Of Schemes and Memes Blog

Behind the Doors at the Museum – part 2

In the second post in our mini-series on science musuems, we talk to the staff working behind the scenes creating the exhibits and carrying out valuable research.

A look backstage

Museums sometimes conjure images of static exhibits and leisurely activities, yet in reality a museum is an ever-evolving forum for learning and scientific research. But have you ever considered who puts together the displays and creates the exhibits or how the information we are presented with was discovered?

In our last post, we briefly mentioned that museums carry out important scientific research, providing a facility for experts and scientists. In this post we’ll speak to two researchers from the Natural History Museum in London to find out how they contribute to making the museum into a learning zone.

Let’s take a look behind the scenes….

The Cast

Fred Rumsey is a British botany expert who has worked at the Natural History museum for 15 years carrying out important research into British flora; he is currently working within the new Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity.
Victoria Herridge is a post doctoral research assistant in palaeontology who has worked over the last ten years at the Natural History Museum, having carried out her masters and PhD there. In her past she has also worked as an explainer at the Science Museum in London.

Can you explain the purpose of your role?

It is a really great thing engaging with the public; everyone gets to hear the intricate details of my research and this fuels the broader impact my science research has. My current role is all encompassing and one of my main remits as I see it is to enhance public awareness, appreciation and understanding of the natural world. For example, I run extra-mural courses, workshops, talks, teach schoolchildren, as well as dealing with general enquiries. We often forget that behind the scenes at a museum there is vast expertise. One of the roles of any researcher, aside from the science we carry out, is that we inform others of our work and, particularly within museums, that we encourage public engagement. One way for museum scientists to do this is by contributing to our public offering, through educative displays and face-to face interactions. Science can sometimes run the risk of not being attractive to the general public; we are trying to change this.
My role is two-fold. The first, and main, role is my research work that focuses on the evolution of dwarf elephants. My second role is public facing, engaging with museum visitors and providing talks and seminars. I also sometimes give guest lectures at universities. It’s great that I am able to have direct contact with visitors and explain my research. I get to see people’s reactions and I know I am disseminating my research to wider audiences. I am also carrying out research on taxonomy; that underpins most biological research and I get to enhance the value of the museum’s collections as well as public knowledge.

Why do you like working as a researcher at a museum?

For the unique opportunities it provides and the doors it opens. The collections: specimens, literature resources and artworks are unrivalled and provide endless opportunities for research. With nearly 350 scientists at the museum it’s wonderful to be constantly surrounded by a breath of knowledge and expertise and to mix with researchers from different disciplines. We currently have a new building which facilitates mixing between staff members; lots of fertile resources can be tapped into.
Museums are treasure troves full of resources for scientific researchers. Having the opportunity to work with collections that are national treasures is fantastic. Having access to them on my doorstep is an incredible honour. If I want to examine something I can just walk into the museum collections and open up a cabinet, I am extremely fortunate.

Is a researcher the same as a curator?

At the Natural History Museum a curator looks after the collections and their use in exhibits. They are also encouraged to do research to increase knowledge of their groups, etc, although this is not their main focus; their primary remit is to work with the collections and to facilitate their use. It is a difficult task as they have lots to learn, and new curators go through a long mentoring process until they are fully up to speed.
Researchers tend not to be as heavily involved in curation – yet this does vary depending on the museum – but they will be generating new accessions as a consequence of their studies. Curators also have the important task of making their collections more accessible. The safest and most broadly inclusive way to do this is virtually, so that they can be used throughout the world without leaving our safe environment. In contrast, as a researcher you are always encouraged to use and develop the collections, but the main focus is to bring in research money and write high impact papers.

What do you feel is the most important aspect of your work?

This is a hard one; it’s like asking what your favourite type of music is. Well, there are more than one – they all feedback on each other. I think it is great to be able to look after and further national collections, enhancing the sum of scientific knowledge. Developing on and improving collection knowledge and the ability to talk to the public about it.

How does your role differ from that of a university researcher?

We are becoming more similar as increasingly we are measured against the same criteria – grant income and high impact publication. I think we do differ and we risk losing our unique selling points; I would argue that museums should be taking on the longer-term research and the big monographic studies which are essential to underpin our understanding of the natural world but which are unattractive to funding councils and difficult to publish. This has to be publically supported. A university researcher is involved heavily in teaching; their role is solidly academic, this is not necessarily true of museum scientists. Museum researchers increasingly are becoming involved in engaging and educating the public which is a different skill set. As a scientist at the museum funded by the public I believe we have a duty to inform the public what marvellous things we do, and try to make the difficult research we are working on accessible and interesting.
Effectively a museum department is a close equivalent to a university department. Here we have over 300 scientists, split into 5 departments: Zoology, Entomology, Botany, Palaeontology and Mineralogy. I work in Palaeontology.

How are you funded?

I have been lucky as much of my research is focused on British Flora and is relatively inexpensive to fund in comparison to other research. Previously many of my costs have been met internally, falling within the remit of the UK Biodiversity Action Plan process which the NHM is committed to support, but this is not always the case. Much of my work relates to rare species, or invasive organisms, looking at the status of taxa, both conservation-wise and taxonomically. This work primarily attracts funding from governmental bodies such as the wildlife agencies: Natural England, Countryside Council for Wales and Scottish National Heritage to name a few.
I am now coming up to the final year of my post doc, which is funded by NERC. However the future remains uncertain – it means when applying for my next position, I need to write a strong research proposal as everyone expects competition to be higher than ever. Hopefully I will be able to write a substantial new proposal as I want to stay working as a researcher.

Have you been affected by government cuts?

Generally everyone has been affected by government cuts. The government bodies at national and regional level where we get our funding resources have suffered massive cuts and this ultimately cascades down to us. There has been a loss of scientific expertise within the commissioning agencies as a consequence and therefore there is both an increasing reliance on external sources of scientific data but less ability to direct research or arguably understand outputs. Philanthropic donations help, for instance a big digitization programme of Type and other material is being supported by the Andrew W.Mellon foundation.

Future

Ultimately we need to clearly explain to government why what we do is vital, can’t be done elsewhere and demonstrate that we are doing it cost effectively – we can do no more. I remain positive and take each day as it comes.
The Natural history museum has been open for nearly 150 years and gets 4,000,000 visitors a year. Over this time it has had its funding ups and downs, yet remains a huge ever-changing infrastructure investing in cutting edge research. Onward and upwards.

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    Laura Wheeler said:

    To follow up on these interviews why not hear from someone who considers working at a museum to be their ideal occupation.  In this informative blog post, Hannah Waters discusses how Natural history collections can be used in ecological research.  

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