My week at the Natural History Museum, London

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I spent a wonderful week at the Natural History Museum, London (NHM) on a placement. The aim of the scheme is to exchange knowledge, aid professional development and enable lasting change.

I learnt and experienced so much – here are some highlights.

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My host was Ranee Prakesh, Curator of Flowering Plants. After my induction, she gave me a tour of the herbarium and Darwin Centre gallery, both housed in a purpose built cocoon:

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In the afternoon I learnt about NHM’s Digital Collections project, and then got to work.  I scanned herbarium sheets on a Herbscan machine – an upside down scanner. Some of the sheets had writing on the back so both sides had to be scanned. The images would be added to the museum’s database later.

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On the second day, I was shown how NHM staff use Emu, the museum’s database, and learnt about the current rapid digitisation project.  Herbarium specimens are shipped to The Netherlands for imaging on a conveyor belt / camera system called Digistreet, then the data from the images will be transcribed in Suriname.  The NHM staff were waiting to find out the quality of the data.

I shared ideas with the plant mounting team, demonstrating ‘Manchester style’ (strapping) and having a go at the NHM way (glueing and pressing). They were surprised I cut my own straps from archival quality paper: sometimes the best way is not always the most expensive way. That’s one of the many things I love about curatorial work.

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I was shown how loans were documented and packed in the afternoon, and how the NHM staff process a loan on Ke Emu.

Day 3 was spent in the herbarium store. Ranee explained how the herbarium sheets are arranged taxonomically according to APG, and filed geographically within this system. I spent some time sorting specimens to family and genus level in preparation for laying-in.  The open plan workspace was visible through a window in the gallery so I had the public watching me at work!

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Later that day I had a tour of the Specimen Preparation Area to see the V-Factor volunteers at work. They were sorting through sediment from a quarry, looking for tiny fossils, and a different project is run each weekday in this area visible from the museum gallery.

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The fourth day was spent in The Cryptogamic Herbarium.  I had a short tour of the bryophyte collection then got to work repackaging mosses into individual capsules:

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I was showed round the historical collections and the fern herbarium in the afternoon. We discussed Integrated Pest Management and preventative conservation in relation to historic botany collections.

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I also worked alongside Ranee laying out specimens ready for the plant mounters. This involved placing the pressed specimen and label on a sheet of mounting paper and enclosing any loose material in a capsule. There was a large amount of newly donated material to be mounted and filed in the herbarium sent in from researchers and staff on expeditions.

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On the fifth day I had a tour of the Linnean Society.  Carl Linnaeus’s personal herbarium in particular was amazing to see.

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Next, I learnt about citizen science at the Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity. This is where the public gather or analyse data for research or curatorial purposes, such as transcribing data from a bird register, which is an NHM project called ‘Notes from Nature’ currently running on Zooniverse.

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To wrap it all up there was a tea party at the end of my last day. It was lovely to see the staff I had met during the week and thank them all for giving up their time and making me feel so welcome. I am intending that some lasting change will happen at Manchester Museum as a result of my week at the NHM, particularly better storage for our type specimens and some changes to volunteering.

Many thanks to all the curators and collections managers at the NHM who allowed me this fantastic opportunity.

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2 thoughts on “My week at the Natural History Museum, London

    Trainee Curator said:
    March 12, 2015 at 3:38 pm

    I had a great week there in 2012. Good to read about your week there too Lindsey; brings back memories! Hope everyone’s ok?!

    Lindsey responded:
    March 12, 2015 at 4:18 pm

    Hello! It was such a good week. Yes, all fine, though there’s building work in the herbarium so we have moved out temporarily.

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