Harnessing the Power of Students

Written by Zoë Hughes, Curator of Brachiopods and Fossil Cephalopods, and Katie Collins, Curator of Benthic Molluscs, at the Natural History Museum, London

Everyone working with collections has many tasks which would be exceptionally useful to do, but which would require vast amounts of staff time. One example of this at the Natural History Museum, in London, in the Brachiopod, Fossil Cephalopod and Benthic Mollusc Collections is gathering and consolidating data regarding our type collections. In the Cephalopod section I am lucky, I have a fabulous three volume resource by Dennis Phillips listing every type in the NHM collection up until 1987. So, within this collection it is known which types we hold. The Benthic Mollusc and Brachiopod sections are not as lucky; no such catalogue has been written, and all we have to hand are scattered citations throughout the literature. It would probably be quite surprising to some people to hear that some sections within the NHM don’t even know how many types there are, let alone where they live in the collections, but that is the reality we must work with.

Knowing more about the types will be exceptionally useful for a variety of reasons. Knowing how many there are and how much space they take up helps towards planning for the future. Knowing what and where they are makes responding to enquiries a much speedier enterprise. We are embarking on an exciting move to Harwell, where by 2026 we will have a super new science and digitisation centre; you can read more about this here and sign up to receive regular updates. One thing we may decide to do is to bring all our types together; but without knowledge of what, where, and how many they are, we cannot even begin to assess the feasibility of this.

The students all ready and raring to be released into the collection. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

On Feb 9-10th we were lucky enough to have the entire cohort of the Imperial College London’s Taxonomy and Biodiversity MSc course, which is based at the Museum, come to the collections for their curation experience. We decided that it would be useful to get them to start the massive job of collating type info by taking the first step; to find types and record the specimen numbers and their locations for the Cephalopod, Brachiopod, and Benthic Mollusc Collections – a massive part of the Palaeobiology Collection, encompassing some 18,000 drawers. This information enhances some work transcribing the Phillips catalogues, for (eventual) upload into our collections management system, by adding location data. Which of course, makes it even easier to find them and use them! The amount of time it would take two curators to canvass these drawers for types is so prohibitive that we’ve never been able to mount a campaign to do it – but the students presented us with an amazing opportunity.

In preparation we wrote guides to the numbering protocols in the three collections (shockingly perhaps, all different!) plus a guide to types and how to spot them across the three collections (again, there are some significant differences), as well as instructions and risk assessments. Our amazing data manager Dave Smith created a fool proof and snazzy spreadsheet to record the data (and do some cool referencing in the background), and many of our fellow curators loaned us their collections’ stairs for a couple of days.

Left: The guide documents – Numbering protocols in the Benthic Molluscs, Numbering protocols in the Brachiopods, How to spot a type and Numbering protocols in the Cephalopods. Right: The collection of collections’ stairs awaiting use by the students. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Following a brief introduction to the collections and a bit of orientation we let the students loose. Each student worked independently with Excel loaded up on their laptops, working their way through an aisle of the collection. At first there were lots of questions and we were running up and down trying to answer them all, but gradually they settled into their tasks.

Happily working away in the collection and finding loads of types. © Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

At various points during the day, I got out a few exciting specimens to show them as they worked. They were most impressed with an ammonite found by Charles Darwin and a magnificent fossil octopus.

Left: The first ammonite formally described from South America (NHMUK PI C 2612 a-c) and collected by Charles Darwin. Right: The students were amazed by this beautiful octopus, Keuppia sp. (NHMUK PI CC 651). © Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

The data sheets are still coming in and so far, we have got data locating an amazing 2,819 benthic mollusc types, 684 cephalopod types and 60 brachiopods (only one student worked in the brachiopod collection). Overall, the students provided us with 30 full days work, with only around two days preparation. Definitely a winning strategy for everyone; we got some valuable data, and they got a couple of days rummaging in the collections at the NHM! If you have access to a group of students looking for collections experience, even as a one-off, this proves how valuable harnessing their power can be! We’re hoping to expand this project to gather more data across other teams in the Museum.

They’re all pretty happy to pose for photos! © Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Many thanks to the students of the 2021-22 Imperial Taxonomy and Biodiversity course, Dave Smith at the NHM, all our colleagues who tolerated a gaggle of students in the collections and loaned collections’ stairs. We couldn’t have learned so much without you all!

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