Six questions for a Geological Curator – Isla Gladstone – Bristol

In the second post in our series, Isla Gladstone answers our ‘six questions’. Isla is Senior Curator for Natural Sciences at Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives and will be managing this blog for GCG from now on. She has previously worked as a natural sciences curator in Yorkshire and Cornwall.

collage IG 6 Qs Bristol

Clockwise from top left: photograph of the holotype of the plesiosaur Attenborosaurus conybeari, lost in the Bristol Blitz of 1940; Isla in Bristol Museum’s geology store with an 8.5m long pliosaur discovered in 1994; local celestine; dinosaur fun at a family event.

1. What sort of Geological collections do you look after? (Mineralogy, Palaeontology, what fossil or mineral groups, other natural history groups too?)

I work with a small team to look after over 1.15 million natural sciences specimens collected from Bristol and the world since the late 1700s. This includes both biology (taxidermy, bones, pressed plants, pinned insects, shells etc.) and geology (fossils, rocks, minerals) plus the rich archives, rare book libraries and maps that accompany them. In this post I will focus on geology, which is a Designated collection.

2. What is your collection usually used for and by whom? (Public display, scientific enquiries, teaching?)

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery has about 0.5 million visits each year and our geology galleries are very popular with schools, adults and families. These explore Dinosaurs, ‘Sea Dragons’, Minerals, and Geology through Time, with a focus on Bristol and the South West of England. We’re a relatively new team so still working to establish a programme to complement these permanent displays and enable wider access to the collection. Events to date have included a big ‘Bristol Rocks!’ museum takeover day run with local geology groups; lifelong learning workshops on topics such as identifying local rocks; special family workshops including reconstructing mini models of our fossils as living animals; gallery talks, store tours, identifications and enquiries. We also support schools workshops and deliver geology sessions to local universities and the South West Federation of Museums.

‘Behind the scenes’ we run a programme of skills-based volunteer placements, and facilitate artists and film crews including the BBC Natural History Unit. Scientists from the UK and around the world regularly use our collections – it’s always exciting when this leads to new interpretations that can be shared with our audiences. Finally, we’re currently working on two in-house temporary exhibitions: in 2015 we will be showing a new geology-inspired commission from Bristol contemporary artists Wood and Harrison (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eS50mYKCL_M) as part of the national New Expressions programme, and in 2017 we will unveil the museum’s first big new palaeontology exhibition for over a decade.

So in short – our collection is used by lots of people, from early years child to specialist researcher, and our role is to support this whilst continuing to work with communities to explore new avenues!

3. What is the most famous item in your collection and why?

The history of our collection is closely associated with the evolution of geology as a science, so some of our early items are perhaps the most famous – specimens that helped contribute to fundamental changes in human understanding of the history of life on Earth. For example, one of the first ever 3D skeletal reconstructions of an ichthyosaur was based on a specimen acquired by the Bristol Institution (a parent of the current museum) from Mary Anning of Lyme Regis. This was part of pioneering work on Jurassic marine reptiles by William Conybeare and Henry De la Beche which was focused at the Bristol Institution in the early 1820s.

In a sad twist of fate some of our most significant early display specimens, including large and spectacular fossil marine reptiles or ‘sea dragons’ built into the geology gallery walls, were destroyed during the Bristol Blitz of 1940. So whilst much of the collection was saved and significant new specimens have reinvigorated it, some of our famous items are no longer physically here. As curators we focus on physical artefacts so it’s an interesting challenge to consider how we curate this ‘ghost’ collection which remains all around us as an important part of our story. Of which more in Q6!

4. What is the most viewed part of your collection and why?

We’re just starting to build our digital presence with a new website, so the collections on display in our permanent galleries are the most viewed as these are the most easily accessible to visitors. Most days when I walk through the museum I hear the excited murmur of ‘dinosaurs’… Bristol’s lucky to have its very own dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus antiquus, and some amazing scelidosaur material on display including an almost complete specimen on loan from a private collector. The sea dragons and the skeleton of a Giant Deer seem to capture people’s imaginations in a similar way – presumably it is because they are large, alien looking and extinct!

