6 Questions for a Geological Curator – Emma Bernard

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

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

I’m the Fossil Fish Curator at the Natural History Museum in London. So, I’m specifically responsible for approximately 100,000 fossil fish specimens spanning from the Ordovician up until about a few hundred years ago (~430 million years until present) which range in size from around 1 mm up to 5 metres in length.

A day in the life of the NHM’s Fossil Fish Curator. © Emma Bernard / Trustees of the Natural History Museum London.

2. What is your collection usually used for and by whom?

The collection is primarily used for research. Typically, I will host between 200 and 250 visitors from all around the world in the collections each year (pre-pandemic). I also facilitate a lot of enquiries from people who cannot visit the Museum in person for various reasons, so I will consult the collections for them.

3. What is the most viewed part of your collection and why?

That is really hard to say, there aren’t many fossil fish on public display within the Museum, but it’s likely a megalodon tooth in the Fishes, Amphibians and Reptiles Gallery (a tooth from the largest predatory shark to have existed), or at least I’m asked a lot about it! There is also the large Xiphactinus specimen, on display in the From the Beginning Gallery, which was a large predatory fish from the Cretaceous of Kansas.

Xiphactinus – A large predatory fish. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum London

Most of the Fossil Fish Collection is used for research. Within the collection I have found that what people want to view has varied over the years in line with different research projects. However, in an average year all parts of the collection will have been viewed by someone.

I run the @NHM_FossilFish Twitter account where I try to give people an insight into what my job involves and post pictures of the collection for #FossilFriday, so that is another avenue where people can view the collection.

4. What does your day to day work involve?

My role is diverse, and it certainly keeps me on my toes, but that is what I love about it. Each day is slightly different and I’m always learning something new.

The main focus of my job is to look after and make the internationally important collections available. Whether that be through digitalisation, answering enquiries, working on exhibitions (internally and externally), identifying new finds, or – a real passion of mine – outreach.

I think it is really important to share our fantastic collection and let people know why it’s so important. I’m passionate about encouraging children into science subjects or at the very least showing them different career paths.

In an average week I can be hosting a visitor looking at Devonian jawless fish, another looking at rays from the Eocene, supervising volunteers re-boxing lungfish tooth plates, taking images and measurements of Solnhofen specimens for a researcher in America, alongside researching the archives about the history of a collection; taking samples of a specimen for geochemical analysis; locating specimens donated by someone’s relative over 100 years ago; talking to a group of school children about fossilisation and identifying a fossil someone found on a beach. I also manage the Palaeontology off-site store, so I get a good overview of other collections.

I participate in different outreach events each year such as Nature Live events, (https://www.youtube.com/user/naturalhistorymuseum), which have now moved online or external events like the Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, for which I have organised the NHM presence for five years.

I am extremely lucky, and I get to travel for my job and dig up fossils, which is a great way to enhance the collections. I’ve dug up fish on the Isle of Eigg when it was -5⁰C in the snow and excavated shark teeth in 40⁰C in the baking sun in the Moroccan desert. I’ve also led fieldtrips within the UK collecting for microvertebrates in disused quarries. One of my best memories has got to be being part of a large team excavating dinosaurs in Wyoming. (My inner 5-year-old was doing backflips)! I really enjoy participating in fieldwork as you are the first person to ever see that fossil, it also gives you an appreciation of where fossils come from and how difficult it can be to excavate them as well as getting to work and live alongside some really great colleagues who then become good friends.

I’m currently involved in a couple of different research projects on the collections which cover size changes in sharks during the Cretaceous as a response to climatic changes and describing fossil eggshell remains collected from fieldwork.

It sounds like a lot, and it is, but there are many fabulous people who I’m able to reach out to for assistance. I refer to them as “Team Fish” and they are always very accommodating. The main thing I’ve learnt is that you cannot know everything about everything! Although some people expect you to (this took me a long time to realise). I think it is important to try and build up a wider network to help; GCG is great for this as well. I can reach out to other collections staff about different policies and procedures or ask if others have experience in dealing with different situations which might crop up.

Yes, there are some days where I spend a lot of time on emails or in meetings, but I’m fortunate to have fantastic collections right outside my office. So, if I’m having a bad day, I just need to open a few cabinets and look at some of the best fossils in the world and I’m in my happy place.

My role is extremely varied, as you can see! © Emma Bernard

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

I’m very lucky and I have what is my dream job (I know that sounds cheesy)! But I repeatedly said to my mum that one day I would work at the Natural History Museum in London and have my own house there (well one out of two isn’t bad).

