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In Richard Hodgkinson's case you would be right to say that he plays bowls more often after retiring in the late 1990s from his position as the Collections Manager of the Micropalaeontology Collections. Richard does far more than this of course and one day a week he helps to curate the micropalaeontology collections here at the Museum as a Scientific Associate in the Department of Palaeontology.




Richard's entire career was spent curating the micropalaeontology collections here and his handwriting can be recognised in many of the registers where details about our specimens are recorded. Richard's knowledge of the collections at the Museum is second to none so he is currently helping us by adding information about the people who donated, published and collected the specimens we hold.


This is very important because the Museum recently implemented a computerised database that includes data from all departments (Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology, Zoology). When the data was all added to a single database there were many problems because previously there had been a lot of duplication of effort. For example my name appeared as "C. G. Miller, C. Giles Miller, Dr G. Miller, Mr C. Giles Miller" and many other variants when we came to look at the data when it was all amalgamated from various sources.


Richard's work has been to investigate the history of some of the people associated with the Foraminiferal Collections by adding dates of birth/death, full names, information about where they worked and any other information that Richard can add from his vast knowledge and experience. Our collection holds a lot of significant historical information. An example of the type of related historical information hidden in our collections can be found in this interesting article that was published in the Daily Telegraph this week about one of our most famous donors Charles Davies Sherborn. Sherborn described himself as a "magpie with a card index mind" and once built a mock volcano in his back garden!




Fortesque William Millett (1833-1915) whose microfossil collections are now at the Natural History Museum was the subject of a scientific article by Richard Hodgkinson.


You would imagine that this only helps me as Micropalaeontology Curator but you would be wrong there. Many of the people associated with our foraminiferal collections, like Sherborn, also collected other fossil groups or other natural historical items like mineralogical, botanical, zoological or entomological specimens. The details that Richard has added to records are shared by the whole Museum so it will be easier for curators in all parts of the Museum to identify which are the correct records in the database to use. It will also help with identifying which records to keep when we begin to start the difficult process of amalgamating some of the duplicated records.


Each year, retired members of staff make very valuable contributions to the running of the science departments behind the scenes at the Museum. Richard Hodgkinson is no exception and his help is very gratefully received.


A risky business

Posted by Giles Miller Jul 19, 2011

Last week I attended a two day course on assessing and Managing Risks to Natural History Collections given by Rob Waller of Protect Heritage Corp and Canadian Museum of Nature. So are our collections under threat? The answer to this is yes. Lots of factors can threaten a collection's long term security: fire, water, theft/vandalism, pests, contaminants/pollution, light/UV radiation, incorrect temperature and incorrect humidity. There are even risks that information about the specimens might be lost and every time they are moved or handled there is a risk of loss or breakage. All risks to collections can be categorised under one or more of the 10 Agents of Deterioration.



A class exercise to identify specific risks to collections (top image courtesy of Rob Waller).


First we learnt how to properly quantify risks as words such as "significant risk" and "highly probable" are not particularly helpful as we found out when we had our first exercise to try to come to a class consensus about what these words really mean. Quantifying risks to collections is important as it can help to eliminate "political" situations where those who shout loudest or provide the strongest arguments get most resources to manage their collections. It can aso help in situations when limited resources are available and difficult decisions have to be made about what gets done.


So are there more risks associated with managing micropalaeontological specimens than any other specimens? Probably not. This course was a great opportunity to speak with other collections managers from the Museum to see the sorts of issues they face and see that we are all in the same boat. Is it harder to spot micropalaeontological specimens/collections at risk? Definitely. The size and nature of the specimens mean that expert knowledge and and a lot of time to look at material carefully under a good quality microscope are essential. Below are some images of specimens at risk. The field of view for each image is about 1cm. Please don't imagine that all our specimens look like these!




The glass is broken that covers these specimens so dust and other pollution can now get into the cavity. (The glass has since been replaced).




These specimens are suffering from dampness and have some fungus growing on them. (This occurred before the specimens were donated to the museum so the specimen is now isolated from the rest of the collection and kept at a good temperature and humidity to avoid further growth).



These specimens are loose and each time the drawer that housed them was opened they rubbed together and crumbled. (They are now stuck firmly to the slide that houses them).


We learnt that to calculate the risk we need to work out the percentage of specimens in our collections that could potentially be lost or damaged. This is where it gets harder to apply to the micropalaeontology collections here at the Museum as we don't have these details at present. A thorough condition survey is needed before we can properly quantify the risks.


Finally we learnt how to manage the risks we identified by avoiding, blocking, detecting, responding and recovering. The take home message that we all clearly found was that this needs to be a team effort. A conservator, fossil expert, curator or facilities manager can't make these judgements on their own but are all needed to provide the information needed to properly quantify risks to collections. The challenge in the future is to work effectively together to carry out a collections risk assessment for our whole collection, not just for Micropalaeontology or for Palaeontology but for the whole museum. Rob Waller's course has gone a long way towards helping us to do this.


Working while I sleep

Posted by Giles Miller Jul 6, 2011

Adding details about our specimens to the Museum electronic database and publishing the details on the internet is an important way for us to make sure that our specimens are used to their best potential. This takes up about 20% of my job allocation. As a result I was very happy to leave the office last night and arrive in the next day to find that 5,634 micropalaeontology records had been added to the collections database overnight while I slept.




Details of the overnight import of records to the Museum database with Pelham Miller on the desktop background.



If this can be done overnight, is there any need to have a curator to do this job?



If I'm totally honest, 99% of this work didn't happen overnight. Firstly, someone sat and typed what they saw in our registers as part of the "Rapid Data Project" (thank you SJ). Because the data was recorded often in short hand we had to add information to the records, particularly about where the specimens were published and who donated/collected them (thank you Lyndsey).



Finally we had to check the records to make sure they were accurate. Part of this was done by using lists of microfossil names already published (thank you Micropalaeontology Press). Checking records is not exactly the most stimulating part of my job. However, I do find that this progresses much faster while I listen to Test Match Special!



An example of a collections register including annotations when our specimens have been published in scientific articles.



The eagle eyed of you may have spotted on the first image that there were over 2,000 errors in the overnight import. This looks serious but they are easy to correct. To maintain data accuracy and consistency across the Museum, the database system (KE Emu) only allows certain terms to be used for some fields. I used "Purchased" instead of "Purchase" and this caused about a thousand of them. The rest of the errors result from incorrect usage of some country names in the Middle East ...



In the last year we have added about 35,000 micropalaeontological records. I am also managing projects to create records with other Palaeontology Curators. This is on-going and we hope to reach 100,000 records in the next couple of years.



OK. So you now know that this didn’t really happen overnight while I slept. Even so, it does give a good example of what can be achieved with a little bit of teamwork. If you consider that each curator in our department has an annual target of about 2,000 specimens to add to our on-line database, this project has enormous potential to showcase our collections quickly, easily and accurately.

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.

View Giles Miller's profile