Sharks, Dinosaurs and Walruses- An Interview with Dr Emma Nicholls

Written by Dr Emma Nicholls, Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens

1. What sort of geological collections do you look after?

I am Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens, and, more specifically, curator in charge of palaeontology, geology, and osteology. The geological collections at the Horniman Museum can be loosely divided into three main sections; the Bennett Collection of fossil material, the Wyatt Collection of fossils and minerals, and ‘everything else’. The third one sounds like a cheat so, to be more specific, this ‘miscellany’ comprises several small collections from collectors and/or institutions, plus hundreds of individual specimens that came to the Museum in isolation.

The majority of my time spent in the collections is dedicated to the Bennett Collection which is a fantastic gold mine of undiscovered fossil material. The collection takes up nearly every inch of the windowless basement-esque room at the Study Collections Centre, which upon entering, gives one the feeling of being completely physically immersed in fossils. Naturally, it is therefore my absolute favourite place.

The Bennett Collection, comprising c.175,000 fossil specimens, is housed in a single room at the Museum’s Study Collection Centre. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Although the vast majority of the Bennett Collection is currently not documented in extensive detail, it is estimated to contain around 175,000 specimens of roughly 50/50 British and non-British material, and around 75% invertebrate to 25% vertebrate faunas. I have spent the last two years working on the Bennett Collection, with a view to one day having it ‘fully functioning’ and available for research.

My favourite specimens in the Bennett Collection are those of dinosaurs, not just because they are dinosaurs, but… ok yes it’s because they are dinosaurs. At age 36, I’ve spent 31 years fixated on fossils, and dinosaurs are still rock stars in my opinion.

2. What is your collection usually used for and by whom?

Our collection is used in many ways; by researchers, for exhibitions, and occasionally for teaching as well. Whilst the Learning Department at the Horniman has their own rather extensive collection of material that gets used regularly for teaching, when the Natural History Keepers do special curator-led events for the general public, we tend to use some of our own collection as well. In that respect, our shark and ray specimens get a lot of attention as elasmobranchs are my subject specialism! My other specialism is palaeontology and part of my role at the Museum is to enhance the level of documentation of the fossil collections, with a view to increasing traffic on the geology collections.

The majority of enquiries that come into the Natural History department are for the zoology section, of which osteology also comes under my jurisdiction (on top of geology and palaeontology, as previously mentioned). Morphometrics seems to be the most in-thing at the moment, and we are only too happy to facilitate this and any other type of research on the collections, within the parameters of the Horniman’s research policy of course. Destructive sampling is an example of a grey area that doesn’t always receive an immediate yes or no, but often requires further discussion between us and the researchers before we can conclude whether we are able to help.

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

I have to admit that the award for Most Famous Item within the Natural History department, sadly for me as a palaeontologist, wouldn’t go to a fossil! The Horniman Walrus is known far and wide. It is mentioned in nearly every article and other piece of social media on the subject of the Horniman Museum (seemingly no matter its focus), and is the focus of a vast host of ephemera in the Museum shop. It even has its own Twitter account. The Horniman Walrus seems to mostly identify with being male, judging by the Twitter feed, though anatomically we don’t know whether it’s a female or a sub-adult male. S/he has quite a personality though, and I recommend following our flippered Horniman celebrity @HornimanWalrus if you’re on Twitter.


The Horniman Walrus, ‘celebrity of the southeast’, towers over visitors to the Natural History Gallery. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

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

We don’t have the natural history equivalent of a Rosetta Stone, or the Type of a T.rex so our enquiries are extremely varied, which keeps us on our toes. Looking through our enquiries log, this year alone we’ve been asked about all manner of species in our collection, from musk rats and tigers, to Iguanodon and mammoths. Most enquiries that come my way are seeking specialist advice on best practice. Being on the committee of two major Subject Specialist Networks (the Geological Curators’ Group and the Natural Sciences Collections Association) really helps when faced with challenging questions that affect both individuals and the sector.

As a palaeontologist I also get asked to identify specimens brought in by the public, which is always exciting, though fairly often the ‘dinosaur skull’ they have found is a misshapen piece of flint. But I love how rocks and fossils feed people’s imaginations and the enthusiasm with which they ask me their questions.

5. What is your favourite story about your collection that illustrates its importance and use?

My favourite story is the embryonic tale of the Bennett Collection. You may not have heard of Walter Bennett (1892-1971), except for 5 minutes ago when you started reading this blog, but his collection is the product of a lifetime’s obsession with fossil hunting. The UK material includes some real poorly preserved specimens but it is here that lies the beauty. Bear with me, I can explain myself. Bennett didn’t just collect the best fossils, he collected everything. I mean, everything, and there are approximately 175,000 specimens. That makes this collection one of the best cross-sections of British fossil faunas known, with minimal collecting bias (collecting biases often affect palaeontological fieldwork for numerous reasons). Bennett’s collection also represents fossil sites that are no longer accessible, making it extremely important for comparison studies. Whilst there are no articulated 50 m sauropod skeletons, the potential held within this treasure trove is unknown, and that is what is exciting.

There are many treasures waiting to be uncovered in the Bennett Collection. © Horniman Museum and Gardens.

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

If I had unlimited funds I would create a whole new, utterly niche, museum dedicated to the complete evolutionary history of the rhino, dating back to the earliest known emergence of a taxa within the Superorder Rhinocerotoidea. I’d have a full-size Paraceratherium (thought to be the largest land mammal to have ever walked the earth), large-scale dioramas showing the ecology of each rhino ancestor, and then I’d have a natural history gallery dedicated to the five (or six, depending on who you ask) modern species of rhino. The shop would be to die for with anything and everything covered in rhinos and a giant heap of fluffy soft toy horned-ungulates that would be a nightmare for the shop assistants to keep tidy and that I’d dive into every time no one was looking. I may have gone off track… what was the question?

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