Two Weeks Inside a Cabinet: Random Notes from the Time I Spent at the NHM Collections

Written by Martín Batallés, Graphic / Web Designer, Illustrator and Photographer.

Last November I was invited to spend some days at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) in the Fossil Mammal Collection. These are some notes on what I was able to see, think and learn during those two weeks.

The Fossils that Travelled

Of the many things that can come as a surprise to someone who arrives from Uruguay as a guest at the Natural History Museum, in cabinets located thousands of kilometres away from your home, are fossils that were collected near the place where you live and work. Fossils that are very similar to the ones that I work with regularly. Not that I didn’t know beforehand that they were there, but as everyone that is somehow related to the world of museums knows, it’s one thing to see pictures or read about something and another very different thing to see and touch the real objects. And I don’t mean only the fossils Darwin collected on his voyage to the Río de la Plata, but to all those cabinets full of other, less famous bones with familiar names written in Spanish in their centennial labels: Río Negro, Paysandú, Santa Lucía.

Familiar names in the old archives. © Martín Batallés.

Finding those fossils there and checking the records in the old files where familiar rivers and places were mentioned was a singular experience. I didn’t think I would be  so affected by finding them, especially since I already knew that those fossils were there. But the power of the objects themselves, their material nature, is not something to underestimate. Each time I encountered a fossil collected very long ago, I could feel the weight of the years passed twice over: thousands of years since the animal died, and hundreds of years since it was collected. Layers of meaning overlap in a very beautiful way in fossils kept for a long time in museums: signs of the animal’s age, the colour transferred by the sediment across the centuries, the damages made during extraction, the intervention of palaeontologists, dealers and curators (a bit of wire, a cut, a hole, annotations on a bone, forgotten and indecipherable codes on labels). A story of adventures, of great ideas and funny conjectures, obsessions, power struggles, colonialism, arrogance, fights for different world views. Also an imaginary story, an alternative reality in which those fossils were never taken there; in which they would be lost or still underground waiting to be found, or in a museum in another continent, closer to where they were found and under someone else’s care. There is still a story to be told in those bones, something we have not yet discovered, waiting to be read or imagined.

Familiar names on centennial labels. © Martín Batallés.

There were lots of other fascinating things in those Fossil Mammal Collection cabinets at the NHM. Things I’d never even dreamed I’d see from such a close distance. Skulls of mythical animals, nails, hairs and horns. But it was those ground sloth and glyptodont fossils, those shapes so familiar to me and those labels with names in Spanish that stuck with me.

Some Things I’ve Learned

I work in a collection located in a town called Sauce, in a rural area near the capital of Uruguay. Most of the fossils in our collection were dated at around 30,000 years old and belong to the same place: a riverbed site with thousands of fossil remains of mammals from the Pleistocene. They are mostly giant sloths, but there’s also glyptodonts, sabre-tooth tigers, toxodonts, mastodonts, horses and other ungulates. The site is a few kilometres away from the collection, and every summer we dam the stream and pump out the water to excavate and collect new fossils. We already have more than two thousand, and we estimate that there are still many, many more. There is possibly work for years to come. Apart from the great fossil diversity concentrated in such a small area, the site has another peculiarity: some of the fossils bear marks with similar characteristics as those left by human tools. Evidence of this was published in Proceedings of Royal Society B in 2013 and contributed to the recent debate around human settlements in America.

The site was discovered in 1997 by neighbours and the first fossils were extracted by students and teachers from the local high school who also undertook conservation tasks, kept a field notebook and elaborated the first catalogue (one of our favourite pieces of the collection, and it’s not a fossil). Despite several moves throughout the years the collection is still there, in Sauce. Close to the community it belongs to and to whom in great measure we owe that we can study it, preserve it and display it.

First excavation at the Arroyo del Vizcaíno site, made by local residents and students. Summer of 1997. Author unknown.


First AdV collection storage room, at one of the student’s grandmother’s house, 1997. Author unknown.


Shelving units in new AdV collection room, 2019. © Luciano Varela.

I work in a very small collection compared with the one at the NHM, but with some similar fossils. Noticing the big differences and the little coincidences was one of the most enjoyable things for me from those days spent in London.

