Written by Pip Brewer, Curator of Fossil Mammals at the Natural History Museum London.
A new PhD student contacts you to loan specimens critical to their project and the deadline is imminent. This is the first time they have contacted you. You already have several enquiries, loans and destructive sampling requests to process before you go off on annual leave and you will be unable to meet this student’s deadline without letting other people down. Sound familiar?
As a national museum, the Natural History Museum (NHM), London is in many ways a different beast to many other museums in the UK. As well as being actively involved in outreach, exhibitions, learning and teaching, we are also a major research institution. Over 350 scientists are employed behind the scenes at the NHM and our collections are also heavily used by research scientists from around the world, most of whom are at the level of PhD or above. Through facilitating access to collections and associated information, we are able to support high impact research into the origins of our planet and life on it, and the impact of change.
As a curator, my role is to balance the various demands on the collection and to make decisions which benefit the collection and science as a whole, ensuring that cultural, historical and ethical issues are also carefully considered. This can lead to many sticky questions. For example, at what point does it become acceptable to destroy most of a specimen in order to facilitate a research project? At what point does the risk to a specimen become too great that it prevents it being included in an exhibition which is likely to inspire thousands of people? Simple answers are rare as techniques evolve over time, new research questions become important, the cultural landscape changes, and so on. To manage this and to ensure maximum transparency and accountability, we need to document everything.
Documenting collections fulfils a number of needs and obligations such as making them (and the associated information) discoverable to anyone with access to a computer and the internet through online databases (such as https://data.nhm.ac.uk/). In fact, it is essential for large research projects harvesting information from thousands of specimens to answer big questions – such as how does climate change affect biodiversity. It also allows us to meet the minimum standards for our profession which directly affects the accreditation, reputation and funding of the institution. Fully documenting collections management processes (such as an application to destructively sample a specimen) also results in an increasingly valuable resource over time. For example, knowing that an attempt to extract ancient DNA from a specimen from a particular site was unsuccessful is important and likely to result in cost- and time-saving for future researchers. It is a win-win situation.
On the flip side of the coin: documenting specimens is time-consuming and often poorly resourced. In collections such as the vertebrate palaeontology collection at the NHM, the specimens often have complex histories and there are numerous issues which need to be dealt with when documenting individual specimens (such as sorting out numbering issues). Based on personal experience as well as having led a digitisation project, it can take between a couple of minutes and a whole day to document a specimen, depending on the history of the specimen. In the collection I curate, we estimate that we have around 350,000 specimens, most of which are not documented on our database. Addressing this is a major undertaking. Assessing and processing a destructive sampling application and documenting the specimens, condition reporting them etc can take nearly 60 hours of work for 10 specimens. A one day visit by a researcher can result in hundreds of hours of curatorial time to get specimens registered and documented for publication. Resourcing this is almost always borne by the museum/institution housing the collection. These costs are rarely factored into research grants of the researchers accessing and utilising the collections for their research. With cuts to museum funding, resourcing these basic activities becomes critical. Communicating this to researchers can be seen as being obstructive if not handled correctly.
Collections management professionals also play an important role in ensuring the appropriate use and citation of collections to ensure that the collections benefit as many people as possible. To achieve this, it is vital that researchers understand their own responsibilities. These include:
- Early communication with curators about collections needs
- Appropriate handling and care of collections
- Maintaining good security awareness
- Requesting the minimum amount of samples and only those which are needed
- Ensuring results are published within a reasonable amount of time, citing specimens and the institution correctly (allowing data on the specimens to be easily discoverable by others)
- Providing data on the collections to the curator within a reasonable amount of time to ensure they remain associated and to enhance the collection
- Returning loans in good time and good condition
- Appropriate training and supervision of students using collections
In essence, good collections practice is the responsibility of everyone who works on or uses collections/collections data. And yet, there is often poor awareness of this.
How can we address this? At the NHM, each prospective research visitor receives documentation to read through – this includes some do’s (e.g., encouraging communication) and don’ts (e.g., no Blue-tack!) and specimen handling instructions. This is followed up by a short induction on their first day in the collections and monitoring thereafter. After their visit, there is the inevitable follow ups – have you published yet? However, I can’t help but think that there are more effective ways of embedding a more collections-oriented thinking/ethos, particularly amongst early career researchers.
