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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

2 Posts tagged with the risk_management tag

This March I taught a course on collections management at the University of Brasilia (UnB) in the capital of Brazil. The class included both undergraduate and postgraduate students studying Geology, Museology and Art, mainly at UnB. This is the third time that I have presented a similar course in Brazil with previous courses delivered at UnB and the Museu Goeldi in Belem.


After the course I asked the students 'what was the most important thing you learned?' To illustrate the course contents, a summary of their answers is included here. There is also a picture of some of the less friendly Brazilian inhabitants I encountered!



Me with some of the class in the display area of the Museum of Geosciences at the University of Brasilia.


The course draws on examples from my 20 years of experience in managing microfossil collections, but the principles covered are relevant to the management of a wide range of natural history collections. Previous classes have included entomologists, botanists and zoologists. This time many of the course participants were museology undergraduate students wanting to find out about managing scientific collections.



Just outside the Museum of Geosciences, University of Brasilia. This was my third visit to the university but it was the busiest and noisiest. It was Freshers Week so there were lots of noisy events including a student initiation just outside the window of the lecture theatre!


Rather than providing a dry summary of the course, I thought that I would precis/summarise some of the student feedback. I was also pleased to find that the students said I was understandable, delivered the course well and provided a good balance of lectures and practicals.


Some lessons learnt by the students:

  • Big and small museums face the same issues.
  • Curators must work hard to publicise and advocate their collections to maintain their relevance.
  • How to plan before acquiring objects for your collection.
  • Collections development and conservation plans are important.
  • Why it is important to try to register everything in your collection.
  • Thorough labelling and documentation is important because you don't know how a collection might be used in the future.
  • Data standards are important to help organise and manage a collection.
  • What the risks are for a collection and how they can be avoided.


The class discussing collections development ideas.


A trip to the UnB library to see the paper conservation unit.



A visit to the geology collections with Dr Maria-Julia Chelini. The students affectionately call this basement corridor The Dungeon!


As ever I was looked after amazingly well by my hosts, including Maria-Julia Chelini at the Museum of Geosciences and her husband Ricardo Pinto. While I was not lecturing I was a guest at the beautiful country house of my old friend Dermeval do Carmo. There were also some less than friendly inhabitants that helped to make it a very interesting visit:



My hosts called me to see this. I have tentatively identified it as a Brazilian wandering spider; aggressive and the world's most venomous spider according to Wikipedia. I am hoping someone will write and tell me I am wrong...



The amazing view from the country house of Dr Dermeval do Carmo who invited me to give the course and looked after me so well during my visit.



Finally I would like to quote directly from feedback of one of the students Anna Maria Amorim de Oliveira who neatly summarises the benefits of providing courses like this and makes reference to the fact that it wasn't just me talking all the time. We had some really great discussions too!

'For me the whole course was very relevant, because I think that any example of the Natural History Museum could be useful in another collection and it’s always amazing to have an opportunity to know more about other countries' experience, especially at one of the most important museums in the world. But in my opinion the first exercise about how to improve our museum was exciting, because it raised a very interesting discussion!'


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.

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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