The 17th of May was the height of an event called ‘Museums at Night‘, a UK wide festival that bills itself as seeking to “encourage visitors into museums, galleries and heritage sites by throwing their doors open after hours and putting on special evening events.” As luck would have it this festival coincided with Lyme Regis Museum‘s celebration of the life of one very important palaeontologist, and I was invited to give a talk for the festival, but more about the talk later.
The name of that important palaeontologist was Mary Anning, and if you’ve looked into the early years of palaeontology for more than about twenty minutes then you’ll have come across her name. Or perhaps you know the tongue twister that she reportedly inspired…
“She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.”
On the nearest weekend to her birthday every year, Lyme Regis Museum celebrates her life with free entry, family events and talks about topics ranging from her life and the early palaeontologists, to the geology of the Lyme Regis area and the animals that she sought in the cliffs and limestone ledges along the coast.
It was into this last category that my talk fell. Earlier this year, Phil Davidson from the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre and I spent some time looking over one of the Museum’s specimens; a large Ichthyosaur measuring four and a half metres long and stored in pieces in the museum cellar. Our task was to document the current state of the specimen and make sure it was all where it ought to be. This creature has been off of public display since the mid-eighties when a cast was made and hung on the wall of the museum to save on exhibition space. In the end my talk for the Museums at Night festival was much more general than our work on the specimen, and I chose to spend a lot of my time talking about convergent evolution between Ichthyosaurs and modern creatures.
Anywho, Here’s the talk in full, the audio is a bit hard to follow at the start but it improves as the talk goes on, and if you’re interested in the assessment Phil and I made earlier this year it can be seen here. I’d really appreciate any comments, suggestions and observations, as they will help me improve my presentation style, my content and its delivery!
I’ve been doing job applications this weekend and frankly I’ve been getting very bored, so this afternoon I decided I would wash away the boredom with a fun little project which I’d always wanted to have a go at but never really had the guts to try out.
I made this gorgeous (if I do say so myself) little subsurface geology model from an old vivarium, some builders sand, some different coloured food dyes and some other coloured poster paint powder:
It’s the sort of thing you see in smaller museums all the time – although they are usually based on real sub-surface geology in a relevant area, while this one is completely fictional!
So how does one go about making this beauty? here’s a step by step guide:
1. Decide what geological/geomorphological features you want to show: for me this was to show three of Nicolas Steno’s laws of sedimentology – superposition, original horizontality and cross-cutting relationships – then I just added stuff as I went along like the channel fills and the scarp slope (good way to use up spare sand that one!).
2. Gather up your materials: I used mostly builders sand, but beach sand will do just as well, or if you really can go for broke… go find all the different colours of sand naturally. I also used a few other things from my model railway cabinet (ballast/mock coal/flock for the grass/lichen for bushes) – these of course are optional extras.
– pro tip number 1: don’t do what I did and use sand you found lying about in a bag in the garden… I had to rescue/evict many of my invertebrate cousins during the build!
3. Colouring your model: At this point you can either dye all your sand in different buckets or do what I did and dye it bit by bit as you go along. Either way will work but if you’re limited on sand, I recommend the latter strategy. The easiest dyes are poster paint powders as this keeps everything nice and dry, but food colouring works too. If you’re dying the sand, the ideal sand is the white sort you can buy in arts and craft shops.
4. Start laying down your strata: not much to explain here really. Though you might notice a couple of pyritised ammonites hanging out in my model…
5. OK, this is the complex bit: If you want to put in folds like the ones I have, you will need a piece of strong cardboard or wood, stand this vertically in the tank with enough space on one side to get your hand in like in the image below…
…now you build up your strata on side of the cardboard with more accommodation space and keep building until you’re ready to fold them!
– Pro tip number 2: in order to fault the strata, just use the cardboard to squash the sand from one direction. For folds, apply pressure to the top of the sand with your hand and also squash with the cardboard MUCH more slowly… I cannot stress that enough! This technique will result in awesome folds or thrust faults, I don’t know how to produce strike-slip or dip-slip ones… if you have an idea of how to do this, please share it in the comments box below!
– Pro tip number 3: the cardboard also allows you to put in a nice, easy dyke or other cross-cutting structure.
