Are You Collecting for The Future?

This article was published in the July 2012 issue of Rockwatch Magazine – the club for young geologists.

What does your geological collection represent?

It’s a big question, and it could be a number of different things: the geology of the country, area or town you live in, a set of beautiful colourful and fascinating objects that please you when you look at them or a wealth of scientific knowledge just sitting there ready to be unlocked.

My collection represents my childhood, my fascination with beautiful natural objects and the realisation of the wonderous, boundless knowledge that can be gained from each and every specimen. My collection represents the journey I took to become who I am today (although I still have far to go!).

To me, the meaning of my collection is something very personal, but other collections – like at the Natural History Museum in London and its great mineral gallery – may mean something entirely different. I see the past few hundred years of scientific discovery embedded in those rows of cabinets, and the histories of the people who donated specimens to the museum in the vast corridors of storage behind the scenes.

Collections mean different things to different people too. People will value collections differently and for many reasons, but not just in monetary terms.

Take Sir Arthur Russell, the 6th Baronet of Swallowfield Park near Reading who lived from 1878 to 1964. He was fascinated by minerals from a young age, and at 8 years old he had already visited his first working mine. From then on, he was hooked. His passion lay in piecing together a collection that represented the whole mineralogy of Great Britain and Ireland, and managed to create one of the most comprehensive collections of British minerals to date. His collection became extremely important and well known, and after his death even universities all the way across the Atlantic in the USA wanted part of his collection!

The collection meant everything to him: “It is my earnest hope and desire that this collection upon which I have bestowed so much loving care and so much of my life shall remain intact and be well cared for wherever it finds a resting place”, a quote from Sir Arthur Russell. Arthur’s collection now resides at the Natural History Museum in London in the hope that it would be kept in perpetuity, meaning that it will remain here forever.

The task of keeping objects in the way they were donated is harder than it sounds because all objects and materials will change over time, no matter how careful you are. This type of change is called degradation, and is caused simply by factors such as wear and tear through use, the storage environment (such as high or low temperatures or humidity – the amount of water in the air relative to the temperature) or the amount of light something is exposed to. These factors can cause changes such as breakage, crumbling or fading which alter the condition of the object relative to its original state in which it was given to the museum.

To help slow the process of degradation (a practice called conservation) museums come up with ideas to assess how the material’s condition has changed compared to the state it was originally documented in, and use this to decide how to conserve the material.

Think about your collections. Do you think they will last 100 years and end up in a museum? If so, what might you do to help make sure people can appreciate them like you do, and see the full value of your collections?

See http://www.russellsoc.org/russell.html or http://www.snh.gov.uk/about-scotlands-nature/rocks-soils-and-landforms/fossils-in-scotland/fossil-code/ on how to collect responsibly, or ask your local museum how to best care for your specimens when you get them home. If you would like to know more about the work I am doing take a look at https://geoheritagescience.wordpress.com/ .

Sir Arthur Russell and the Preservation of a National Collection

This article was Published in the Geologists Association Magazine in June 2012 (Vol 11 No. 2).

I started collecting at a very early age. I was a toddler when I began to pick up my first rocks from the beach with my mum and dad, seven when I created my first properly displayed geological collection and eight when I won my first prize with Rockwatch for my ‘mineral museum’.

Sir Arthur Russell (1878-1964), the 6th Baronet of Swallowfield Park near Reading also began collecting at a very young age and by the time he was eight years old had visited his first working mine, a trip that helped develop a hobby and a passion that would stay with him for the next 78 years of his life. His stunning collection evolved into one of the most significant British regional mineral collections to date, comprising approximately 13,000 specimens and is one of the Natural History Museum’s largest and most significant stand-alone collections.

Russell collected almost half of the specimens himself; developing relationships with owners of other mineral collections and workers at important geological sites where he acquired many scientifically significant specimens that otherwise might never have been publicly available. Today, many of the localities he collected at have disappeared; consequently Russell’s specimens hold integral information on the geology, geography and cultural history of these sites.

The collection was left with the Natural History Museum in London on his death, as requested by Russell – to the great annoyance of other institutions, such as Harvard. In his will, he conditioned that the collection be stored in perpetuity, together in its original ten oak cabinets with his cataloguing system. The association of Russell’s original cabinets, labelling and cataloguing system mean that his collection does not only represent a near complete record of the mineralogy of the British Isles at the time of assimilation, but also an important historical and cultural resource.

