This is the first post in our series where we ask geological curators around the country a series of questions that allow them to advocate the collections in their charge. This post is kindly provided by Dean Lomax who is Contract Assistant Curator of Palaeontology at the Doncaster Museum & Art Gallery, working on the CIRCA Project which is funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation. He is the author of two books, Fossils of the Whitby Coast and Dinosaurs of the British Isles.
1. What sort of Geological collections do you look after? (Mineralogy, Palaeontology, what fossil or mineral groups, other natural history groups too?)
Palaeontology, all fossil types.
2. What is your collection usually used for and by whom? (Public display, scientific enquiries, teaching?)
In reality, for a long-time, a palaeontological collection at Doncaster Museum was unheard of. Only since 2008, when I first became affiliated with the museum, has the collection been brought ‘back to life’. However, since then, the collection has been used for the following: education, display and interpretation, research (scientific and independent) and general enquiries. Perhaps, as part of the project I had been involved with (CIRCA), one of the key areas was research, given that much of this collection was very poorly understood and many specimens were subsequently found to be of scientific significance. The museum holds occasional fossil events (handling, identification, lectures etc), which incorporate some of the material.
3. What is the most famous item in your collection and why?
In 2008, when I began looking at specimens in the collection (note, the museum staff and I had no idea what type of palaeontology collection – or how big – was held at the museum), to put together a small exhibition, the then education officer stated that they had a “really good cast of an ichthyosaur that I could use”. To my surprise, when shown the specimen, I identified that it was real. From here, I noted that the ichthyosaur had preserved stomach contents. The specimen became a ‘local celebrity’ and was/is often featured in the local newspapers. It was nicknamed ‘Fizzy’ in 2009, as part of a ‘Name the ichthyosaur’ competition. I continued to research the specimen and, along with Professor Judy Massare (Suny Brockport College, New York, USA), determined that the ichthyosaur represented a brand-new species known to science. The paper was submitted in 2013 and is due out early next year with Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. Such discoveries highlight what rarities can be found in some of the ‘lesser known’ or smaller museum collections.
4. What is the most viewed part of your collection and why?
As mentioned in point 2, the palaeontology collection at Doncaster has only very recently been brought back to the attention of the scientific community and general public. The entire collection boasts some fantastic specimens, but the Jurassic ammonites, in particular, and vertebrates (across the entire collection) are rather nice. In addition, a variety of eurypterids (‘sea scorpions’) also raise a fair bit of interest. Presumably, the interest is due to the sheer ‘wow factor’ of the individual fossils.
5. What is your favorite story about your collection that illustrates its importance and use? (more than one story is allowed if you want!)
Personally, the story of how the palaeontology collection has been rediscovered is quite fantastic; it can help inspire other museums to take a more detailed and rigorous review of their collections. Quite literally, the majority of the founding collection was based upon palaeontological specimens, yet since around 1912 (when the last palaeontologist died), the collection became ‘lost’. Over the years, numerous specimens were continually donated to the collection, with a large surge during the 1960s and 1970s, yet the fossils largely remained unidentified and used. Nevertheless, a palaeontology collection at Doncaster had long-since been forgotten, only now has its true potential begun to be recognized. Of course, the story of the ichthyosaur (discussed above) is quite marvelous.
6. If you had unlimited funds, how would you develop your collection?
The possibilities… Firstly, it would be great to expand the collections of local material, primarily the remains from now extinct coal mines, but also from local quarries that are sadly no longer accessible. There are several areas across Doncaster that could yield specimens that are not represented in the collection, having the funding to physically explore and collect would be quite brilliant. In addition, it would be great to expand collections that we have many enquiries for, such as fossils from the Yorkshire Coast. For generating further interest and excitement in the collection, and for the museum visitor figures to rise, the purchase of additional ‘star specimens’ would be a bonus. A British dinosaur would make an excellent addition…!
If you would like to find out more about Dean Lomax and Doncaster’s collections then follow Dean on Twitter @Palaeo7 or read his blog at www.palaeocritti.com.