Now you’ve folded or faulted your strata, fill in behind the cardboard and fill the tank. I should say I didn’t invent this technique, I copied it from an old Open University video I saw many moons ago where the professor was attempting to explain folding and faulting using a massive sand-box model and a screw-and-plate piston, sadly I cannot find said video now.
15/10/2012 Update: While I still cannot find the OU video; This video from the Structural Geology RWTH-Aachen YouTube Channel gives you some idea of the process.
6. Unconformities: Are a doddle; just remove some of what you have done. In my case I used a strong piece of single (not corrugated) card. Then just continue placing strata on top (in my case at a jaunty angle… but it can be done the other way round)
7. The Surface: Lastly for the construction phase, add a layer of Flock (if you wish) and diorama-ize your surface layer! Lichen works for bushes. Trees, animals, buildings and people can be bought at any rail modelling supply shop, or online.
8. (For the Geology Nerds/Geologists): Have a ball labelling your gorgeous creation! Here are my three labelled sides for your amusement. I used PVA and printed labels alongside a permanent OHP marker for the annotations/symbols.
When you’re done you can sit back and enjoy your handiwork, some people have said this would make an awesome coffee table… I think they’re right, get a nice glass top for it and you can be explaining geology to your in-laws over coffee in no time!
I hope you enjoyed this post and have fun making your own geological masterpiece! Share pictures in the comments, especially if you have some new ideas, or fix the strike-dip-slip faults problem!
Edited at 21:36 on 07/10/2012: emboldened each point to make it easier to comprehend (hopefully)
It’s official and now inescapable… I’m giving a talk at the Craven Museum and Art Gallery on the 27th March!
The talk will encompass the processes that I’ve been undertaking in cataloguing the collections, and some of the more interesting of the museum’s geological and mineralogical specimens, covering specimens from the Ordovician right through to the Holocene (recent times).
If anyone wants to come along they’ll be welcome… though the venue is rather small.
Today marks the end of another era, the onward and outward march of the digital world has claimed perhaps its most iconic victim with today’s announcement that Encyclopaedia Britannica will go out of print. This is a bittersweet thing to see, because while the technology lover in me sees this as merely the predictable result of the advance of digital resources like Wikipedia (and before that Microsoft’s Encarta Encyclopaedia), the more traditional, book loving and nostalgic side of me sees this as a tragedy of near gargantuan proportion.
Why do I see this as such a bad thing you might ask? It has tremendous advantages, when people don’t have the option of an out of date book they’ll look up their questions on the up-to-date Wikipedia and Online Britannica articles… Well yes they might do, but there are good reasons that university lecturers penalise students for citing Wikipedia (indeed one of these being the changability) and insist instead upon printed (or unchanging) sources of information. But there’s a far greater worry for me, because just as some people don’t have enough food to eat or insufficient money for healthcare*, some do not have internet access, neither do all public libraries, so where then does the intrigued school child go to learn something new when there’s no web access, and no encyclopaedia on the shelves?
The printed Encyclopaedia Britannica provides something else that perhaps you hadn’t thought of…? The New York Times or The Times provide the US and UK’s respective “papers of record” – a historical record of public opinion, political leanings, social conventions etc. that sociologists find so useful, The Encyclopaedia Britannica does the same thing for the state of knowledge, take plate tectonics for example, just 70 years ago its predecessor (Continental Drift) was a whacky, outsider’s theory with no mechanism and no hope. Now plate tectonics is a paradigm, something went from one extreme of knowledge to the other in under 40 years, something recorded in a wonderful way in the pages of successive Encyclopaedias Britannica. With the modern, digital, changeability of knowledge such changes, shifts and about-faces would be easy to lose and drift forgotten from the collective consciousness of humanity. We’re only clever from what we learn from our errors and mis-steps, but what happens when they’re forgotten.
This is of course not to mention that great and good though the internet is, it is still (even today) relatively fragile. Or for that matter the oft repeated (and in my view perfectly valid) argument about the feeling and atmosphere of the printed word over a cold, electronic LCD screen, but this is the nostalgia talking.
