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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

2 Posts tagged with the teaching 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!'


This week a surplus set of plaster microfossil models were transferred to the Department of Geology, University Leicester UK to help with teaching micropalaeontology to undergraduate students. The two sets of models were made by 19th Century scientists d'Orbigny (1802-1857) and Reuss (1811-1873), who were some of the very earliest micropalaeontologists.



A set of d'Orbigny models from the Museum collections. Some look a dirty brown colour but in fact this is an original feature to show the difference between models based on modern species (white) and fossil ones (brown). This set was previously mounted for display in the Museum galleries.




A drawer of d'Orbigny models of Foraminifera. (Skaters on the Museum ice rink can be seen in the background)


The famous French scientist Alcide d'Orbigny quickly recognised the difficulty in portraying his work on microfossils to a wider audience because of the small size of the specimens. He carved scale models of foraminferal microfossils from limestone and these originals are in the Museum national d'Histoire naturelle in Paris. He used these to create plaster replicas that he sold in sets to accompany his publication of the first classification of the Foraminifera which was first published back in 1821.



A 'Plaster Army' of Reuss & Fric models arranged in rows reminiscent of the 'Terracotta Army'.


The second set was made by Vaclav Fric (1839-1916) under the supervision of Anton Reuss who was similarly looking to illustrate his classification of the Foraminifera. For more information about these models and other microfossil models at the Museum there is a publication in the Geological Curator. A paper was recently submitted for publication in a Special Publication of the Geological Society as a contribution to a set of papers on the history of study of the Foraminifera.



Some more Reuss & Fric models. The black spots show the openings or 'foramen' common to and therefore giving rise to the name 'Foraminifera'.


If these models are so important, why are we letting them go from the Museum? Firstly we already have three registered sets of these models in our collections (some are illustrated above). One of these three sets is is on the salvage list for the Palaeontology Department. This means that these will be some of the first items to be saved from the building should there be some sort of disaster and it is deemed safe to do so.


Secondly, the model sets on their way to the University of Leicester were never formally accessioned into the Museum collections so we are able to send them on without having to deaccession them. They are slightly worn as they have previously been used for teaching micropalaeontology to postgraduate students. Currently there are limited opportunities for postgraduate study of micropalaeontology so it is very good to know that a new course is starting at the University of Birmingham in September 2012.


I would argue that sending these models to a university to help inspire a new generation of micropalaeontologists is exactly the sort of use that d'Orbigny and Reuss would have wanted for their models rather than for them to sit in a box in a dusty corner of my office...

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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