How Can You Work From Home When You’re A Curator?

Written by Emma Bernard, Curator of Fossil Fish at the Natural History Museum London

“How can you work from home when you are a curator?” is something I’ve been asked several times since lockdown began and those of us who are able, have started trying to work from home.

I’m the curator of fossil fish at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London and you can usually find me in my natural habitat- in the collections, looking at specimens, registering them or working with internal and external visitors who want access to the collections.

Emma in the fossil fish collections at the NHM. © Emma Bernard / Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

You have heard me mention collections and specimens several times in the paragraph above and indeed a large part of my job is to protect the collection and make it accessible in a variety of ways and I can do some of that from home.

In the first week or so, I was getting used to the new way of working and trying to make my dining table feel a bit more like my office and not just tucked in a corner of my living room as well as making sure I had the right set up. As you can see, I have managed to do a fairly good job at that. It really helps with the mindset and to focus on the work I need to do to have an ‘office’ set up, rather than just a laptop. Having two monitors has helped so much when wrangling with large spreadsheets.

Working from home is helped by having a comfortable work space, and a good a routine. © Emma Bernard.

Some friends and I started a morning ritual of sending a selfie to prove that we were out of bed and ready to start the day. Although a bit silly, this helped as it meant I could not sit in my pj’s all day (which could have been very easy) and helped keep some sense of routine. The first few weeks allowed me to catch up on a lot of emails and set out what I planned to do over the next few months. March marks the end of the reporting year, so I took some time to write my appraisal for the year. It is good to take stock over what I and others at the NHM have done over the last year. Normally you have several projects, meetings, and visitors at the same time, meaning you never really get the chance to reflect on what you have achieved.

Although not everyone can, many other museum staff and researchers are adjusting to working from home. I had a small flurry of emails at the end of March from people wanting information or images for research projects that they were shifting their attention to, details of collections for Synthesys+ projects (which provides funds for researchers across Europe to visit other institutions and study collections) and requests to provide content for online outreach events, to name only a few. This was probably due to people not having physical access to specimens, or equipment like CT scanners, and turning their attention to things they could do from home, such as writing and submitting manuscripts or online events.

Over the last few years there has been a big push across all museums to make collections and the data often locked in the physical paper registers (where details of specimens are written) and specimen labels available online, and the NHM is no different. Workflows have been established to allow us to transcribe scanned pages of the specimen registers and import hundreds of images, all of which can be done from home. However, this has meant my eyes are going square from looking at lots of Excel spreadsheets (good excuse for a cup of tea), but it is great to have a sense of accomplishment when you reach 1000 records transcribed, and knowing others will benefit from this. This transcription is just the first stage in making this data available digitally no matter where you are in the world, and this can help with general enquires such as “how many specimens of X family do you have in the collection” or “I’ve seen you have a 3D preserved skull which would be great for CT scanning, can I do this?”. It means that even under normal (non-pandemic) circumstances, those who are unable to travel to the Museum can still access our collections, or alternatively when people do visit- they are more prepared as they have had access to the details and images online. The next step is to check for typos, research and enter the data for taxonomy, stratigraphy, and locality details if they are not already in our collection management system (at the NHM, Emu is our collection management system), to ensure they are accurate and consistent, which can be a time consuming task and likely to take several months. An example of a large-scale digitisation project that I have been involved in previously was eMesozoic, where the NHM digitised most of the UK vertebrate fossils from the Mesozoic. A blog about this project can be found on the NHM’s website. You can access the NHM’s dataportal and search for specimens online (please be aware that we are still working hard to populate this, but it can be a good start to find information on the collections).

One aspect I love about my job is doing outreach and engaging people with the natural world. Usually every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday in the NHM there is a Nature Live in the Attenborough Studio. This is a half hour talk on various subjects by different scientists who work at the Museum and people are encouraged to ask questions. The fabulous engagement team at the NHM has been able to move these talks online and I’ve been able to participate in one. It actually takes quite a bit of work (and a good internet connection, as I found out) to make these programmes, sourcing the images in place of physically having the specimens as well as producing the slides and seamlessly moving between screens during the live show. The results are a testament to the great teamwork of several people across the Museum. I gave my Nature Live on Extreme Sharks, a subject I enjoy talking about. If you want to learn more about some fossil and recent sharks you can watch it on the NHM’s Youtube channel (there are more sharks than just the Great White)!

Left: Emma with a great white shark jaw. Right: A drawer of Megalodon teeth in the NHM fossil fish collections. © Emma Bernard / Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

As with many others, I have been trying to find creative ways to engage people during lockdown, and indulging in some arts and crafts at home. I came across a goose egg in the supermarket which is three times the size of a chicken egg. My first thought was that Megalodon was three times the size of a Great White shark. So, I spent Easter Sunday colouring and adding fins to the eggs to make Eggalodon and the Egg White Shark complete with a baby shark backdrop (maybe I’ve spent too much time by myself).

Keeping yourself sane and others entertained during lockdown leads to some eggciting activities. © Emma Bernard.

As part of my job we are encouraged to undertake our own research, which is a great opportunity to learn more about the collections we are responsible for. I’ve submitted an abstract to a conference in October on a recent acquisition and description of a Lebanese shark (I’m still clinging onto the hope I’ll be able to present in person, but I fear it will be a virtual conference). I have also been working on analysing data already collected for three different projects and produced some graphs and plates for the manuscripts.  Now I just need to get writing! Sometimes this is easier said than done.

Thanks to Microsoft Teams, we have been able to keep in touch with colleagues, share screens to demonstrate workflows or documents we are working on, which has replaced ‘popping into someone’s office’. This has enabled a lot of our work from home.

I have also been able to keep up with work for the GCG! We had our first virtual committee meeting and because of the virtual format everyone could attend, which never normally happens. We hope to be able to utilise this medium much more going forward. I’ve been working on developing a policy for sponsorship of events and learning more about the workings of the website, thanks to Simon Harris, our wonderful Web Officer! It was really nice to be able to see everyone again too.

The GCG’s first virtual committee meeting. © Geological Curators’ Group

Although working from home took a bit of adjustment, I have been able to progress with work away from the collections and still submit reports, abstracts, engage with people virtually, and progress with digitising the collections, and research. I am however, looking forward to getting back to work and walking into Hintze Hall. Even after nearly nine years of working at the NHM I still get a thrill of walking up Exhibition Road into the Museum and being there before it opens to the public, it is such a treat and a special part of the job! It will also be great to properly see colleagues again and get back into the collections where I love looking at the specimens and discovering new things, which you can only do when you have physical access to the collections.

Left: Hintze Hall- the main entrance to the Natural History Museum, London © Emma Bernard. Right: Emma in the NHM fossil fish collections with a Hypsocormus fossil. © Emma Bernard / Trustees of the Natural History Museum.

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