Speaking of nostalgia, I remember when I was about 6 years of age, we had a computer in the house (admittedly rare for the time) but no access to online sources of information – did they even exist in 1995/6? But you would very rarely see me playing on the games, using the creative software and such – even though I was perfectly capable and savvy enough at the time… I would be spending hours looking through the various encyclopaedias that we had in the house, and never once was I disappointed with what I found in the pages of the encyclopaedias. There’s just something to be said for picking up a book, flicking trough and picking a page at random, and learning something totally new… Why do you think that the “Random Article” feature on Wikipedia is so cool!
I’m willing to make a prediction here; that in 10 years time the demand for the printed encyclopaedia will be such that someone will have resurrected it, possibly even the publishers of Britannica with a decadal “Special Edition”. I would almost be willing to bet on that.
*(in the US and quite possibly soon the UK unless our government grows a collective brain)
Now that I know all about it, I think these Social Media Surgeries are a fantastic idea, after all how many of us have helped a friend get their head around Facebook, or in more recent years Twitter? Now there’s a way to do that for the greater good, by helping local individuals, charities, organisations and volunteer groups get online.
The amount of net awesomeness that a charity or volunteer group can engage in once they are on the social media bandwagon is huge! Just imagine the conversations that can be had, the collaboration between groups, the extra awareness of fundraising or other activities… the list isn’t endless, but it’s pretty long.
Anywho, Southampton SMS is looking for “surgeons” to help people get online, and also of course they’re looking for anyone who wants to get online or any groups that are interested in getting online, so spread the word, and link people to the website. You’ll also find help organising your own if you are not from the southampton area.
If you want to follow what’s happenning with the planning of the event, it’s Twitter hashtag is #SotonSMS. And if you’re thinking about coming along to see what this “Social Media” malarky is all about, or you’re coming along to help out, I look forward to meeting you on the day!
I’m about three months from finishing my degree at the University of Southampton (my my how four years has just flown by) and I now have to start thinking about what on earth I’m going to do after graduating with my degree in hand. One of the many options I’ve been exploring is going into teaching, specifically I am considering teaching in Further Education Colleges (AS & A Levels in the UK or upper High School in the US?).
Interestingly; in the UK so far as I can ascertain there is no requirement to have QTS (qualified teacher status) before starting work in a FE College though you have to get it within 2 years of starting. However; through discussions about the options it is fairly obvious that having a PGCE in secondary education would be far more beneficial than the PGCE in Post-Compulsory Education, especially with as restricted a job market as we are experiencing at the moment.
In response to this and the requirements of some universities offering secondary PGCE courses, I have just undertaken a week of teaching observation in my old school. This was thoroughly enjoyable and despite it being the last week of the school’s term I managed to sit in on classes from every year group from year 7 through to upper 6th form, helped out on a field course in swanage and also got to observe a practical lab, revision lessons and even a lesson given by a very capable PGCE student. Anywho, now that it’s come to the end of the week and I thought I might as well share my thoughts and observations, and would appreciate any thoughts people have on the matter…
Variation in teaching styles
One of the first and by far the most startling features that I noticed this week was the widely variable teaching styles employed by the teachers in the school, and not just between different year groups (who all have different abilities anyway). For example I sat in on two year 11 (2nd year of GCSE) science lessons by two different members of the department, the first of which I can only equate to the sort of to-and-fro discussion crossed with lecturing I would expect in a University environment, and the second being a more traditional “teacher at front” class environment. I have to say I was far more comfortable in the less formal teaching environments than I was in the rote learning classes.
The most interesting thing about these differences is that I never really noticed it when I was at the school, The teachers were the same people (for the most part) as when I left, and I always liked some teachers more than I did others, but I never really twigged as to why.
Something that has definitely changed since I left the school four years ago is the very clear tactical nature of some of the subject matter in later years. What I mean is that the students who tend to “flake” in the exams but who show a real potential in the classroom are removed from the “traditional” GCSE curricula and moved onto more “modern” coursework only courses such as the BTEC first and national diplomas. I have to admit to being in two minds over this. On the one hand I believe in education for education’s sake, and I don’t see how the way you learn something should have any bearing on anything… so long as you learn and get the education every individual deserves. On the other hand I would worry about how taking less common curricular programmes such as the BTEC, NVQ’s and others that fit in to the English Baccalaureate may affect a student’s success in the job market… not that it should.
“Loss of Traditional Subjects”
Another major and interesting change since I left the school in question is that some subjects in lower years have been combined (most notably Geography and History, now “People and Places”) to make room in the school timetable for Literacy classes, over and above English lessons.
