In the Beginning – The Geological Curators Group Story

Written by Cindy Howells, GCG Committee Member and Curator of Palaeontology at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

As GCG builds towards its 50th anniversary in 2024, I felt it might be timely now to look back though our history, our successes and our failures, and especially not forgetting the people involved. In Geological Curator Volume 8 (8) I published an article detailing the first third of a century of GCG and its activities (Howells, 2007). My intention is to write a sequel in a few years, to bring us up to date for our half century, so before that I’ll start with a couple of blogs – this one reminding everyone how, why, and where GCG was founded, and giving a few details of the first decade or so.

How it Started

Mike Jones (Leicester City Museum Service) recounted to me his almost lone fight from March 1970 to May 1972 (with assistance from Andrew Mathieson) for recognition and help, both for his post, and the geology collection which was threatened with amalgamation into a broader Natural Science Department. In the early 1970s geological curators were more numerous than today, but there was no organisation to facilitate avenues of communication, and in some cases there was a general apathy towards this concept. Mike Jones really was the ‘father’ of GCG, as it was he who first discussed the idea with Bob King and Roy Clements, both of Leicester University Geology Dept. The Secretary of the Museums Association was initially supportive of the concept of such a specialist group, but it subsequently received a hostile response from the majority of the MA Council, and so Mike and Roy put the idea to the Geological Society, London who were far more supportive.

Roy Clements, first Chairman of GCG and one of our founding fathers.

GCG was originally given a working name of The Association of Museum Geologists, until the Geological Society suggested a name-change. An exploratory meeting in the Museum Council Room in Leicester on 15th February 1974 saw over 30 curators gather to discuss the concept, agree a draft constitution, and form a working party headed by Roy and Mike. The inaugural GCG meeting was held on 17th May 1974 at the Geological Society’s rooms in Burlington House, London with 55 people in attendance.

The first committee, formed at the May meeting, was chaired by Roy Clements with Mike Jones as Secretary. Anne Pennington-George (Doncaster Museum) was Treasurer, Geoff Tresise (Merseyside Museum) was Minutes Secretary, Phil Doughty (Ulster Museum) was Recorder, Brian Page (Keele University) was Editor, Tim Riley (Sheffield Museum) was Membership Secretary, and there were two ordinary committee members – Hugh Torrens (Keele University) and Colin Sizer (Wellcome Museum, London).

Hugh Torrens, second Chairman, and second Newsletter Editor.

Consider today, how few of those institutions now have their own geological curators, and of course we are all aware of how many geological collections have since been disbanded or subsumed into Natural Science Departments, which was the very situation that GCG was founded to try to prevent.

Aims and Objectives

It was quickly established that the group would:

  • Hold regular seminars at which there would be an opportunity to examine geological collections at that institution.
  • Produce reports about the state of museum collections, especially those with no professional curator. Working groups would be set up to carry out rescue missions if needed.
  • Visit geological and geo-conservation sites.
  • Hold some meetings aimed specifically at geological technicians.
  • Publish a quarterly newsletter – to contain articles of interest, meeting reports, book reviews, and regular columns such as ‘Lost and Found’ and the historic label database.
Letters, comments and interesting snippets were often included within the early Newsletter. Volume 1 (2), p.74.

Meetings

GCG soon established a routine of holding an average of three themed meetings each year, mostly hosted by geological museums or institutions. Geological site conservation and documentation was embedded into GCG from the start, by founding the National Scheme for Geological Site Documentation (first presented at the September 1975 Sheffield meeting and precursor of the current RIGS scheme), and so many meetings included a second day in the field, talking about local geological sites. Several large and prestigious meetings and workshops were held, often jointly with bodies such as the Nature Conservancy Council, the Biological Curators’ Group, Systematics Association, Palaeontological Association, etc.

Themes were usually very practical, such as Standards of Curation, History of Museums and Collections, Mineral Collections in Small Museums, Geological Displays and Associated Problems, etc. Many meetings also included a local element, with a talk or two about the history, collectors or exhibitions of the hosting museum, or a tour of its new galleries. The emphasis was on CPD (Continual Professional Development) type training and learning, presented as talks or workshops, so that curators would be more likely to get funding and time to attend. Over the years, talks seem to have gradually shifted almost exclusively into descriptions of specific projects – maybe we should consider including more of these analytical, training talks, along with others about collectors and collections?

One of the curatorially themed meetings held in early days. Volume 1 (3), p.138.

Membership

The initial membership fee was set at just £1, but doubled to £2 within two years. By the end of 1974 GCG had 83 members, and this figure also doubled by the end of the second year. Membership levels did continue to rise up until the mid 1990s where they plateaued for a while at around 500 before dropping off again to today’s average of a little over 300 most years. Analysis of the membership records show that historically many curators have treated subscriptions on a geological time-frame, letting them lapse for several years before mostly catching up in one lump sum. Thus, the membership figure had accumulated year on year, until in 2001 it was realised that a large set had failed to pay for several years and should be deleted. Since then we have been more strict about non-payers.

Within a few years, GCG gained its first international members, and also initiated subscriptions for institutions who wished to receive the newsletter. The newsletter soon morphed into our peer-reviewed journal and has continued to thrive, with a separate newsletter (Coprolite) being brought into existence to cater for short-term news stories.

Early Committee

The initial committee structure stayed fairly stable for many years with well-defined roles, and curators were ‘mostly’ given plenty of support from their organisations to deal with the work. Roy Clements was the first Chairman – a role that is always held for three years. Other specified committee roles continue as long as the incumbent wishes, but are formally re-elected after each year to allow people to leave as and when they want. The only specified length of service (apart from Chairman), are the two-year ‘Ordinary’ committee posts which allow members to get a taste of committee work before often moving onto named roles, or leaving if that is their wish.