Our beautifully lit up displays of minerals also generate a lot of ‘wow’s, in particular the fluorite as it glows under UV light. People are amazed by the exotic natural beauty of these specimens and can’t believe some are found nearby. This local link also provides an important connection. Geology can be hidden beneath our feet or perhaps go unnoticed as part of our natural and urban landscape. Our collection can open eyes to a hidden world that underlies Bristol and has influenced its people, history, buildings and industry such as mining for coal or celestine (the main source of the element strontium; at one time Bristol provided the bulk of the world’s supply). It also takes us back to a time when parts of our city were covered by tropical seas, or walked over by dinosaurs, or Ice Age mammals.

5. What is your favorite story about your collection that illustrates its importance and use? (more than one story is allowed if you want!)

The bones of the Bristol dinosaur, Thecodontosaurus antiquus, were discovered in Triassic rocks in Clifton, Bristol in 1834, and co-described by our second curator, Samuel Stutchbury. It was the fourth dinosaur, and first Triassic dinosaur, to be named in the world. Stutchbury secured the original collection for Bristol Museum; 184 specimens were saved from the Bristol Blitz of 1940. In 1975 additional Thecodontosaurus remains were found in a working quarry north of the city, and recovered for the University of Bristol’s collection.

In recent times there has been a huge amount of work to prepare and research both historic and new material. This has not only revealed research insight, but since 2000 has brought the excitement of scientific discovery to tens of thousands of children and young people through the ‘Bristol Dinosaur Project’. In its various phases this project has taken real specimens from the University and museum’s collections out to schools and festivals and asked ‘how do we know…?’. The bones of a long-extinct dinosaur have become an important tool in engaging with the process of science, by exploring how we reconstruct this extinct creature and the tropical Bristol world it lived in 210 million years ago. The current phase of the project culminated with Bristol palaeoartist Bob Nicholls creating a new scientific 3D reconstruction in ‘live’ view of visitors at our M Shed museum in 2013. A copy of this model is now on display at Bristol Museum.

This story is one amongst many that touch on the enormous potential of geology collections: as a source of inspiration, enjoyment and wonder; as an accessible and ‘real’ way in to the process of science (of key importance in understanding issues which affect our lives and access to scientific careers); in continuing to support new scientific research as new questions and techniques develop; in preserving specimens from sites we can’t access anymore; as part of our scientific and cultural history. It also shows the importance of collaboration, dedication, meeting new challenges and opportunities. Perhaps this quote sums it up best…:

“In an age of videos, and realistic-looking dinosaur movies and documentaries, there is still nothing like the thrill of handling the real thing: a bone that was fossilised 200 million years ago and still looks fresh and tells a story about ancient life and ancient environments.” (Benton et al., 2012)

6. If you had unlimited funds, how would you develop your collection?

Unlimited funds, now that would be nice! Top of my specimen list would be a long-necked plesiosaur (or two) from the West of England. Bristol has been referred to as the ‘birthplace’ of the plesiosaur (Taylor, 1994) as it was here that the first complete specimen discovered by science was publicly revealed by William Conybeare in 1824. No animal like this, with its strange and beautiful long neck, swims in our seas today and it must have been an awe-inspiring moment. However, despite acquisition of new internationally significant specimens including several holotypes after 1940’s losses, there is still no large long-necked plesiosaur specimen in our collections to connect with this story today. I would also acquire or commission material to represent our lost, ‘ghost’ collections. For example, copies of casts of some specimens that exist in other museums or new alternative reconstructions based on their original illustrations, photographs or film.

At a more general level I would work with local collectors, scientists and conservation bodies to set up a sustainable field collecting, preparation and storage programme, including training to support new expertise and a pot of acquisition funding. Alongside specimens, we would acquire non-geological objects that enhance interpretation of our collections such as full-size reconstructions of fragmentary fossils, or historical items. Of course we’d also need a new natural sciences museum, a bigger team and open storage in central Bristol… The possibilities are endless!

References

Benton, M.J., Schouten, R.; Drewitt, E. J. A.; Viegas, P. (2012). “The Bristol Dinosaur Project”. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 123: 210-225.

Taylor, M.A. (1994). The plesiosaur’s birthplace: the Bristol Institution and its contribution to vertebrate palaeontology. Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society 112: 179-196.


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