Ostensibly this is a good thing because many students struggle with the transition from one teacher in primary to a plethora of teachers in secondary school, but I worry about two things; firstly how can a geography teacher make a good, competant effort of teaching history (and vice versa), and why do literacy lessons need to be added to the curriculum? Surely any decline in literacy rates is an indication that the english curriculum isn’t working and should be changed, not an excuse to add more lessons (and so more teachers) to the curriculum… you don’t see the same thing with numeracy and mathematics.
Classroom Content… and why I couldn’t teach lower school (Years 7-11)
My final observation goes back to the classroom and away from curriculum issues and changing the system. The biggest problem I had sitting in on many of the lessons was that because I got to see all year groups, the differring content was clearly visible, and I can safely say that I would hate year 7-9 teaching, because the subject matter just isn’t there… that’s no fault of the teachers or the children, and I remember when I was in those years and the teaching was no different. I just don’t think I could handle “dumbing down” my subject knowledge to the level required to teach science or geography at year 7 level. I could do it, but I think I would hate it.
…So After an enjoyable week of observing teaching, teaching methods and teacher-student interactions… I have had fun, reinforced my decision to do FE teaching rather than general secondary, and learnt a fair bit about how curricula are decided upon by staff and departments in schools. Still not sure about doing the PGCE secondary or PGCE PCE, but I think that might be decided for me by my applications down the road.
I entered into the recent SUSU Sabbatical elections with a clear vision of how I would like to run my election campaign. It was really simple and very different from how I know the other candidates would be running their campaigns, I would run a low-key campaign driven by my policies and experience, without gimmick or palming people off with soundbites.
As the last couple of weeks have progressed it has become steadily clear to me that I could not win the election with the resources at my disposal, so I have today withdrawn my nomination to the position of VP Academic Affairs.
Firstly and fore mostly I have to extend my deep and sincere thanks to the small group of supporters I have who showed both enthusiasm for my candidacy and who kindly gave up their free time to help me. To you I have to apologise in no uncertain terms for wasting your time and support, I realise my decision will be frustrating to you as there will now be no end-game to your work and I hope you will understand the decision I took when I have set out my reasons for withdrawal.
My supporters have been a great help over the last week, providing logistical and emotional support which I greatly value. However as I and they are final year undergraduate masters student’s they all have Masters projects which require their attention more than the SUSU elections, and with almost the entire campaign team currently undertaking a short-course module with lectures running from 9-5 every day they have been unable to campaign on my behalf. Further more I would not ask any person to jeopardise their education on behalf of helping me apply for a job – that is after all what the SUSU elections are about.
This unfortunate and unavoidable state of affairs means that I have been attempting to campaign on my lonesome, which has proven to be both an isolating and nerve-wracking experience. As I said earlier I am a policy and ideas driven candidate who has to rely on both these and my experience to make my case. I do not find popularity driven politics to result in the best results with respect to the winning candidates. That is of course my opinion and it is probably informed by no small measure by being a shy and reserved individual.
I do not wish to make any political statements in this post, but the other major reason for my withdrawal needs some political explanation. This reason for withdrawing my candidacy is that I feel that the current front-runner in this election race as far as I see it is Sasha Watson. Whilst I think he has some fantastic plans and ideas, I would be happier knowing that someone with a wider experience of the representation system at SUSU is taking it forward to next year. For this reason I am withdrawing to allow those who would have voted for me to reconsider Jonathon Davies for their votes, he is in my estimation the best qualified of all the candidates that are running for VP Academic Affairs this year now that I have withdrawn my nomination.
I would like to extend my deepest gratitude also to the various SUSU media departments for keeping their elections coverage balanced and fair, and for providing all the candidates with ample opportunities to put across our manifesto ideas to the student population. If I had my time at Southampton again, I would certainly have wanted to get more involved with the SUSU media department.
To the other three candidates running in the race I have now left, I would like to thank them all for being amicable opponents and I am glad to have been able to get to know them better over the last week or so and hope that we can remain friends no matter what the end result of this race. I would also like to thank them for keeping to the spirit of the elections and running honest, fair campaigns.
