Curators Rising to the Challenge During the Pandemic

Written by University of Portsmouth PhD student Roy Smith and his supervisor Prof. David Martill

Covid has presented us all with significant challenges, and it is doubtful if any walk of life has escaped having to implement shutdowns, social distancing or finding new ways to deliver services. Universities in England had to rapidly (over a weekend!) switch from face-to-face delivery to digital teaching. Thank heavens for digital platforms such as Zoom, Moodle and Panopto to name but a few. Most (?all) museums however were instructed by government to lock their doors, furlough their staff and suspend access to their exhibitions and collections by both the general public and academic researchers alike. We do not doubt that this was a very necessary step. Nonetheless, this was something of a tragedy for those researchers relying on access to some of the most amazing collections assembled by humanity. Imagine you had just begun a PhD research programme on the pterosaurs of the Cambridge Greensand and, all of a sudden, access to museum collections, your primary source of data, was suddenly switched off. Initially, we assumed that it would all be over within a month (or two?). I suspect we were not the only people to think this, and accordingly, we did not think this was going to be anything more than a very temporary setback. How wrong we all were.

An ornithocheirid pterosaur cervical vertebra from the Cambridge Greensand Member held in the collections of the NHM, London (NHM PV OR 35215). Scale bar represents 20 mm. Image taken by Miss Cariad Williams.

The Upper Cretaceous Cambridge Greensand fossil Konzentrat Lagerstätte was an extremely important source of vertebrate fossils during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Sadly, today there are no longer any exposures from which to collect fossils from this formerly important resource. Thus, collections in museums across the United Kingdom and elsewhere in the World are the only source of data from this deposit. Why is it so important? It was one of the first places where three-dimensional bones of pterosaurs were discovered in the UK, the first horizon where giant pterosaurs were discovered, and the first place where edentulous pterosaurs were discovered.

PhD student Roy Smith examining specimens from the Cambridge Greensand Member held in the collections of Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge. Image taken by Professor David M. Martill.

During lockdown we discovered too that there was material of interest at Dorking Museum, and within a week or so of lockdown ending we had an invitation to visit the collection. Despite the museum remaining closed to the general public, the volunteer curator came in especially to enable our visit to take place. Again, we are extremely grateful for such a sterling effort on our behalf. The curator at the Yorkshire Museum was also incredibly helpful, going above and beyond to allow us access to the collections as soon as the lockdown restrictions were lifted. We are incredibly thankful for this.

We also received generous support from museums abroad. In Belgium, without even a specimen number to quote, we wrote to the curator of the Royal Museum of Central Africa to ask if they possessed a metacarpal 4 of a pterosaur described in 1948. At first, they said they would take a look and get back to us. To be honest, we did not have high hopes but, to our utter delight, not only did they locate the specimen, but they also supplied us with a specimen number and several publishable quality photographs. Meanwhile in the USA, the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin supplied us with an extensive database of the famous gigantic Quetzalcoatlus pterosaur. And in Italy, the Milan Museum of Natural History provided a database and photographs of pterosaur jaws. These are just a few of the museums that went the extra mile.

A drawer of vertebrate fossils from the Cambridge Greensand Member including many pterosaur bones held in the collections of the Sedgwick Museum, Cambridge.

To all of these curators, volunteers, custodians and technical staff, we extend our special thanks. We could not have completed this project without your help during this very difficult time.

Roy E. Smith (PhD student)
Professor David M. Martill (Supervisor)

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