What is a curator?

What is a curator?

Every so often I’ll meet someone who asks me what I do; this draws the response “I’m a natural history curator”*. Sometimes I will then be faced with the dreaded follow-up question “what does that mean?”

I hate it when this happens, because the curatorial role involves lots of different things and it can be hard to summarise them in any kind of concise and intelligible way. Different museums expect different things from curators, which will usually depend on the rest of the staffing structure. So when I answer I can only really answer for myself and what I think MY curatorial role entails.

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The most obvious responsibility is “curating collections”, which is not actually an explanation in any meaningful way. To curate more or less means to “take care of”, but these days the museum sector has become professionalised and there are other specialists who take on much of the duty of care; conservators, collections managers, documentalists and so on.

What I bring to the care side of things overlaps with these roles, but my spin is to bring subject specialist knowledge to the mix.

This allows me to help other departments by providing them with useful information. For example, non-specialist staff will largely have to go by what’s written on an object label, whereas I am expected to check that information and challenge old taxonomy and misidentifications. I may also provide additional or new information about objects by researching their history or identifying parts of their composition.

A nice illustration of this can be seen in these two objects – one from the Horniman Museum & Gardens‘ Anthropology collection (top) and one from the Natural History collection (bottom):

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The Natural History specimen had originally been mislabelled by the original supplier as the skull of an Andean Condor from Bolivia, which I had spotted and corrected to Lappet-faced Vulture (a species from Africa) after a bit of research. The Anthropology specimen was originally identified as being an  ‘eagle skull’ charm from Nigeria and it was simple to provide a more detailed species identification after having done the work on the Natural History specimen.

This sort of fact-checking and enrichment of data is essential for museums if we are to provide an accurate, reliable and authoritative resource for our audiences.

The same need for fact-checking also applies to quality television programmes, so it is perhaps unsurprising that museum curators will often be involved in documentaries, either as a presenter (like George McGavin or Richard Fortey), an expert that gets wheeled in to provide context (I think all curators have done this!), or as a shadowy figure behind the scenes baby-sitting an object or advising on content (I was scientific advisor for Ben Garrod’s excellent Secrets of Bones for example and I have fond memories of fiercely guarding an Indian Elephant leg at the filming of the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lecture “Why Elephant’s Can’t Dance“).

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An Elephant leg that I had to babysit for 14 hours (with no comfort break) for the filming of a Royal Institution Christmas Lecture

I’m all for getting collections used like this, since I think that the real value of collections lies in their use. This may be scientific, educational or artistic use – it doesn’t matter which, as long as the use doesn’t significantly compromise the objects and contributes to a wider understanding or appreciation of the world. In some cases you can manage both – a project I’ve been involved in with fine art photographer Sean Dooley is a good example of this.

Another large part of what I do is science communication. Museums were one of the earliest methods by which the general population could access decent quality information about the wider world and, despite the rise of the telly, museums still serve as an important interface between the academic world and the public.

This means that I get to research topics (in varying amounts of detail) that are relevant to our collections and audiences and produce exhibitions, give talks and write articles communicating that research. Sometimes this will be somewhat on the dry side (like a methodological paper about measuring skulls), while other times it will be a bit more fun, like my stint as #ExtremeCurator:

For me science communication and museum advocacy goes beyond the museum walls and 9-5 working hours, so I also organise free monthly science-related events in a London pub, I’m a trustee of the Natural Sciences Collections Association, I do evening talks all around the UK, I tweet and of course I am a #MuseumBlogger here at Zygoma.

This last activity has been both hard work and incredibly enjoyable. The hard work comes from the discipline required to organise and write a weekly blogpost, while the enjoyment has come from the fantastic community that has developed around the Friday Mystery Object posts (which have now been running for about five years). I’ve found that my knowledge has increased a huge amount and I’ve been able to encourage and help support other people in their interest.

My favourite example of this is Jake, who has been reading my blog since he was seven! Now he’s twelve and has already published an incredible book on bones that I was lucky enough to be able to help with. It’s the unexpected things like this that make blogging so worthwhile and which make my job the best job in the world!

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*my job title is actually “Deputy Keeper of Natural History”, but that’s a term even less familiar than “curator”.

Friday mystery object #217 answer

Last Friday I gave you this lovely skull to identify:

mystery217

I chose it because it was being used for an interesting project by a student at UCL, involving 3D surface laser scanning of the specimen to identify landmark characters of the skeletal structure of the faces of this family of primates:

mystery217scan

This is a specimen that we actually have a fair amount of information about. It’s a male Grey Gibbon Hylobates muelleri Martin, 1841 collected before 1909, from Melian on the Hanta River in North Borneo. So of all the suggestions, Crispin (@brainketchup) was the closest (with agreement from henstridgesj) when he suggested White-handed Gibbon.

It turns out that this skull also has a taxidermy skin associated with it (which Jake has mentioned before), which shows a common feature of taxidermy specimens where the skull has been prepared separately – it’s mouth is stitched shut:

GreyGibbon

This makes for slightly dodgy taxidermy, but at least it means the skull is available for future research, instead of being stuck in a specimen intended mainly for display.

The skin of this specimen has also seen recent use, but for art rather than science. Artist Paul Robinson has used it as the basis of this somewhat freaky, but striking piece of work:

GIBBON by Paul Robinson

GIBBON by Paul Robinson

It goes to show that specimens in museums can find themselves being used in all sorts of interesting ways. To my mind this is really what museum collections are for – being used by people.

#bonegeeks

There are some great resources online for finding images of comparative material for skulls, but the postcranial skeleton tends to be quite badly represented online even for common species. I’d love to change that, but it’s a big challenge for one person.

Paramastoid process of Pig (Sus scrofa)

Paramastoid process of Pig (Sus scrofa)

That’s why I’d like to set up #bonegeeks on Twitter (and maybe on other social media as well). The way I see it, people who have access to skeletal material could easily take snaps of bits of postcrania from known species (preferably with something for scale) using their phone and share the image to Twitter, Tumblr or Facebook with the name of the species and the bone (and perhaps where the specimen is held).

With the #bonegeeks tag it should be easy to collate images and hopefully start building up a comparative collection of images to make identifications easier.

It could start with a bone of the week to get the seldom depicted bones better represented and I’m sure #bonegeeks would be willing to respond to requests if there were particular bones that someone wanted to see.

I wonder if this could work… shall we give it a go and find out? Please add your thoughts on this idea in the comments section below or on Twitter using the #bonegeeks hashtag.

Oh and here’s how the idea got started: [View the story “#bonegeeks” on Storify]

World Rhino Day

Today is World Rhino Day. It is a day for raising awareness about the threats to the future survival of the five species of Rhino in the world today.

Rhino trophies - image taken from bushwarriors.wordpress.com

Historically Rhinos have been hunted for their horn – which has been made into trophies in Europe, into high-status jambiya handles in Yemen and into intricately carved libation cups in China.

Today, despite the fact that Rhinos are protected by international law, which makes it illegal to trade in modern and unworked antique horn, there is an active black market for Rhino horn in parts of Asia (mainly in Thailand, Vietnam, China).

This market is mainly driven by demand for horn used in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), particularly following recent (totally spurious) claims that it can treat cancer (N.B. it was never used as an aphrodisiac in TCM).

In reality the horn has no more health benefits than cow horn or even fingernails, since it is composed of the same material – keratin. Unfortunately this fact has done little to stop the demand for illegal Rhino horn.

Actually, much of the demand is probably artificial, driven by wealthy businesses stockpiling horn against future shortages as Rhinos disappear (as identified in this report on Taiwan from 20 years ago). Their actions have made the average Rhino horn worth more than a 24-carat gold ice-cream cone filled with the highest grade cocaine.

So far this year 287 Rhinos have been illegally killed for their horn in South Africa alone – a figure closing in on last year’s all time high of 333. Many of these Rhinos have died from the process of having their horn removed using a chainsaw, which cuts through the flesh and bone of the end of the skull.

On top of this bloody harvest, the demand for Rhino horn has led smuggling cartels to seek alternative methods of getting hold of horn. 

These have ranged from using Thai prostitutes to pose as legal game shooters (I kid you not) to acquiring historic horn through a legal loophole

The biggest surprises came in a sale of rhinoceros horn carvings, in which 30 lots, estimated at $3.9 million, sold for $30 million. (example of black market influence on Rhino horn value in art sale, from The Telegraph, 31st May 2010)

When it was noticed that Asian buyers were paying well over the odds for antique Rhino horn the loophole was closed, but by then historic horn had become well established as a commodity and therefore attractive to the criminal element involved in the Rhino horn trade.

This led to several thefts of horn from South African museums in 2010 and European targets started being hit from February 2011. Since then there has been a spate of 30 or so thefts of horn from museums, auction rooms and historic houses around Europe. These thefts have led many museums, including the Horniman, to take their Rhino horn off display and move it into secure storage.

The Natural Science Collections Association (of which I am a committee member) has provided some guidance to museums about Rhino horn in collections and somehow I’ve found myself giving interviews to the Museums Association and the BBC about this issue.

In the face of all the depressing Rhino horn developments over the past couple of years, it’s been heartening to see politicians and even Traditional Chinese Medicine educators backing the moves to dispel the myths about Rhino horn as a cancer medicine.

I must also admit to having a (slightly guilty) sense of schadenfreude when I think of the nasty chemicals that have been used to treat Rhino horn in museums over the years (including arsenic and mercury).

Risks aside, there are still rich people who will naively use ‘medicines’ that they don’t understand, but which they put their faith in anyway (Elle Macpherson for example).

So the situation looks bleak for the future of Rhinos, unless misinformation about medicinal effects of their horn can be overcome and the demand for illegal horn removed.

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Pdf fact sheets on all 5 Rhino species from http://www.rhinoconservation.org:

Friday mystery object #87 answer

On Friday the mystery object was provided by Mark Carnall, the curator of the newly reopened Grant Museum of Zoology:

It’s not been an easy one to work out – I thought it was part of a fish skull when I first saw it and comments have ranged from a squashed frog to Yoda’s foot.

The closest suggestions came from Jamie Revell, Steven D. Garber, PhD and Helen (sort of…), this is the  Continue reading

Ask away!

Today is Ask a Curator day on Twitter, which opens up the opportunity for a Q&A session with curators from museums around the world. I’m looking forward to seeing how it works out – after all, I run this blog as a window into the world of my job as a Natural History curator and I have been involved in the excellent Ask a Biologist since its inception. The idea of engaging the public with what I do is something I have invested significant amounts of my free time to and my employer, the Horniman Museum, has always been supportive of.

I do feel that I have been a bit remiss in these activities over recent months as I’ve been tied up with lots of other things – not least my core work of curating the bone collections in their new store at our off-site Study Collections Centre. However, I hope to be back on track soon, with more regular posts here and more frequent input on Ask a Biologist.

For today, let’s see how Ask a Curator works. Here’s the hashtag to see what other people have been asking museums around the world. If you want to ask a question of someone at the Horniman (including myself and James of Answers in Genius) then click the link below.

Have fun!

Ask a curator at the Horniman

Paolo’s Pest Post #1: Rats

Spring is in the air and the burgeoning of new life all around us is not restricted to daffodils and baby birds, it also includes some less welcome organisms. Working in a museum means you really need to be aware of pests. A serious infestation can reduce objects to piles of dust in a worryingly short time. Every museum has pests, as does every house – they are impossible to eradicate completely and it’s a waste of time trying since they are mobile and can reappear just a few days (or even hours) after you’ve just finished exterminating their predecessors. Pest populations require constant management rather than blitzkrieg if they are to be kept at levels where they don’t pose a problem. In museums this is called Integrated Pest Management (IPM), at home it’s called housekeeping.