At the end of the day I’ll be happy to discuss the things in my manifesto with whoever wins, as every candidate brought great, new ideas to the table, and they should all be considered for taking forward to next year. This election is about getting the best for the students at southampton university, and it would be both ungracious and small minded of me not to be prepared to discuss my ideas with the winning candidate.
To those students who were considering voting for me now that elections are open, I’m sorry for forcing you to think again, and whilst it is not my place to inform your decision, I would say that the best thing you can do for the students’ union is to read through the manifestos of the remaining candidates with care before making your decision.
One final note, voting closes at 4pm on thursday 3rd March, Make certain to vote before then.
Seeing as I’ve just completed degree module that has required me to write “actively” despite three years of marks deductions for doing just that!
And also given the amount of complaining I’ve been making regarding that very point at uni, and the fact that at least one or two of my lecturers read the occasional post (really?!) I’m re-blogging this one so hopefully my uni will stop the “active/passive” writing crap.
What’s the betting they don’t?
Use the Active Voice! No, the passive voice should be used! This is a debate that keeps flickering up in the blogosphere. It taps into two different controversies: Subjectivity versus objectivity Quality of scientific writing The subjectivity versus objectivity debate is illustrated quite nicely by the comment thread to Sylvia McLain's recent post on active versus passive. The central assumption seems to be that using the active voice acknowledge … Read More
Secondly, I bear no ill will toward, nor wish to make any assumptions about the people of the institutions mentioned or museums in general, and do not wish to disparage their reputations or intentions, but I am going to be frank and honest about my opinions and so hope they will not be overly offended by them.
Thirdly if you feel I have been unfair or am wrong, tell me so and let’s discuss it – that’s why blogs have comment sections, as I am no expert and have the utmost respect for your opinion, especially if more informed than mine.
So then, allow me to begin… are you sitting comfortably?
“Imagine you walk into an old victorian building with high rafters, many columns and arches, and masonry which wouldn’t look too out of place in a medieval cathedral. Everywhere you look you can see mounted skeletons, banks of glass & wood cases filled with stuffed animals, archaeological artifacts & rocks, with pictures and murals adorning the few walls without architectural gems.”
This is the image in my minds eye whenever I hear the words “Museum” it’s a very specific image, relating to a natural history setting almost exclusively one that I’m sure many of you will have your own variants on; but is this what a museum is? From my experiences both front-of-house (galleries & expeditions) and back-of-house (curation/research) this can be safely said to be a very bad, out-moded image which factually belongs to the history books… in almost every respect.
This image is the “old-world” view of the museum, and it’s very idealistic. This old world way of doing things had many problems, and still does where it is the norm. “new world” museums on the other hand have problems, and I will argue that they have many more than the old… but then I’m a traditionalist so maybe it’s just me?
Older museums were run completely by academics and this could often be seen in the content, The curators were academics and decided what people wanted to see and how much information they got; often very little. I remember going to see museums when I was younger where you might be told the chemical formula for a mineral, it’s name and where it was found, but little or nothing besides. This isn’t the way to engage people in the collections you have in your museum, it is nothing less than boring unless you are a scientist and know a lot about the subject, so maybe don’t need the extra information.
New museums are at the extreme other end of the scale when it comes to information, they contain galleries often with many fewer objects from the collections, but these objects come with expansive paragraphs of writing. The amount of information given is a definite and drastic improvement over a chemical formula and a name. In terms of content however I have found many museums in recent years are disappointing, because it is clear that the information has not come from an expert, but someone who knows how to teach and entertain, but doesn’t have the detailed knowledge to carry it off.
This is a real shame as at the end of the day museums hire curators (or at least they used to) to know about their subject in detail and also to know the collections back-to-front and inside-out. Curators are now in the absurd position where they are by-passed when it comes to writing the information that goes with an exhibit and it’s left to the outreach staff. These outreach staff are often fantastically good at their jobs because they are hired specifically for the role and trained as teachers or educators in the first instance, but they seem to be afraid to ask the experts for input to their work… I don’t know why and have no theories, but its result is information in exhibits that often leaves out vital and fascinating scientific facts in favour of idealistic, unprovable or plain wrong interpretations.
Curators are now in the firing line at some institutions because of this lack of input through no fault of their own. Museums have cottoned on to the fact that while they pay a certain amount of money for a curator who is both good at collections management and an expert in their subject, or pay less for someone who is only good at the former and whose time will not be split with research and academia, and in this time of austerity who can blame them?