I was always fascinated by dinosaurs as a child, and I guess I never really grew out of that phase. I can remember being five years old and telling my teacher when I grew up I wanted to be a prima ballerina, a palaeontologist, or to work in McDonalds (I guess I assumed I could play in the ball pit and have all the Happy Meal toys I wanted). I can remember having to explain to my teacher what palaeontology was and then listing a bunch of dinosaur names. I continued dancing up until my mid-twenties, but the older I got the more I knew it was a hobby I loved, rather than a career choice (a few injuries, helped to decide that). Whilst at high school I knew it was something in palaeontology I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure exactly what. So I studied geology at university which had the most palaeontology modules I could find. It was in my last year I was able to do a project at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow with Dr Neil Clark, when I was first exposed to different roles within a museum. I was fascinated by all of the specimens that most people didn’t usually get the chance to see and I wanted to know more. I then applied for a Masters in Palaeobiology at the University of Bristol and stared volunteering at Bristol Museum with the Palaeontology Collection. It was here that I decided that I no longer wanted to do a PhD, but I wanted to be a curator.

One of my early fossil hunting trips. © Emma Bernard

As we all know, curatorial jobs in natural history are limited and whilst I got a couple of interviews, I was told each time that the person they hired had more experience than me. So, I decided to do a Museum Studies Masters degree. I really enjoyed this course and it opened my eyes to the bigger museum picture such as museum management, writing policy and how to put together an exhibition, to name just a few skills. I also undertook a two-month work placement at Worcester City Museum working with the natural history collections, which was really interesting as I got to document a collection of bivalves along with researching and writing a short book on the ice age fossils from the area. My first job was at the Yorkshire Museum as a documentation assistant when the Museum was undergoing a major overhaul, so the curators were busy working on that.

Ice Age Fossils book cover, featuring Lulu the mammoth. © Emma Bernard

As a side note for potential interviewees, I was told after I got the job, that one of the main reasons (apart from being fabulous – obviously) was that I was the only person who had researched their documentation strategy and was able to talk about it, including my vision on how certain targets could be met.

I was fortunate, that alongside tackling the documentation backlog I got to work on the new exhibition which focused on extinctions through time, and I learnt a lot from colleagues around me, as well as working on different collections including planning and moving the herbaria and Entomology Collections. I worked at the Yorkshire Museum for about 18 months on a few different short-term contracts including curating the Biology Collections. Unfortunately, the string of short-term contracts ended, so I was back to looking for a job. It was then I saw a permanent job at the Natural History Museum (the holy grail of museum jobs). I applied and to my shock I got an interview, and subsequently the job! I started working with brachiopods and trilobites and then covered the curatorial role in fossil mammals before eventually moving to the Fossil Fish Collection just over 8 years ago and the rest, as they say, is history! I think because I had experiences with different collections and different sizes of collections and museums, this helps me in my day to day role.

I’m happy to speak to anyone who is considering a career in museums, particularly geological curation.

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

This is tough.

Sir Arthur Smith-Woodward was the first person responsible for the Fossil Fish Collection at the NHM. At the end of his first day, he did what most people would do and wrote a letter to his mother telling her about his first day “If I were to remain here all my lifetime in the office I now fill and worked night and day at my duties, I don’t think I should be anywhere near the finish”. I would say this is still true today.

I think most museum staff would say this, but the first thing I would do is to employ several people to work on the collections!

You can develop collections in different ways. Currently I am working with a nannofossil biostratigrapher who is sampling English Chalk fossils with poor stratigraphical details and assigning them to specific beds. This is a major step in unlocking the Museum’s fossil archive to address key scientific questions such as how fish responded to a period of global warming and to better constrain evolutionary rates and the origins of modern groups.

I would also want to acquire a life size megalodon jaw! Although this would be a replica, and therefore of no scientific value, it is what this specimen would represent that would be immeasurable. As I mentioned I am passionate about outreach and encouraging people to become passionate about the natural world. Whenever you show someone a megalodon tooth, they ask all sorts of questions such as “how big would it have been”, “what did it eat”, “why did it become extinct”, “what lived alongside it”. By using natural history collections, we can begin to answer some of these questions as well as looking to the past to see how life on Earth adapted (or not), to help predict what might happen in the future.

Plus, I think it would be great to have people walk through the jaws upon entering the collections. A curator can dream…

Me and a meg tooth! © Emma Bernard

Bonus Fact

Something people may not know about me is that I used to be a professional cheerleader and I taught ballet for five years!


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