The majority of IPM is making sure that there isn’t enough food lying around to provide pests with the rations they need to explore your museum or home. If the pests can’t find food, they have no reason to hang around. Most of the food that pests find will be in the form of small edible particles (crumbs from your lunch, hair, skin cells, dead flies, pet food, etc.). This means that foodstuffs should be restricted to easily cleaned areas that are separated from areas containing vulnerable objects. Regular cleaning also needs to take place everywhere to remove the accumulation of organic waste that constantly builds up. Sometimes this isn’t easy, especially when buildings have been designed without pest prevention in mind:

Security grill in front of a window, making the sill difficult to clean

Of course, our museums and homes also have a standing supply of food for pests in the form of taxidermy, wool, paper, wood, dried goods, carpets, clothes, etc. This is what we are trying to protect, so we can’t simply remove it all. Instead, we need to keep a lookout for tell-tale signs that pests are busy munching away at these items, so that particular infestations can be dealt with before they spread.

Vigilance is key – everyone working in a museum or living in a house should be aware of what constitutes a pest and they should know where to report any sightings of pests (be it to Collections Management, Facilities Management, Conservation, or mum/dad). Whoever is in charge of dealing with pests should also be making sure that they carry out a bit of extra work, either by using monitoring traps to keep track of pest distributions so hot spots can be detected, and/or by keeping an eye on windowsills – a prime location for spotting pests of the insect kind. It is also useful to keep an eye open for the little signs that pests leave lying around – droppings, frass and characteristic damage.

Although some pests may have had a population in your building for as long as you’ve been there (or longer), most will have found their way in more recently. Points of entry are varied and often uncontrollable (you can’t check the coats or bags of every visitor for hitch-hiking beetles and moths), but where possible there should be checks in place that reduce the ability of pests to get into a building. A quarantine area is ideal (dare I say essential) for controlling pests that can be transported on museum objects, but at home it may simply be a case of checking that your newly purchased bunch of flowers or bag of flour isn’t crawling with beetles.

Various holes, vents and chimneys are excellent entry points for pests so it’s good to keep an eye on them – block up the ones that don’t belong there (like broken windows or holes in ceilings) and make sure that the ones that do belong (like air vents and chimneys) are kept clean and, where practical, protected with a mesh on the outside.

Rats

Part of what inspired me to start writing this was an incident at home that Melissa and I recently dealt with. We live in a basement flat, which means that we are likely to have certain types of pest finding their way into our home quite easily. In this case it was one of the most unpleasant pests you can get – we had a rat in our kitchen.

We knew that there was a rat in the garden, because we had seen it before. In fact, we have an entertaining video of it chasing magpies right under the nose of a disinterested local fox one Sunday morning:

However, a rat in the garden and a rat in the kitchen are two different things. Rats carry a host of nasty diseases and they are incredibly destructive because of their droppings, urine and need to gnaw – rats gnawing wires are a common cause of fire. There’s some useful information about problems caused by rats here. Our rat appears to have entered through a hole in the wall that takes the waste pipe from our washing machine – unfortunately the hole is much bigger than the pipe and the rat must have squeezed through the gap, something that rats are very good at.

