Some Museum-ey Stuff and The PodQuest

Hullo everybody,

My last post was somewhat negative, as indeed was the one before; but this time it’s all flowers and sunshine… well, mostly.

The first thing to say is that I’m going to be a student again… and no, I don’t mean the loaf around a campus being either very lazy or over-distracted by clubs and societies type of student. I’ve done that (well the latter at least) and now I’ve landed a place on the Leicester University Museum Studies Masters by distance learning!

That means I’m going to be spending the next two years working on essays about plastazote, the ethics of taxidermy collections and the various merits of museum accreditation, funding applications and humidity guidelines. Among a million other things. It’ll also allow me to apply for all the (5 or so) geological curator’s posts that come up  every year without feeling like I’m wasting my time because the person specification says “Museum Studies Qualification” in the essential column!

N.B.: I took and stitched the photos together, labelled and scaled the image; so I think this isn't copyright infringement.
Lyme Regis Museum’s Hidden Gem – a Temnodontosaurus sp. Ichthyosaur.

In other museum-based news, I and Phil Davidson – the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre’s palaeontologist – recently did some work for Lyme Regis Museum assessing the state of one of the museum’s more spectacular specimens. The saddest thing about the specimen is that the museum cannot display it for a lack of space, and the cast they do have on their wall doesn’t show any of the more exciting bits (like a fragmentary fish preserved in the body cavity for example). If you’re interested in seeing the various parts of that beautiful creature, you can find it all here – I wouldn’t have called this a research paper, more like a detailed inventory, but that’s the way they roll.

That's Right, I can do graphics when I need to!I’ve something else to tell you all about, one of my year’s side projects that I muted in my last post. If you’re in to table-top role playing (if you’re not, think dungeons and dragons and you’ll get the picture) then hopefully you’ll love it. It’s called The PodQuest and it’s going to be a podcasted role-playing campaign set in a world of my own creation – Vilyalad – and with a suite of characters who will cause all sorts of merry hell around this once peaceful world. One of the players, my good friend Thomas is doing the majority of the podcasts’ artwork, so if you want to see what he’s up to I’ll give you a link to his art portfolio here.

Of course, if you’re into gaming then you’ll know I’m making a rod for my own back by being the games master of a world of my own creation… it means everything… background scenery, town plans, cults, religions, histories, NPC’s, creatures… EVERYTHING has to come out of my own head, often on the spot.

I reckon it’ll be a laugh none-the-less. The game system we will be using is RuneQuest Six (published in 2012), which is a re-write of one of the original big three role-playing systems. We’ve played the Avalon Hill version (RuneQuest III) with our usual games master so the system isn’t wholly new.

Anyway, enough of me blabbering about it, the website is here, though there’s not a great deal online yet, but with a launch date of 30th March (brought forward thanks to the fabulous enactment of Geek and Sundry‘s International Table Top Day) we’re pushing ahead with it as fast as can be! We hope you’ll join us for the ride; or at least the first podcast. 🙂

Anyway, as per usual I’ve rambled on about a very small amount of stuff, so I’ll leave it there for now and come back another day to talk about some other things, but I hope I’ve not bored anyone!

Until next time

Ben Brooks

On cataloguing my first Museum collection…

(N.B.: I’ll add some more illustrative pictures tomorrow/soon – I forgot to take my camera in to work today!)

At the end of November I went for an interview for a short term contract job in Skipton, North Yorkshire cataloguing the Geological collections of the local museum. I don’t know how many people applied for the post, nor how many were interviewed but somehow I managed to impress the interview panel enough to be offered the post! I’m still somewhat unsure how providence shone on me in this manner as I don’t count myself as being any good at all at interviews what with my shy disposition and often brutal, self deprecating honesty.

I therefore found myself moving into a small room in a shared house on Saturday the 7th of January, and at 10 am on the Monday I appeared at the museum’s back door with no small amount of trepidation as to what exactly lay in store for the next three months. Here I am, one month and one week down the line and I still absolutely love the work, without the slightest trace of boredom – something I wasn’t expecting given the horror stories I’d heard about 9 to 5 working – perhaps these horrors are something that only comes with time, but at present I’m not afflicted by them.

As to the work itself the Museum’s Geological collections are large, especially for the storage space in which they have been kept for the past 30 or more years. These collections are mainly housed in three cupboards within the museum building, each approximately two metres long, half a metre high and two thirds of a metre in depth. Each is packed to bursting with old fashioned wooden banana boxes, tea boxes and other dilapidated storage which can (and has) drawn blood from my hands when handled!

Picture Showing the Geology Cupboards
Craven Museum and Art Gallery's Geological Collections Cupboards... Yeah those under the displays!

