Managing Personal Natural History Collections

Written by Nadine Gabriel, a recent geology graduate from the University College London, and an emerging museum professional. Nadine is currently a Geology Collections Assistant for UCL Earth Sciences Department and a Fossil Mammal Collection Volunteer at the Natural History Museum, London.

As far as I know, the first time I ever collected a rock was during a visit to a beach in Sussex when I was four years old. During my childhood, I would often pick up interesting rocks and take them home – I guess that was a sign I was going to become a geologist. My collection started to grow exponentially after starting my geology degree at UCL because I collected lots of samples during fieldtrips. I continue to add to my collection with purchases from various museums and geology festivals.

A selection of my specimens: 1, Beach pebbles from Sussex; 2, A bivalve shell from Norfolk; 3, Manganese dendrites in Solnhofen limestone; 4, Rhodochrosite from Argentina; 5, Trilobite fragment in mudstone. © Nadine Gabriel.

For a long time, I didn’t have a proper record of the large amount of data associated with these specimens; all the information about their age, geological formation, etc. was sitting around in old field notebooks or in my head. A few years ago, while I was working on a documentation project for UCL’s Geology Collections, I grew to appreciate the importance of collections management and museum databases. So, in May 2016, I decided to build my own database.

The key to good museum documentation is a suitable collections management system. I received some suggestions for free museum database software, but after trying them out, I decided that an Excel spreadsheet would be more suitable for my specific needs. It’s flexible, data fields can be easily customised, and no specialist software is needed so it can be accessed on virtually any computer.

I started off with specimens that I had collected myself since they were more valuable to me and they had more detailed information associated with them. Here’s an edited version of the entry for these almandine garnet crystals…

Glass tube filled with almandine garnet. © Nadine Gabriel.

Accession Number: C0093
Status: Accessioned
Specimen Type: Mineral
Brief Description: Almandine garnet
Full Description: <1cm almandine crystals, deep red in colour. Some are euhedral (perfect dodecahedrons) and a few have remnants of the dacite groundmass
Quantity: Several
Age (Million years): 6.33
Location: El Hoyazo/Joyazo Garnet Volcano, Nijar, Almería, Andalusia, Spain

Origin Notes: Collected from the ground
Collector: Nadine Gabriel
From Fieldtrip? UCL GEOL3040: Crustal Dynamics, Mountain Building and Basin Evolution; 2016-04-03 to 2016-04-15

Date Collected: 2016-04-07

Associated Notebook?  Notebook 5, pages 54-58, locality 15, sample 6
Acquisition Method: Collected
Box Number: Box 7
Storage Location: My bedroom
Accession Date: 2016-07-24

An accession number is the most important piece of information. It’s a unique number which connects an object with information on a database. It also eliminates the need to attach detailed labels to an object. Here’s an explanation of my numbering system.

Cxxxx: Specimens collected by me
Fxxxx: Purchased fossils
Mxxxx: Purchased minerals
Rxxxx: Purchased rocks

All accession numbers have leading zeroes (i.e. C0093 instead of C93) as this allows them to be sorted in the correct order when using Excel’s sort function.

If a specimen is currently in my collection, its status is “Accessioned”, while those that have been given away as gifts are recorded as “Donated”. This is also where I will record if a specimen is missing – hopefully that’s something I will never have to do!

In the Origin Notes column, I record whether a specimen was collected from an outcrop (in situ) or if it was just a fragment found on the ground – during fieldwork, my lecturers always stressed the importance of using samples that are in situ because you don’t know the exact origin of a random rock lying on the ground.

Pictures and associated documents (reports, field guides, etc.) are saved in the same folder as the database and connected to relevant entries in the spreadsheet with hyperlinks. The accession date is when I created an entry for a specimen. This handy bit of information gives a timeline of my documentation process. Top tip: it’s better to record dates in the international format (yyyy-mm-dd) because this allows entries to be properly sorted by date.

My spreadsheet, pictures and associated documents are saved in a folder so the whole ‘database’ can be copied onto a USB stick and then accessed on other computers. To date, the database contains 255 records and 490 specimens. I also record my specimens on index cards because it’s always a good idea to have a paper-based backup in case something goes wrong. It’s also a handy reference guide for when I need to quickly look up something without having to turn on a computer.

The index card for a piece of soapstone collected from Cornwall. © Nadine Gabriel.

My collection is of great sentimental value so I make sure that all my specimens are properly stored and cared for. Previous experience in working with geological specimens and tips from NatSCA and GCG help me to make sure my specimens remain stable for many years to come.

A symbolic representation of pyrite preventative conservation: relative humidity control (silica gel), protection from light (umbrella) and padding to prevent breakage. © Nadine Gabriel.

3 thoughts on “Managing Personal Natural History Collections

  1. Nadine, I sat next to you at the GCG seminar in Bath 2018 Oct.! It’s a great pleasure to now read your blog about your database and the criteria used to record specimens. Congratulations on the article and May your collections grow! Best wishes Heather. PS I also adapted my own personal take on what info to include and also settled on “donated to” and even have now got 2 “ lost specimens “

    1. Hi Heather, it was nice talking to you during that GCG seminar. I’m glad you enjoyed my blog, thank you! I hope you find those lost specimens one day…

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