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Curator of Micropalaeontology's blog

2 Posts tagged with the volunteer tag

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?



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.##

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.


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."
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.
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.

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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