We had a suspicion that a something was amiss when Melissa heard rustling and caught movement out of the corner of her eye one evening. The next day I also saw something fleeing behind the fridge when I walked into the kitchen and I thought it looked a bit too big to be a mouse – I was also fairly sure I had seen a long scaly tail. That clinched it, so we immediately did a fairly deep clean of the kitchen and we cleared out all the boxes and bags crammed into our airing cupboard, which is in one corner of the kitchen. On removing everything from there I spotted that the insulation around the boiler had started being gnawed to make what looked like nesting material. There were also droppings that were too big for a mouse (between 10-15mm):

Rat dropping

Whilst clearing out the airing cupboard our unwelcome guest was spotted as it dashed for cover, reconfirming the evidence that it was a rat. Obviously we were not pleased. Once everything edible was secured in containers in upper wall mounted cupboards or hanging from wall hooks, we shut the kitchen door and hoped the rat would stay put until it could be dealt with. Fat chance – we found fresh droppings in the hall after the rat had squeezed under the kitchen door. Our deep cleaning had probably removed enough accessible food from the kitchen to force the rat to roam further afield.

The advantage of this was that it suggested the rat was hungry and that there was enough disruption from our activities to have forced the rat out of its comfort zone. That discomfiture of the rat was an important, since rats are neophobic – they don’t like new things in their environment. Reducing the available food meant that the rat was forced to explore further and by altering its environment (i.e. removing most of the cover it relied on) we were forcing it to deal with changes, which meant that it would probably become familiarised more quickly with the traps we baited and put down at around the same time.

We chose break-back traps over poison for several reasons:

  • some rats have learned to avoid poison (although some are also trap shy)
  • there is no control over where the rat dies, so it could expire in an inaccessible place and then stink the flat out for weeks while it decomposed, incidentally providing a source of food for insect pests
  • if the poisoned rat went back outside it could well be eaten by something else, which could be harmed
  • neither of us are happy having poison hanging around the house, particularly in case we are visited by friends and family with younger children
  • I have ethical concerns about the suffering an animal experiences before it dies – I think a quick death is preferable to a slow one, and I consider poison to be too slow

A good strong break-back trap seemed to be the best option, since there is greater control of where the rat is killed and a trap is far more easily disarmed and tidied up than poison – it’s also a quick death for the rat (though see below). Live traps can also be used, although for rats I think they are inappropriate since releasing a rat in a new location strikes me as being irresponsible to residents of the area in which it’s released, and it’s pretty stressful for the rat.

Glue boards are also available for trapping rats – these are obviously a slow way for the rat to die, unless they are checked frequently and you are willing to kill the rat yourself. We did use a sticky board under the kitchen door when it was shut (I had a rubber mallet ready to despatch the rat), but that was more as an effort to reduce the rat’s movements within the house than to trap it.

I should make sure I mention that break-back traps need to be checked regularly – sometimes they can go off without killing the rat, merely trapping it (and injuring it) and sometimes the bait can be removed or material from ratty activities can jam the mechanism, making it less effective. Although I was aware of this, I was a bit surprised when I first checked the trap and found a scouring sponge right in the jaws near the hinge:

The snap trap was initially baited with chocolate (rats really like chocolate), but that was switched to nuts and raisins as soon as I realised that bitter dark chocolate that we had in the house was probably not quite the sugary, fatty confectionery treat that a rat would be after. The change of bait seemed to work out well, because we had the rat in the trap a few hours later:

Since the rat was a bit crushed from the powerful jaws of the trap I decided not to bother skeletonising it or getting it taxidermied. Instead I checked the local council website to find out what their disposal requirement was – double bagging and putting it in with the household waste – so that’s what I did.

All in all an unpleasant business, but it only took two days from the first sighting for the rat to be dealt with. Our next action is to contact our landlord to get the hole sealed up properly and we will probably clear out the crumbs from the toaster and bread-board a bit more often, since that’s what the rat seemed to be subsisting on.

If you have a rat then I recommend that you clean and disinfect thoroughly, make food as inaccessible as possible (easier said than done since rats can get through tiny holes, climb well and gnaw through plastic, wood and even concrete with ease), check where the blighters are getting in and work out where they are going, so that you can take steps to stop them. Most councils offer a pest control service to deal with rats (often it’s free), so if you don’t feel up to dealing with the rats then you’re probably best off contacting them. That said, I personally find it’s more effort to deal with contractors in my home than it is to kill a rat.