To explore this, I asked some researchers who are heavily involved in collections-based research whether their perspective on collections and their use in research had changed since they moved from a university setting to a museum one. Whilst they acknowledged that they had always worked closely with museum collections, there was an agreement that yes, it had.
There certainly appeared to be a greater understanding/appreciation for the administrative burden on curators:
“I would say that the main thing I’ve realised is how many different activities go into collections management.”
“I think I have a greater appreciation of both the breadth and scale of the work. Particularly I’d say in the volume of requests received and the time and efforts it takes to process them.”
“I also more greatly appreciate the huge demands on curators’ time when it comes to assisting researchers (internal but especially, in the context of your question, external) with their needs. Conversely I still feel the balance has to be carefully struck so as not to appear a barrier to legitimate access…”
However, there appeared to be a greater appreciation of the collections as a resource (generally)…
“… [It is] much easier/more efficient to do collections-based work, including making new field-based collections [in a university without a dedicated curator] especially for PhD students. That is a good thing. However, on the flip side, this leads to a wide range of practices within the same department or even research group such that some research collections end up being much better curated and therefore of more use for further studies, whereas others end up being essentially useless. University departments, in general, don’t value collections once the researcher has left and so most collections are used once or twice at most (by the student and their supervisor) and then chucked out. Very few PhD collections are utilised by other researchers outside the supervisors’ own team. This is a massive waste of resource. In contrast, in the museum I can access useful collections made by other researchers, even those collected many decades ago.”
“… yes, I think there has been a significant shift in my perspective, from being merely a user of collections, to feeling myself at least in part their custodian (even though I am not a curator as such). I much more appreciate the need for great care in allowing access, destructive and other forms of usage, I feel ‘protective’ toward the collections in a way I didn’t before (at least, not as much).”
“…there is a huge difference in appreciation of the Museum as a whole…The freedom to explore the whole glorious gamut of the collections…, has been one of the joys of coming here. This again makes me feel much more of an ambassador for our collections as a whole and more broadly, for the preservation of natural history collections in general. I suppose what I formerly saw as a tool I now see more as resource.”
… and as a resource for their own research:
“… the main thing would have been in relation to breadth – I would certainly never have embarked on the …. work had I not moved here… [I] was only even dimly aware of the collection.”
“It’s been much easier to access specimens and gain permissions for destructive sampling from inside the NHM than trying to acquire access to specimens from outside… The reason is primarily one of communication: being able to chat to curators about projects in more detail to gradually build up working relationships … But also it’s about realising what specimens/collections are actually kept in the museums: most of that info is currently impossible to access externally, but also quite often – like with research articles/ideas – it is only by browsing or chatting with others that one discovers what else is available and may be useful.”
One response which particularly struck me was:
“I think there is a big need for training programmes for students (and university staff!) in collections-based research”
I couldn’t agree more with the final point. A core module (including practical experience) taken as part of a student’s formal degree programme for those involved in collections-based research could help fulfil a much-needed role. It is after all, a research skill which needs to be learned. An alternative would be to pair students who will be managing their own research collection with a museum professional, to ensure that they curate that collection up to acceptable standards. Valuable practical experience such as this can also translate into skills for a potential museum career.
What is also clear from the researcher responses is that there are also many areas for improvement, particularly regarding the impact of administrating/documenting the collections. Whilst these processes are essential, we need to ensure that they don’t become a barrier to access. With finite (and diminishing) resources, how can we get this balance right? Possibilities include:
- Training of collections-based researchers in collections management issues and procedures including tips on how to maximise use of collections for research, whilst minimising unnecessary documentation
- Involve researchers (particularly those who work closely with collections in museums) to help streamline some of the processes so they are more efficient (for example, for particular destructive sampling techniques)
- Apply for appropriate resources to support collections management processes when applying for research funding
- Include collections management staff in research projects or as key stakeholders on the projects
- Pair students with curators or base them in museums
- Produce a document explicitly stating the respective expectations of researchers and collections staff embarking on collections-based research
Improved communication and working together for the benefit of both collections and research can only be a good thing. The experiences of this small selection of researchers have shown that embedding researchers in museums has resulted in increased positivity regarding the importance of collections for their own research (and more generally) and a greater awareness and appreciation of the processes which must accompany that research. Those researchers are now themselves a valuable resource for the collections and in helping promote awareness of shared responsibilities when undertaking collections based research.
For advice on curating your research collection, see: https://www.geocurator.org/images/resources/advice/GCG_research_booklet.pdf