There are contained within this multitude of boxes numerous collections made by local people of every stripe over the last hundred and fifty years or so, the crowning contents being the Tiddeman and Raistrick Collections.

A photograph of an uncurated, uncatalogued Geological Cupboard
A photograph of an uncurated, uncatalogued Geological Cupboard - the "Before" Shot, if you will

The former consisting of a great number of Lower Carboniferous fossils excavated and collected in the main from one of the Craven area’s Reef Knolls while the latter collection consists of a wide variety of Geological specimens from across the UK and especially the north of England that were collected by Dr Arthur Raistrick, a man whose Wikipedia article alone is a worthy read and who is to put it in no uncertain terms a local legend. No pressure then…

Reef Knoll Exposure
An example of a Reef Knoll exposure in Downham, Derbyshire (image courtesy of the BBC, click image to go to site))

So far I’ve catalogued three of the smaller collections and the greater part of the Raistrick Collection, but I cannot as yet tell what proportion of the collections this equates to! A feeling to which I suspect many museum professionals who’ve undertaken this kind of work will attest. I would say it’s about 30-35% if I was pushed but that doesn’t include the Tiddeman or Waters Cabinets which are in off-site storage and to which I doubt I will get by the end of this three months!

There are some interesting problems that should be noted at this point, which have if nothing else taught me some lessons that I will take on to any future collection management jobs of this kind upon which I embark.

Firstly and foremostly is the value of having as much paperwork and work-space as possible! The first thing anyone should be able to do when undertaking a collection catalogue of this kind is go through the entire collection and divide it amongst the various collections of which it is supposed to consist. This cuts down the subsequent work-load immensely as not only do you get a feel for the contents of the collection, but you also get a much cleaner catalogue at the end of the endeavour. As it stands I didn’t take advantage of the museum being closed for the first week of my internship, and combined with the lack of any previous curation of the geology collections has meant that parts and pieces of individual collections are turning up in the most unhelpful places and resulting in a rather untidy box numbering system, for example after I finished the first two collections several boxes containing parts of the first collection appeared, and without any list of that I should have had I had no idea they were missing until they appeared. This has meant that the first collection is now split into two runs of boxes with another collection intervening… which is no big thing as I’ll be leaving behind me a list of what’s where, but it is maddening to the logical mind that it’s not a clean result!

The second thing that I have come to appreciate is that while volunteers can be an absolute god-send to anyone undertaking museum work, if they haven’t been given the necessary information (or no-one is there to guide them) then they can be a truly double-edged sword! The collection here has had 34 years since anyone with any geological training was let near them, but equally it has had 34 years of volunteers moving, inspecting and browsing the collections. With the end result that the list of boxes compiled all those years ago no longer corresponds with the boxes in the cupboards, and there are specimens without label or number in boxes that they shouldn’t be! Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve not got a downer on museum volunteers, I am one myself and know how it goes! And the troupe of volunteers who have been helping me go through the collections these past few weeks have been – as I already said – a godsend!

I’ve only got one thing to add before I begin rambling – as I inevitably do when I’m writing long posts such as this. It is quite possibly the saddest point regarding this whole endeavour. Despite this small museum having an excellent geology collection including in the Tiddeman collection at least one collection of national (or possibly international) importance, almost none of it is on display. Indeed of the entire collection only a grand total of 7 rocks were on display when I arrived… this has now gone up to 15 as they wanted to include some “interesting rocks” in the entry cabinet of the museum. But this is still nothing compared to what could be made available… from the Tiddeman collection to Raistrick’s Lead Mining Minerals and from the many examples of Carboniferous coal measures plants to the small yet fascinating collection of polished agates, marbles and granites hidden forever within these three locked cabinets and the offsite storage building.

Photo showing one of the Geology Cupboards that I've managed to finish!
And Hopefully, when I leave the CM&AG at the end of March... Most of the Geology will look like this...

Anywho… I hope this has been an interesting – if slightly long – post and I’ll see you next time for more on one of the specific collections here at Craven Museum and Art Gallery!

Ben D. Brooks


On what museums are doing wrong

This is going to be a part rant, part lament and part questioning essay (hopefully) but before I begin I wish to make clear a few things:

Firstly, as I hope came across in my post: Volunteering at the Natural History Museum, I very much love Museums and all that they entail.

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.”

The Central Hall in Natural History Museum, London
Main Hall of the NHM, London | Image via Wikipedia

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.

The Wild-Walk exhibit at @Bristol science "exploration" | Image via Wikipedia

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.

A History of the World in 100 objects | Credit: BBC/Radio 4/British Museum

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.

Ben Brooks

Short-Link for this post:

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

Short-Link for this post: