Some “Covid-Curation-Hacks” we Discovered During 2020!

As fellow committee member Emma Bernard has mentioned in her blog “How can you work from home when you’re a curator”, the UK national lockdown in March 2020 came as quite a shock to the system. Most of us were sent home with the now infamous “work from home” instruction, and we were denied access to our collections. The news in the following weeks occasionally carried “feel-good” stories about how a sole curator was rattling round a massive historic house usually filled with visitors; stories which rang true because for most of us, our relationship with our collections extends way beyond the normal 9-5 regime, and we were just a little bit concerned at how they were doing. I was fortunately able to access our site on a very limited basis (specified time, minimum duration possible) and so quickly developed a series of what I am calling “hacks”[1] over the subsequent few months to help me get the job done and ensure that our collections were OK.

I would like to share a few here in the hope that you will then also share some of your own hacks!

Your mobile phone – A near-ubiquitous but often overlooked tool, but an extremely useful one to be carrying around:

  • Records sounds – “it was making a strange noise” becomes “it was making this noise”
  • Don’t describe the problem – take a picture or video
  • I have a Bluetooth connected temperature/humidity monitor which was ideal for taking spot readings in areas we were worried about
  • There are even apps which can help, like a light meter app to see if you should actually leave the blinds closed
  • If you are really organised you might also be carrying close-up lens attachments for your phone’s camera, for photographing any unusual pests you encounter on your travels
1- Inexpensive close-up lenses for your smartphone. Without these, museum pests are just little black dots…! © Simon Harris.

Proxies – I learned to look for signs of activity rather than the actual activity itself. This might include a blinking light on a distribution board to indicate that plant is drawing power and therefore still running, or here where I was able to verify that an air extraction system was operating by using a highly technical system involving a ribbon tied to a broom handle!

Figure 2: Flutter flutter – if the extraction fan was running, it was easy to see without needing to access the building. © Simon Harris.

Telemetric environmental monitoring systems – our relatively newly installed radio frequency monitoring system was invaluable in providing data about the areas where collections were stored. Prior to this we wouldn’t have had any remote data from the standalone loggers we used previously. We tweaked the alarm limits and studied previous data in order to understand how the system behaves given the external conditions. In retrospect I would have:

  • Looked into a system that made the data available from any web connection, without VPN access needed
  • Changed the batteries at the start of the year

Document sharing

Whilst it may not be entirely corporate for your organisation, the popular Google Docs and Google Sheets platforms have been used to “hack the system” for years. Using this method simplified remote data entry beyond belief and eliminated the stream of e-mailed spreadsheets and never knowing which version was the “master”. I even “hacked the hack” at one point to create a live count of lines of data entered!

Online publications

“I’ll just go and check that in the library”. Or maybe not… Chances are, if you are like me, you have a shelf or two of the most useful reference books, right behind your desk exactly where you need them. If you are lucky enough to have an institutional subscription to some of the larger services you would have been able to get publications off there, but even without that there is a huge (and growing) amount of free resources if you know where to find them, and are willing to put in a bit of effort to access them.

A few years ago I wrote a blog post for another project which I will shamelessly link to here, as well as a few things that are newly discovered:

I may also have made bookshelf space for a few new second-hand volumes during lockdown!

Creative conferencing

There are other options besides the webcam on your laptop. We’ve used a number of solutions to discuss the finer details of rocks and fossils on a video call, including:

  • A spring loaded clamp that lets you clip your mobile to a tripod thus leaving both hands free
  • Most USB plug-and-play microscopes act like a webcam and you can use the feed from these directly
  • A very inexpensive video grabber that will connect a high quality SLR or video camera to your PC
  • Using a small but powerful reading lamp to illuminate the specimen means your phone or webcam will have to work less hard to get a good image
3- We used an inexpensive clamp to hold a phone at the end of a (rather more expensive) flexible arm. This enabled the ammonites to join a teleconference call and was much quicker than providing images of each one. © Simon Harris.

In conclusion

Without wishing to sound like so many other websites or blogs, the pandemic will change the way we work. For the world of geological curation, which has its roots in the Age of Enlightenment, this is a tall order, as we exist to maintain links with the distant past, in the specimens themselves, and the more recent past, in preserving the histories of their discovery. For me the most important message is the fragility of our historical recording systems, and the need to get these digitised as soon as possible – this will not only aid in preservation of the original records, it will aid in accessibility as we go forwards.

Did you develop any ingenious hacks during the pandemic? If so, let us know in the comments.


[1] “any trick, shortcut, skill, or novelty method that increases productivity and efficiency, in all walks of life” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Life_hack)


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