Something that struck me as quite surprising from my conversations with people in different areas of the museum was their reaction when I told them what work was like with our collection: I didn’t expect them to find it so interesting. At first I didn’t understand it very well. I mean, I understand that the story of our fossils is peculiar, and that one tends to romanticise some activities in which one is not directly involved – from up close reality is a little bit more boring, especially if talking about a very little collection, in a little town, in a little country far south, but still I was surprised that they found it so interesting. But then I understood a little better what was going on. Every advantage is also a disadvantage, and vice versa. Being part of a huge institution and having good resources provides amazing possibilities, but can also become somewhat repetitive. Being small and modest may be frustrating sometimes, but allows for a lot more flexibility. In our collection resources are discontinuous, there are very few of us, and the roles are not very defined: palaeontologists are also curators, collection managers, science communicators, educators and negotiators. And those who are not palaeontologists (like me) also collaborate in research. Our horizontal way of working makes us naturally interested in – and be responsible for – every aspect of work. Problems derived from this are obvious: little time for research, difficulty to specialise in anything, knowing a little bit about everything and a lot about nothing, it’s really hard to make long term plans, fatigue, job insecurity. But at the same time it may be a lot of fun. With such multiple tasks there’s not much room for boredom. One morning you may find yourself excavating on the site, and in the afternoon welcoming a visiting school. One day designing a book or other educational materials, updating the website or making 3D models from the fossils, others reconstructing a broken bone with Paraloid B-72, preparing a manuscript or cataloguing, and the next day giving a talk at a local school and then back to the site.

Speaking with people from the NHM about our work I understood that what we consider normal is also a unique possibility of learning a lot of things at once, and that specialising is also missing out on a lot of things. But at the same time, watching them work I envied the possibility to concentrate on one thing at a time, of being able to work on something for a long time and have long term objectives. Taking part in everything is enjoyable but also exhausting. Fully concentrating on only one thing may be fascinating, but also a little monotonous.

Field work at the the AdV site. © Martín Batallés.


Sloths everywhere at the NHM. © Martín Batallés.


Everybody has problems (and ways to solve it). NHM. © Martín Batallés.

Everybody has Problems / Resources are Never Enough / Time is Never Enough

A famous institution like the NHM is easily idealised: it feels like they have every available material, the necessary space and infinite capacities. Of course that is not the case, but still: spending some time at the conservation lab, strolling around the fluids collection or checking out the displays of some of the exhibitions are truly amazing experiences. But that’s not all there is to it. There are problems. Real problems. Complaining may be England’s national sport, as somebody said to me at the Museum, and it may also be Uruguay’s national sport. But what I really saw in my days at the Museum was people doing whatever they can with whatever they have, working to make their daily tasks sustainable and creatively dealing with whatever problem arises. Noticing those limitations behind the immense facade of an institution like the NHM and seeing how they are navigated with imagination and commitment was very inspiring for me.

Doing my best at making homes for fossils. NHM. © Martín Batallés.

Memory in the Hands

I spent an afternoon making boxes and stands for the fossils. The technique was shown to me by a volunteer that has been doing this for many years. We made boxes and at the same time talked about her favorite TV shows and her cats. And while she talked, her hands seemed to have a life of their own. They cut, measured, marked the foam with a scalpel with infinite precision so that it would fit the complicated shapes of the fossils. They molded the material so that the bones could rest as comfortably as possible, naturally supported, not suffering by the pressure of their own weight and protecting their fragile spots. It may not sound like something very complicated, but when you see it happening, it’s an art. While I watched her do her thing (and clumsily tried to imitate her technique) I thought about the memory kept in the hands, in learning while doing, in being present, in the importance of loving what you do, in the value of observation and practice. In the wisdom that comes from experience, from error, from repetition, from patience.

How to Make the Most of a 45 Minute School Visit

Another day I was invited to witness a school visit. It was a girls’ school. I was fascinated by the dynamics of the visit, not only because of the concepts discussed, or the beauty and comfort of the didactic space, but for its overwhelming simplicity. Elegant in its straightforwardness and so effective for its short duration. After a short introductory talk the premise was specific: be free. Touch, observe, measure, compare, experiment. Is this a seed or the carapace of a hairy animal? Is this a bone or a rock, or both? You can use this magnifying glass or that measuring tape. You can use your phones and take pictures, but it’s better if you look, take notes and talk among yourselves. No, those screens do not work anymore, we stopped using tablets a while ago, we prefer to simply use the objects.

Towards the end we had a gathering to share what they saw, exchange hypotheses about the experiments, nothing too right or wrong, no lesson to be learned other than the joy of wandering around, sharing and asking questions.

In our collection in Sauce we have been welcoming schools for many years. We invite them to watch us work, to look around the collection, we organise evening classes for fossil replicas and spend days making drawings of glyptodonts and sabre-tooth tigers. Other times we invite them to the site and they take part in the excavation, searching for fossils with us. Or we give talks from the riverbed.

In those 45 minutes of the school visit to the NHM I saw that the spirit of our collection and that of the old museum are not that different in a sense. Spectacular resources and educational pyrotechnics are not necessary: the wonder is there, in the objects themselves and the freedom to experiment with them.

