering their size and relative unpopularity compared to the dinosaurs and early human fossils that were being displayed on the tables less than 10 metres away. I have previously taken part in science communication events like these and found that microscopes have been a big draw to get the crowds in. This time at Science Uncovered, I found that a large plasma screen showing some eye catching videos and images were more a effective communication tool than ever before. Members of the public were drawn towards the screen to see what I had to say about my subject.

 

Science stations-081-23092011_blog.jpg

Showing a video of a living ostracod on the giant plasma screen (Photo by Kevin Webb and copyright Natural History Museum)

 

I won't say too much at the moment about what I was talking about other than I was introducing some recent studies on some of our most important ostracod collections. I intend to make that research project the subject of a future blog entitled 'What microfossils tell us about sex in the Cretaceous'.

 

The important theme to this evening was to show the relevance of our collections and research to every day life and showcase to members of the public our science. The ostracods I showed are vital to exploration offshore Brazil and West Africa in areas where oil is being found. Knowledge of the reproductive strategies of ostracods is also vital to interpreting, not just the modern day distribution of ostracods but also the fossil record. Ostracods can give detailed information about past environments (see the Ockley dinosaur blog) and are increasingly being used to interpret past climates.

 

 

A video of the living ostracod Eucypris virens. This is related to the fossil examples that I was showing. (Video courtesy of Dave Horne, Queen Mary College, University of London)

 

It is quite tiring speaking about your subject non-stop for any period of time and my voice was quite dry after an hour. I remember taking part in a similar public event entitled the 'Fossil Road Show' back in the late 1990s and losing my voice completely by the end of the day. Fortunately this time we were using a rota system that changed the staff and specimens on the Palaeontology Station every hour. After my hour was finished I was quite disappointed to be stopping and wished that I could have carried on for longer.

 

Another minor disappointment was that I did not see other aspects of the event and get the chance to fully see what my colleagues from around the museum had to say.

 

DSCF1135_blog.jpg

 

Some scale models of the Cretaceous ostracod Harbinia micropapillosa and my badge.

 

I do have one momento from the event; a badge with 'I'm a scientist.... talk to me'. Guardian journalist Camila Rus joked that some Museum staff had intended to wear their badges on their commute to and from work. I'm not sure this would work considering the almost complete lack of action of fellow passengers when my Natasha wore her 'Please give up your seat, I'm pregnant' badge. What I do know is that large plasma screen was an enormous help to me at 'Science Uncovered' and made my job of explaining my science much easier.

0

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.

 

DSCF1040_cropblog.jpg

 

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

 

IMG_0350.JPG