The practice of keeping an object ‘in perpetuity’ is complex. To preserve something exactly as it is for ever is impossible, a problem all conservators and curators will be intimately familiar with. In heritage collections it is a fact that objects will become more fragile with time and the institution holding them will do their best to ensure the object is in the best condition relative to its original state. This process may involve preventive conservation measures to ensure that the possibility of degradation is limited.

To a casual visitor, it may be difficult to imagine the need to conserve a mineralogical collection. The truth is however that some minerals do degrade, sometimes causing catastrophic damage to the specimen or even to those around it. Because of the nature of the Russell Collection, this kind of damage may not only have implications for the scientific integrity of a specimen, but also the historical context. Mineral degradation can affect associated labels, rendering them unreadable, or worse, completely disintegrating them. In the case of Russell’s collection, part of its uniqueness lies in the labels handwritten by Russell himself in his characteristic script, so preventing loss of any aspect of his collection is essential.

In a climate where museums are under tough economic pressure, with severe cuts to funding and staff it may be more difficult than ever for museums to ensure that collections receive the care they need. Without heritage collections we would lack essential information that forms part of the basis of our extensive knowledge of the world today. What makes a collection such as Russell’s so unique is the range of values that can be associated with it – scientific, historical, educational, cultural, aesthetic and inspirational. It not only provides a significant mineralogical resource for researchers across the world, but also a historical record of people and places, that without the collection we may have known much less about.

Looking back to my own collection, (although far from the stunning host of Russell’s specimens!) it provided me with the notion that I wanted to work in museums with other geological collections. Since being introduced to The Russell Collection, it has inspired me to continue to pursue my aim through studying an MRes in Heritage Science at UCL and I am now about to embark on a project focusing on Russell’s Collection at the Natural History Museum. Through the project I hope to learn much more about museums and how to care for collections as well as how to contribute to the preservation and awareness of our great national geological resources.

For more information on The Russell Collection, The Natural History Museum or the work I am doing please visit: http://www.russellsoc.org/ , http://www.nhm.ac.uk/ , or https://geoheritagescience.wordpress.com/.

Geodiversity and A Sense of ‘Place’

Maybe it’s why I have such an attachment to Turner and van Dyck. Maybe it’s why I did geology. But it’s certainly why I want to work with natural heritage and the outdoors.
I have always had a strong sense of ‘place’ in the landscape. I was raised in a town in East Lothian, a beautiful area of Scotland with rolling hills, great Carboniferous geology and a strong sense of history in the archaeology of the area. I also spent a lot of time across Scotland looking at rocks in various place as well as visiting many castles and historic houses and gardens as a child with my mum. Later when studying geology at university we had at least one long field trip a year, many of which were to Scotland and all of which were to stunning areas of natural beauty. I think this helped develop a strong sense of ‘place’ in me, in completely natural and ‘untouched’ environments of which you find many in Scotland, and therefore remains somewhere I think I will always want to return to.
So it is no surprise that artists who paint landscapes make me feel so happy when I look at them. I can stare for ages at the scenes, a moment captured in time, which encapsulates parts of the natural and human landscape at the time, and implies that the people working the land are as intrinsic to it as the trees and the rivers that run through them. Interestingly enough, Geoscientist (the fellowship magazine of the Geological Society) also had an article this month that touched on the subject of painting the dynamic and geological landscapes of the 19th century. The article focuses on Thomas Moran, who was different from Turner or van Dyck in that he painted landscapes generally devoid of human interactions, focusing on the natural forces that shaped the landscape such as water and wind. It was also due to his personal interest in geology that made him delve into the realms of his artistic subject, and I think that oddly enough the interpretation of the natural forces in his paintings make the environments almost more surreal, and some have compared his paintings to Dante’s Inferno and his journey through hell. But don’t let this put anyone off who fancies a quick jaunt into the geological countryside! I think that in communicating the actions of natural forces in creating the landscape at that time – and still probably today – it gives the onlooker a sense of wonder and awe.

Geodiversity is extremely important. It describes the diversity within abiotic nature and gives it a name with which people can relate to the idea that it is important. Biodiversity is a ‘buzz’ word and wherever it is used people will automatically feel that this ‘place’ is to be conserved. What about the geology of the area? Not only the geology but the records of the geomorphological processes that have created the landscape we see today on top of which the archaeology produced by our ancestors has barely scraped the surface. Without this diversity we would not be able to live on this planet. It describes the beginning of the Earth and life on the planet; the massive processes that have formed our continents and oceans; the minerals, rocks and fossils that hold out mineral wealth in the form of ore and fossil fuel resources; the climates the planet endures many of which we have learned to thrive in such as rivers, coastal environments, glaciation, deserts and finally the record of continual processes like weathering and formation of soils.