Following on from the initial committee, Hugh Torrens, Howard Brunton and Phil Doughty were all elected in turn as Chairman. Phil Doughty and Geoff Tresise took their turns as Secretary. Membership was merged with the role of Treasurer for a while, and both John Cooper and Tom Sharpe filled in this job, whilst Di Smith spent many years as Minutes Secretary. Hugh Torrens and Tim Pettigrew were in turn Journal Editors, and the post of Recorder was filled in turn by Ron Cleeveley, Alan Howell and Don Steward. Initially there was no Programme Secretary on committee, as everyone mucked in together to help organise meetings, which in many ways were far simpler to arrange in those days. Room hire fees were almost unknown, and many museums would lay on catering just for the honour of hosting such a specialist group.

Howard Brunton, third Chairman.

Additional committee members could be co-opted as required, sometimes as representatives from other committees. It was always thought good to have a broad geographical spread within the committee in order to represent all areas of the country and different types of museums (national, local, university) as well.


The Journal

Our current journal, Geological Curator, started life as the Newsletter of the Geological Curators’ Group. Issue 1 was published in September 1974, edited by Brian Page with an editorial that read:

“This first issue of the Newsletter is inevitably limited in the number of its contributors. The Newsletter should be the mouthpiece of the group and it must have something to say; it should be more than just a series of interesting articles. It must be a source of information; a disseminator of ideas and techniques; a vehicle for discussion and argument. It will achieve these purposes in direct proportion to your contributions, Members of the Group. Please contribute to future issues. We need articles of interest and scholarship. In particular we need to publish your appeals for information and material and the responses to these appeals. This publication is for your use. I cannot urge you too strongly to ‘Use It’.”

The first issue of the Geological Curator, published in September 1974.

Of course we now have a separate newsletter, website, JISCmail forum, and a blog as well, but the concept has remained the same. We still need your input in order to have anything to publish!

Reading back through the first couple of volumes whilst researching this blog, it struck me just how very useful a resource it is. If you haven’t ever read any of the early issues, I’d urge you to do so. They include a vast wealth of collection-related information within the ‘Collections and Collectors of Note’ feature and also ‘Collections and Information Lost and Found’. Most museums were featured, and much ‘specimen history’ was uncovered. Especially now that these issues are all scanned and available through our website they are indeed a very valuable curatorial resource. Modern submissions to these series would be very welcomed, as the past, present and future of museums, collections and collectors is at the very core of what GCG is about, and ours is the only journal dedicated to geological collections.

By the end of the 1970s, postage costs had increased dramatically, almost exceeding the printing costs (which were carried out ‘in house’). It was considered that the primary use for membership money was in order to produce the journal, but due to various other financial burdens, it was only through donations and commercial adverts that the publication survived at one point. In 1980, Brian Page resigned as Editor, and subsequently the title was changed to the Geological Curator from Volume 2, number 8, in order to increase its perceived appeal to libraries.

The Geological Curator often included short poems and historical quotes. Volume 1 (3), p.150.

What did GCG Look Like After the First Decade?

A review of the group’s achievements after the first ten years (Doughty, 1984), states that we had more than doubled the available literature on geological curatorship during that time, with an additional six major publications, including the group’s Guidelines for the curation of geological materials (Brunton et al., 1985), and Doughty’s own State and Status of Geology in UK Museums (Doughty, 1981). Is there still such a need for such publications? Does this still come under the GCG remit? Are there any obvious curatorship gaps we should be looking to fill, either in print, or on-line? Should we be looking to raise our profile even more?”

Phil Doughty, first Recorder, second Secretary, and fourth Chairman of GCG.

The same report states that there were still many collections at risk, and that we had intervened wherever possible, but that GCG was not turning out to be the body to solve these problems – rather we could be of more use orchestrating other agencies that had more clout. I suspect that the situation of collections and curatorial posts at risk has become far worse since then and that GCG has even less impact than before. We have carried out two major ‘State and Status’ reports over the years (1981 and 2001). Maybe another similar review is now due in order to monitor the current sorry decline?

The continual training and development of curators, curatorial techniques, collection indexes, and directories was still in its infancy back in the 1970s, and in some aspects we can certainly have said to have made a lot of progress, mostly helped by computerisation of course. However, it was commented that mineralogy curators and collections, and geological technicians often took a back seat in the group’s activities, and I suspect that may still be the case. We do rely very much on our membership for input and ideas, so please do come forward with offers of talks, workshops, or meetings if you feel your field is under-represented.

Onwards and Upwards

This blog has been very much aimed at looking back just to the first decade or so of GCG’s existence. I’ll continue our story soon with another blog detailing our developments, successes and possible failures within the middle part of the GCG’s history, but do get in touch if you feel you have any memories or comments to add to this series, or if you think I’ve represented anything wrongly, as I wasn’t actually involved in GCG that early on! I hope it also inspires some of you to look at our resources page and read some of the early Geological Curator volumes or issues of Coprolite.

To be Continued Next Year….

Thanks go particularly to Mike Jones who wrote to me a few years ago with his personal recollections of the events leading to GCG’s formation, and who has greatly helped with this blog.

References:

BRUNTON, C.H.C., BESTERMAN, T.P. & COOPER, J.A. (eds.) 1985. Guidelines for the Curation of Geological Materials, Geological Society Miscellaneous Paper 17.

DOUGHTY, P.S. 1981. The State and Status of Geology in United Kingdom Museums. Geological Society Miscellaneous Paper 13, 1–118.

DOUGHTY, P.S. 1984. The Next Ten Years. Geological Curator, 4(1), 5-9

HOWELLS, C. 2007. The Geological Curators’ Group – The First 34 Years…! Geological Curator, 8(8), 352-374


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