Volunteering at the Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum Panorama
Front Facade of the Natural History Museum's Iconic Waterhouse Building in South Kensington, London. Image via Wikipedia

Over the last week I have been (and next week I will be) working as a curatorial volunteer in the palaeontology department at the Natural History Museum, London.

I’ll be perfectly honest and say that that’s one of my life goals semi-accomplished, in so much as I have always loved the museum – a spiritual home if you will – and ever since I decided that I wanted to get into palaeontology in a big way I resolved to work there in a scientific capacity. Now thanks in no small part to serendipity and having the friends that I do, I have had the chance to do just that.

I’ve spent the last week helping the curator of Echinoderms to maintain the Echinoidea collection. In short my job has involved adding notes to the specimen labels indicating that they have been cited or figured (photographed/drawn) in recent scientific literature, adding these notes to the registers of collections, then re-labelling and re-boxing the specimens as necessary. This may sound like dull work, and it is certainly repetitive, but it can actually be very interesting, I’ve seen specimens of irregular echinoids from all over the country, including Lyme Regis, my local beach at Charlton Bay and as far north as Yorkshire and Northumberland.

Echinoid fossil, Clypeus michelini, collected ...
Regular echinoid showing typical 19th Century Labelling. Image by Black Country Museums via Flickr

Side-Note: Irregular Echinoids are those that show a more prominent 2-fold symmetry imprinted on top of the archaic, simple 5-fold symmetry of their forebears. This is due to a change in their lifestyle over geologic time, moving from epifaunal (on sea bed) to infaunal (burrowing) forms.

On top of the disparate locations of the collections, is the “social and scientific history” that goes with them, who collected them, when and why – I even saw one echinoid which had been donated to the museum with a note next to the “donated by” column which read:

Collected by his father whilst on police duty.

This level of “intimacy” and attention to detail really does give a fascinating insight into not only the people who worked at the museum in the past, but also the emotional and sentimental value that the collectors and others placed on both the objects that they had collected and the institution to which they were donating them. This to my mind is wonderful however it also depresses when you look at the way the museum is going, but that’s the subject of another post.

The collections themselves are huge, if you imagine whole floors of the palaeontology building filled wall to wall with floor to ceiling climate controlled cabinets, each one containing 40 draws, and with up to 100+ specimens in each draw, with outsize (big) objects lying on tables all around. This sheerly immense collection (over 9 million specimens in palaeontology alone) is all hidden away from the public’s view, and as such I am honoured to have seen even just a small part of it in the course of the last week.

To say that I have enjoyed the last week would be a gross understatement, and I am thoroughly looking forward to my second week of volunteering and will be very sad to leave on Friday afternoon.

Ben Brooks

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1 comment

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