…Well me actually, whilst trying to save money is almost always admirable, in this case it is severely short sighted; and here’s why. Anyone who wants to access the collections will have to work doubly hard because the collections manager will be little able to help them beyond telling them exactly where specimen X is. The Museum’s collection may be categorised fully (in some cases for the first time ever) but it just becomes a storehouse, and museums cease to be the places of cutting edge research, learning and fascination that they once were… in effect they lose their soul.
Speaking of collections, let’s briefly cover something else. Has anyone else noticed how few actual specimens are on display in many big museums, there’s loads of “interactives”, videos and interpretative text, but there seems to have been a severe decline in the number of objects on display.
To use but one example; When I visited the Natural History Museum in London as a child, I have fond and awe inspiring memories of the Mammalian Megafauna gallery (to the right of the doors as you walk in) at some point between then and the next visit (2008) this was removed wholesale and replaced. Not with an updated exhibit, not with more objects of a different type, but with a very “@Bristol” type exhibit about ecology without a single specimen and with a massive expansion of the museum shop (it now takes up half the ex-gallery). These massive, awesome fossil remains & casts have been put into storage and are now unavailable for public viewing. When the Palaeontology department alone has over 9 million objects, most of which are not on display, to say this is lamentable has to my mind a good change of being understatement of the year.
All this alongside the BBC/British Museum extravaganza “A History of the World in 100 objects”, which has already showcased many more than 100, and is all about getting the experts in to talk about them, and let the public SEE them. At least someone’s got the right idea! If you asked me, or I suspect most people, we go to museums to see objects of fascination; not to stare at well meaning computer screens and animations.
I could go on as there are other problems such as over rationalisation, the (muted) abolition of free entry at national museums, the mothballing of historically/scientifically important collections etc. but I think I would be labouring my point.
Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps I’m too old-fashioned and traditionalist but I think we need to put educators back in touch with curators, bring back the objects (but not lose the information), ease up on the unnecessary overuse of interactives and above all give our many, beautiful museums back their souls.
or “Why the Tuition Fees “U-turn” may just be the canniest move of this parliament”
This last few weeks have seen what can be best described as uproar from the student community, not least from the labour leaning and very much “out-of-touch” National Union of Students because of the proposed changes to higher education funding which will apparantly force the cost of a degree on to students and away from the government purse (conveniently ignoring the fact that student finance england – the loan provider – is a government subsidised organisation).
Now far be it from me to say whether or not the plans are good ones, I can and have given my opinion before (Which for the record is a pro-fees-rise stance). Even if I was anti-fees, I wouldn’t be witch hunting every single Liberal Democrat who signed the NUS’ very silly pledge because as said very eloquently by Richieparf there is a lot that students should be thankful for and that things would be a lot worse had it been a Conservative majority government.
So why so I think the “yellow bird” will soar again? quite simple really; historically the SDP/Liberal/Liberal Democrat parties have got most of their votes from students and academics; the academics are rational people and will understand the point made by Richieparf with little difficulty and thus are in my opinion of little concern to the party. The students on the other hand are likely to react come the next general election with characteristic irrationality, will see any promise made by the Liberal Democrats as untrustworthy and also likely ignoring the thankfully fictional worst-case scenario of a conservative only 2010-2015 government. The current students at university (or at least those who feel understandably betrayed) are an unfortunate casualty for the Liberal Democrats, but I think in light of my next point; one that can be afforded and accomodated if not won back entire.
The point is that historically the Liberal Democrats have never been seen to govern, and thus never seen as a serious contender for government. The fees U-turn is likely to change that perception, among other things such as forestalling Trident, the AV referendum, allowing part-time students to access funding and many other negotiated middle way policies/reigning in of the Conservatives that they have achieved. All of this will make the average floating voter see the party as both serious and sensible, willing and able – an invaluable perception for any party wishing to gain the keys to Number 10.
One final note being that for some reason a large number of students have been “sharing” the video below as though it displays some amount of humour and corruptness on Nick Clegg’s part. Those people are wrong. It is only “funny” because it has been taken out of context and takes no account of the political realities of the 2010 General Election.
(Edit: if the video doesn’t load, it can be found here)