Six Questions for a Geological Conservator

Written by Lu Allington-Jones, Conservator at the Natural History Museum London

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

I am the Earth Science co-ordinator for conservation at the Natural History Museum (London, UK) so I don’t look after collections in the way that a curator does. I do, however, get to work on absolutely everything – minerals, ores, rocks, fossils – both in the collections and in the galleries. It’s amazing.

This awesome little guy was probably my most unexpected item to work on. The statuette is in the collection because it contains amber, but I also had to consider the wood and walrus ivory components when I chose a cleaning method and an adhesive. BM.1985,MI37260. ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

2. What are the most common problems within the collections and why?

Pyrite erg! I don’t want to talk about it. It makes my eye twitch. And inappropriate environments in general really. The fact is that we don’t actually know what the ideal environment is for some minerals and we don’t have the resources to address this. After environments, the most common problem is handling damage. We do a lot of repairs, and also try to create storage mounts which will reduce the risk of breakages.

The historic plaster of Paris fill on this Loricatosaurus priscus limb bone has failed because it is just not strong enough to support the weight of the specimen. NHMUK PVR3167. ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

3. What is the most challenging specimen that you have worked on?

For me, the most challenging specimens have been non-geological, mainly because I am less familiar with the storage media and materials of the specimens themselves. I suppose the biggest geological challenge was cleaning 145 minerals for a new display case when we redeveloped our central hall. I had to research each mineral to find out if wet cleaning was possible and determine which solvents I could use if so.

This Mordenite specimen from Idaho is formed of delicate needle-shaped crystals. It had to be cleaned using Groomstick putty on a cocktail stick… and a very steady hand. NHMUK BM 2009,18. ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

4. What does your day-to-day work involve?

The best thing about my job is that there is no daily grind. A lot of my work involves assessing specimens which are deteriorating, prioritising the work and deciding what treatments are required. Sometimes this involves reading up about techniques developed in other areas of conservation or trying new treatments and materials. Problem solving is my favourite part. Sometimes the work is more mundane, like dusting in the galleries, but I still feel privileged to be able to work on such wonderful specimens.

Here my colleague Kieran Miles and I are dry cleaning the Mastodon specimen in the central hall before undertaking condition checks to see if any deterioration has occurred. NHMUK PVOR15913 ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.
Sometimes gallery cleaning is distinctly less glam. Here is a large boulder of Chipping Sodbury ore covered in a layer of handling grease (the pink area in the middle has been cleaned). Yuk! NHMUK BM.2016,OR11. ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

5. How did you get into working with geological collections?

I have been very lucky, especially since I was not even aware that conservation was a job until I was 25! I wanted to be a volcanologist when I was a kid but quickly realised that my maths and chemistry just aren’t good enough. I still did as many courses as I could in geology and became hooked on palaeontology. Still with no career path in mind, I got a job as an illustrator with an archaeological company (lots of pictures made of dots!). Sadly work was limited so this didn’t last very long. While I was unemployed again, I volunteered at my local (Peterborough Museum and Art Gallery), doing data input and scrabbling around for any short term contracts that came up. I was then lucky enough to get a contract at the NHM doing fossil conservation and preparation, which eventually led to a permanent job. I became qualified as a conservator whilst I was working here.

This is me when I started in 2004, very enthusiastically cleaning a pliosaurid snout (Peloneustes philarchus NHMUK PV R3318) with Smoke Sponge. Needless to say, I don’t look like this anymore. ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

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

I would need a team of conservation scientists to analyse all of the minerals and determine their ideal storage environments. And then I would need an army of people to place them all in the appropriately controlled microenvironments. Or maybe bespoke storage rooms with specific climate controls for each level of requirement. You did say unlimited….?

NHMUK PVR36730 Stegosaurus stenops from Wyoming. ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

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