Unintentional art / intentional art at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. © Martín Batallés.

A Diversion: Horniman Museum and Gardens

I was invited to spend a day at the Horniman Museum and Gardens. It’s not very frequent to be a guest in an institution where nobody knows you, arrive in the middle of a regular workday and not only be very warmly welcomed but also be invited to openly participate in team meetings and be asked for your opinions. I felt honoured and a little ashamed by all that generosity.

In the few hours spent there I understood how challenging their work is: the responsibility of inheriting a huge legacy, not only practically speaking (it must not be easy to be responsible and keep in good condition, for example, all those thousands of musical instruments, textiles, decorative objects, weapons, taxidermys, each with its own preservation peculiarities), but also symbolic, on account of its historical and cultural baggage. How to deal with a legacy that can be wonderful but at the same time complex, huge, and even controversial? How to organise a discourse from those objects and make them relevant to a contemporary audience? How\ to display them, give them current meaning, make them challenging, keep them alive? In that sense I think there’s a lot to learn from the way in which the Museum faces its tasks, the ways in which they seek integration with the community in the exhibitions, in generating dialogues with artists from historical pieces, in how spaces are organised, in keeping balance between inherited exhibition languages and new displays.

As far as I could see from my visit to the exhibition rooms (and maybe I’m wrong) the kind of people attending the Museum is very different from the people who visit the NHM, less touristy and more local. Just before leaving I could see a diverse audience (children, elderly people, families, lone wanderers) together with the Museum personnel gathered for a concert played with an ancient instrument that is part of the collection. I had to leave in the middle of the concert, silently, while everyone listened fascinated to the sounds coming from that Museum piece. There couldn’t be a more eloquent image with which to say goodbye.

The first AdV catalog and field diary, made by students of the local high school, 1997. © Martín Batallés.

The Importance of Documentation and Archives

During my visits to the different collections in the NHM I found out that many cabinets held, together with the fossils, a number of fascinating objects: old notes from the curators, original or facsimile scientific articles, drawings, original labels, 3D didactic models and many other things. When these  kinds of materials are also kept, collections gain an extra dimension (and also new conservation issues…) and provide context that broadens possible interpretations besides the merely biological.

In our collection in Sauce we keep a handful of files from the time of the finding, written by the local neighbours involved. They are, of course, much newer than the ones from the NHM, but still important for the historical interpretation of the finding: a field notebook and the first attempt of a catalogue made by students and teachers from the local high school, some photos, amateur footage from the first excavation recorded on a VHS tape, some newspaper clippings from the press at the time of the finding.

Seeing these kinds of materials kept by the NHM collections and the huge historical value they contributed to the associated fossils made me re-evaluate our small collection’s archive and think about the importance of keeping continuous records and preserving the humble history of our activities.

The fossil mammal express. © Martín Batallés.

Learning from the Curator

I was invited to the Museum by the Curator of Fossil Mammals, Pip Brewer. She had visited our excavation site some years ago, and she also visited our collection when it wasn’t yet in its best environment, before the move to our new place (the heroic image or her kneeling on the floor of our collection, rag in hand, helping me stop a small flood that was threatening to reach the fossils will be hard to forget). There is nothing I can write here that can express the gratitude I feel for such generosity and trust. But what I can do is write about some things I learned from watching her work:

  • Be friendly, respectful and available for researchers whilst carefully protecting the integrity of the collection.
  • Keep the collection in order no matter what. You can never be too careful, and you can always have more and better systems.
  • Know your collection like your own house, remember what you have, where it is, where it’s been, who touched it, how it is and how you would like it to be.
  • Kindness is as important as efficiency.

And perhaps the most important lesson: this is not a job like others. Or maybe it is, but it can also be something else. I was able to witness a work ethic and commitment that is not often seen. Almost devotional. A mission.

Martín Batallés

I was born in Montevideo, Uruguay, in 1981. I’m a graphic / web designer, illustrator and photographer. I have a diploma in Museum Studies by the Universidad de la República, Uruguay. My area of work is the intersection between design, arts and palaeontology, focusing on science communication and outreach.

Since 2011, I have worked on the Arroyo del Vizcaíno project, a collection and palaeontological site near Sauce, Uruguay, with thousands of pleistocene fossils. The site is recognised by its great fossil mammal diversity and its cut-marked bones, possible evidence of early human presence in South America.

I’m co-creator and designer of Megafauna 3D, an educational and outreach project that aims to make available to the public the palaeontological heritage of South America through 3D digitisation and printing technologies.

Also, I work as a graphic designer doing album covers, movie posters and some other things.

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