Nonetheless, if you have the strange compunction to hear me speak, or to attend something I’ve helped organise, here are some gigs that are coming up soon (click the links for details):
12th July 2014 (09:00 – 18:00): Tetrapod Zoology Conference (London Wetlands Centre) – I’ll be talking about my research on mermaids at 11ish during this exciting all-day conference.
16th July (18:30 for 19:30 start): Science in the Pub (Old King’s Head, London Bridge) – The monthly science talk I host every 3rd Wednesday of the month, with Dr Erica McAlister from the NHM talking about science and museums
18th July 2014 (09:30 for 10:00 start): Taxidermy: Creativity, Curation, Context & Care (Chandler House, Bloomsbuy, London) – I’ll be chairing this one day conference, which should be brilliant as the line-up of speakers is looking great!
22nd July 2014 (18:30 for 19:30 start): Conspire presents Flight (47-49 Tanner Street, London) – I’ll be doing a freestyle talk in an arty environment about how and why birds fly the way they do.
16th August 2014 (time TBC): A History of the Horse (Bromley Museum, Orpington) – I’ll be exploring the close link between horses and humans in history as part of the Horniman’s Objects in Focus loans project.
20th August 2014 (18:30 for 19:30 start): Science in the Pub (Old King’s Head, London Bridge) – TBC
That’ll do for now as details get more fuzzy as we look further into the future, but there are more talks coming up in in September, which I’ll add at a later date. Now I’d better think about getting some of these talks prepared!
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.
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):
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“).
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:
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!
*my job title is actually “Deputy Keeper of Natural History”, but that’s a term even less familiar than “curator”.
The nub of the discussion centres on the word ‘geek’, which is a term that some people dislike and don’t identify with. This is fair enough – how one identifies with and adopts labels for themselves is a personal thing, a point that Alice Roberts made earlier in the year.
In order to try to come up with a better hastag for a bony resource I made a poll that included a range of suggestions, the most popular of which can be seen below:
Now obviously #bonegeeks comes out on top – presumably due to input from other people who self-identify as geeks, but there are enough people voting for alternatives to raise a warning flag that several people may feel actively excluded by use of term ‘geek’. In light of this I am unwilling to stick with #bonegeeks, but the general lack of consensus on alternative names leads me to reject the other options.
Where to go from here? The obvious answer is to go back to what we are trying to achieve and to think of a hashtag that is descriptive of the outcome rather than the contributors, so I suggest we use #bonepics so that both #bonegeeks and every other brand of osteology enthusiast who doesn’t consider themselves a geek can get on with making something rather awesome…
On Friday there was a lighthearted discussion about a hashtag that could be used to compile images of bones on twitter as an identification resource. It’s always a struggle to find the bones you’re after on an image search and #bonegeeks (as it is currently called) will hopefully help to remedy that problem.
The hashtag used will be the one mechanism by which this resource will be readily found in order to be further curated, so it is important to use something short, memorable, descriptive and – importantly – something that isn’t already in use (which is why #boners was decided against). It should also be a term that people feel some sort of affiliation with – and it certainly shouldn’t put people off (another reason why #boners was perhaps unsuitable).
However, this last point raises an issue, since some people clearly were put off – and when I say ‘some people’ I mean a person whose opinion I respect.
Earlier this year Alice made an explicit statement about the use of the term ‘geek’, which puts her comment in context:
“There’s been a movement towards reclaiming the word ‘geek’ but I’d rather get away from it entirely”…”If you say: ‘It’s cool to be a geek,” where does that leave people who don’t consider themselves to be geeks? Aren’t they allowed to be interested in science? Science is for everyone.”
As someone who self-identifies as a bit of a geek (and borderline nerd) I’ve already done my bit of reclaiming and I’m comfortable with it, but Alice’s point is still valid – not everyone who might want to get involved identifies as a geek.
It’s still early days, so if any changes to the hastag are to be made, they need to be made as soon as possible in order to stop the proliferation of hashtags and increase the difficulty of finding information. Perhaps the best idea if to make a poll of unused hashtag suggestions and allow people to vote on their favourite option. Here is such a poll, with any suggestions that have been made included, unless the hashtag is already in use on Twitter.
If you have any other suggestions please add them (on the poll or in the comments) – hopefully we may be able to find a decent hashtag amongst them, that people are happy to use.