A week at the Natural History Museum

I’ve just completed four days placement at the Natural History Museum, London along with fellow Curatorial Trainee, Heather Mikhail, who’s based at Leeds Musuem. As a national museum, the NHM was very different from Manchester Museum and it was a great opportunity to find out about the curator’s work and the management of the different collections as well as the organisation of the museum and where it fits in the wider scheme.

It was also, importantly, a chance to think about what I’d like to concentrate on when I return to the NHM for a second week. 

Here is my selection box of photos to give a flavour of the experience.

(All photographs were taken and are included here with the permission of the Natural History Museum.)


The astonishing eight-storey Cocoon, designed by Danish company C. F. Møller Architects, houses the entomology and botanical collections.

Monday was Botany plus a brief introduction to Entomology.


One of the Herbarium mounting areas.  Jovita Yesilyurt, Collections Manager – Cryptogams, showed us around the Botany sections.



Alexander McQueen’s algae-inspired design.

Not surprisingly, much of the week’s conversation revolved around organisation and storage of the collections.

New ....  climate controlled compacter systems in Entomology.


New …. climate controlled compacter systems in Entomology.  Dull but efficient, there was a lot of this.

20130812_104057… and old.  This is a cabinet of fleas.  The development of the furniture could be tracked by materials used eg for handles – ivory, ceramic, bakelite etc.


Theresa Howard, Head of Entomological Collections, describes the benefits of unit trays and bracket fungus (!) for mounting


The carpological collection of bulkier associated seeds, fruit, root, bark etc is cross referenced to the main collection.


Herbarium sheets are arranged by geographical area (green label = Australasia).

DSCF9850We had a look at some of the special collections including these exsiccate – collections of lichen made into books – complete with attached rock and other substances.  Amazingly, these books were duplicated – sometimes by chopping the rock in two – and even ran to second editions.


This is one of J. Sowerby’s lovely models of fungi made in the early 1800s of unburnt pipe clay with real organic ‘undergrowth’ base (conservation nightmare!). The original paint changed colour so they were repainted in 1899, and this paint has kept its colour pretty well.

Tuesday started with a whistlestop introduction to the difference between brachiopods and bivalves from Zoe Hughes, Curator of Brachiopods and Cephalopods.


Microspirifer from Michigan

We learnt about conservation issues,  how brachiopods developed from fairly simple  to more complex structures and the processes which can be used to reveal fine detail such as acid treatment.


Some of them nest!

Then Zoe got us doing some hands-on curation, checking taxonomy on drawer labels.


In the afternoon, Philippa Brewer, Curator of Fossil Mammals, showed us part of the collection she looks after.


Helpfully labelled mastercast of a creodont!      Mastercasts are used to produce all future casts in order to reduce damage to the original material.


Mammoth hair.

Wednesday was a busy day in Entomology, starting off with a look at the Coleoptera collection with Curator Beulah Garner.


Modern curation – climate controlled, drawers within metal cabinets, unit trays, colour coded labels showing geographical location.

DSCF9886The old pin under this specimen is from the original mount and has been kept as part of the data associated with the specimen.


Not foil-wrapped chocolate!


Tray for educational use showing the range in size and variety of beetles.

Beulah got us remounting some specimens that had come in from an amateur collection into unit trays …




After: Separated and remounted in a unit tray. Information from the back of the card has been transcribed.

We were given an amazing opportunity to look at material from flight intercept traps collected in April from Borneo, sorting out beetles and hemiptera from trays of the material mixed with 80% alcohol solution.  Some work with the microscope was needed for smaller specimens.


Trays containing mixed material to be sorted out and sent off to the various departments.


Part of the wet store.

In the afternoon, Senior Curator (Hymenoptera) David Notton explained the ins and outs of topping up spirit collections…


I love that there is alcohol on tap!


One of the larger scorpions.

… before showing us the Hymenoptera collection.  As well as looking at some of the highlights of the collection, we discussed pros and cons of the various types of storage systems and mounting procedures.


Tiny double mounted specimen. Information is written on both sides of the card for ease of access.


David enjoyed telling us this wasp can sting in any direction, and some wasps have jaws and ovipositors strengthened by high metal content to penetrate hard materials (thin mild steel was mentioned).

On Thursday  I was at the Horniman Museum at Forest Hill for a really useful NatSCA seminar on Collections Review and Disposal but on Friday we were back at NHM.

Due to a slight hitch in arrangements we had time to look around on our own.  I investigated the public areas of the Cocoon to see what the visitor experience was like.  It was great to see so much plant material imaginatively displayed.

DSCF9988and young visitors were obviously enjoying the interactive activities finding out about collecting and preparing plants and insects

and being able to look into the staff work DSCF9990areas – although the absence of staff suggests staff might feel differently – or perhaps it was lunch time!


I also took the opportunity to visit the photographic exhibition showing the work of Sebastiao Salgado and would recommend anyone to look at this thought-provoking collection of photos of the most amazing geographic areas of the world and their human and other inhabitants.

In the afternoon, Head of Zoological Collections, Clare Valentine gave us a tour of the Zoology sections.  First – dry mollusca


Identifying shells using physical features and locality information.. The soft bodies may also be elsewhere in the collection.


One of the sectional libraries.


A dried, mounted fish in the ‘Large Invertebrate’ store. Having fish glued to herbarium sheets can be frustrating for researchers.

We observed staff identifying a consignment of shark that had been intercepted by Customs to see if it was a prohibited species.

DSCF0007 The new Integrated Pest Management facility.  The first area – the ‘dirty’ unpacking entrance.


Each area is assessed with regard to pest management and labels are posted at entrances.

The next, separate area has a massive walk in freezer which keeps temperatures down to -30C.  The space and equipment was designed to be large enough to take a rhino!


Big freezer!

Facilities included a hot/cold chamber and drying cabinets for botany specimens. The door opening sequence minimises cross contamination.  All the facilities are used in disaster planning. The conservation studio next door is used for activities such as mount-making for exhibitions. Nothing goes into an exhibition space without coming in here first.


‘Small mammals’ store.

Clare gave us an insight into the management of the collection ranging from staff  succession planning to the Collection System Improvement Programme.

We also met John Jackson, the Science Policy Advisor, and it was interesting to discuss with him ideas about the remit of the NHM regarding public engagement; whether and how the museum should respond to current issues; how ideas for exhibitions are developed and how the role of  the curatorial staff fits in with this, as well as issues around sharing of data and discoveries.

This week was a great opportunity to meet and speak with curatorial staff, and to get a range of opinions on curatorial issues as well as practical information and hands-on experience.  I am grateful to all the staff involved, who I hope I have mentioned above, and especially to Clare Valentine for organising the week..

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