On 14th November 2017, 48 geologists and museum professionals descended on Collins Barracks, National Museum of Ireland, for the annual Geological Curators’ Group conference. Budget airlines failed to prevent international attendants arriving and even train strikes couldn’t stop the stampede of scientists, thirsty for sharing knowledge, experience, and the wine reception.
The first day was a series of talks under the banner “Making the Most of a Move”. Most presentations were met with a Mexican wave of understanding nods and sympathetic noises emanating from around the room as, one by one, the speakers unravelled their stories of collections moves and the endless headaches caused by low budgets, curiously ill-trained contractors, and insufficient spinal support. There is a niche, it seems, for a chiropractor to travel the length and breadth of the British Isles attending to broken curators. Manual handling training only gets you so far when your collection is, literally, piles of rocks.
One of the first talks was by the master of deadpan wit, Nigel Monaghan, also known as the Keeper of Natural History at the National Museum of Ireland. Nigel outlined the history of the Museum’s displays accompanied by historic photographs, and drew gasps with the antics of nefarious Victorians who in the 1890s went through a phase of stealing glass eyes from the taxidermy. The modern day collections were located in eight disconnected sites around Dublin until the recent collections move that took all non-display natural history (and lots of other types of collection) into a building so large, it can be seen from space. No-one failed to be impressed.
My own talk was a whistle stop tour of a whistle stop move. The Natural History department at the Horniman Museum was offered a sum of money in September to be spent by the end of this financial year, which for one reason and another, meant Jo Hatton (the Keeper) and I (the Deputy Keeper) had six weeks to move our collections; including gathering quotes, choosing contractors, packing things up, and getting everything out – from the most important things we house, such as Frederick Horniman’s own beetle collection, down to the curiously large collection of dustpan and brushes that had accumulated under the sink. Despite the short turn around, subsequent forced rapidity of decision making, and a number of unforeseen bumps, both we and our collections made it safely to our temporary storage and new office space, accordingly.
Roy Starkey, from the Lapworth Museum of Geology, gave an incredible talk on the redevelopment of the gallery which is second to none and has been widely acknowledged as a huge success. The transformation is extremely impressive and well worth a visit to Birmingham if you haven’t seen it yet. The redevelopment even led to the Museum being shortlisted for the Art Fund Museum of the Year Award. Sadly they missed out on the grand prize, but a scientific collection making the cut brought excitement throughout the sector. The addition of a video shown in the talk that was made entirely by volunteers (with no budget I might add) brought an emotive and stirring element to the presentation.
Sage advice was to be found in all of the talks throughout the day, with additional presenters from the National Museum of Scotland, Oxford University Museum of Natural History, British Geological Survey and Natural History Museum London. The top five tips I took home were:
- Don’t dabble in asbestos. You are actually required to use qualified consultants
- When you have a great collection but no place to display it, try exhibiting at roadshows and outreach events
- When moving a collection, it’s up to you if the material ends up better, worse, or the same as before the move
- When choosing temporary storage, keep in mind it often ends up long-term
- Shout about your work – share the story of your move with your museum and the sector
Besides knowledge, inspiration and new friends, the take away goodies from the conference included the obligatory but no less useful tote bag; adorned with the GCG logo in festive green, and a couple of items from the NMI shop, including a wooden spinning top. Despite having seven degrees between us, including two doctorates, this child’s toy entertained my husband and me for significant parts of subsequent evenings as we tested how the speed and duration of a spin are affected by the different types of surface we could find around the house. The inspiration one gets from scientific conferences knows no bounds.
On the second day of the conference we descended on the natural history collections in an exciting Behind-the-Scenes extravaganza, and drooled over the collections in storage in a fashion left to over-excitable-professional-rock-lovers. But we don’t like keeping things to ourselves in natural history, so for a summary of the days’ events hop over to the NatSCA website, where you can find part two of this blog.
To find out more about the wonderful natural sciences collections at the National Museum of Ireland, follow @DublinDeadZoo
Emma-Louise Nicholls is Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum in London, and was elected onto the GCG committee at this year’s AGM. Follow Emma on Twitter @ColPercyFawcett