We value these diverse materials, landforms and processes in many ways as the resources that the Earth’s geodiversity gives us is used in every aspect of life from manufacturing almost everything to art materials (and inspiration) to household goods like toothpaste, plaster and of course fuel. We therefore value these resources for their economic and functional purposes, and in tune with this for their research purposes – without research into these materials we would not have these resources to exploit and use in out daily lives. With research also comes education, we need to pass on our knowledge of these resources to future generations and hope that they can get even more information out of these than we previously have. We have already discussed how artists have used landscapes as inspiration for many works of art, but  the aesthetics of geodiversity can extend to tourism – many people travel from all over the world to climb mountains in Scotland and other areas across the world – but the landscape is also of importance to the people who live there all year round. As I began this piece, the landscape and ‘place’ of my area of Scotland is very important to me and holds lots of great memories of which the geology is an intrinsic part of them. Therefore we also associate with these areas cultural values, across the world there are geologically important sites that attract spiritual value to landscapes or forms such as Uluru in Australia or the North American Indians to areas of Central North America. This links with the history of the people who have been associated with the landscape through time, recorded in our history books as well as archaeological remains (as I mentioned are present in my local area too). People interact directly with the landscapes they are attached to and many like to collect pieces of their ‘place’ to keep with them at all times. I think all humans have minor cases of kleptomania, but some definitely more than others. People who collect part of our geodiversity do not have to assign meaning to the objects, and definitely do not have to alter the object in any way from the original state in which it was found. This makes geological collections very different from other collections in that they are still very much part of the landscape they came from when they have been in a collection for 100 years or 2.

In my personal collection, a lot of the specimens are from places I have been and collected them from in Scotland, making the majority of the collection Scottish and attached to that ‘place’. Some of the material has been bought or given to me by other collectors, but the main value to me is that I have personally found many of the specimens. Other famous collections and collectors have specific interests that can sometimes be related to a specific ‘place’ such as Arthur Russell’s collection held at the Natural History Museum in London (NHM). His collection represents Britain’s mineralogy and holds many of the best examples of British minerals. I am currently working with this collection and I always get more excited and awed when I remember that these amazing minerals are from where I live, or better still from somewhere I know and have been in Scotland. I recently got very over excited when I found a (not even particularly visually stunning) specimen that was from the area of my geology dissertation on the Isle of Skye and part of the metasomatic zone around the large granite intrusion of Beinn an Dubhaich at the centre of my area. Funnily enough, of all the visually stunning and historically important specimens I have held and worked with in his collection so far, that is the one I remember the most.

Some museums do capitalise on local collections, such as Wanlockhead Museum of Lead Mining in the Leadhills, Scotland which not only helps you discover the geology of the surrounding area (including getting down to do a bit of gold panning) but it also has the mine and the old miners homes open to the public to help visitors understand and connect to the entire history and culture of the area. As a child I visited Wanlockhead many times and always thoroughly enjoyed it. The National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh houses a vast mineral collection, not much of which is now on display since the renovation and opening last summer. I know from discussion with the research curator of mineralogy there that the collections held, studied and continually collected are focused on Scottish material but this is not reflected well in the public displays of the museum. The museum’s public display focuses on educating the public about the formation of the Earth and the geological processes that have shaped it since then. The gallery is very good in my opinion and has some great specimens on display, but personally I feel that the museum is missing out on a fantastic opportunity to get people involved in what’s out in their back yards! Edinburgh especially has fantastic geology on its doorstep (Arthur’s Seat) and by simply connecting visitors with what’s right there in front of them could easily give them more inspiration to go out and learn more about it. I know from Russell’s collection at the NHM that Scotland has a wealth of beautiful and fascinating minerals and rocks out there – so why don’t we see them?

I can’t answer the question now, but I can’t help but feel that we could learn a lot from understanding the links between ‘place’ and geological collections better – and even between other ‘places’ and heritage collections. Is there anything to gain from better linking together collections with localities to benefit collection’s management, educational and scientific point of view? Lets hope someone finds out soon!

Mass Extinctions, Lagerstatten, the Cambrian Explosion and Hominids’ obsession with Fossils: Part Four

Part Four: Hominid Evolution and Fossil Collecting

Humans are in a world of their own. There are many common questions now of the sociological implications of the old humanoids, how did they interact and split duties? What was the early evolution of them like? What did they eat? How did they interact with the environment? When did they begin to influence it? I do not have the answers to any of these questions, but here is a very brief note on their evolution, with respect to climate change and speciation.

The fact that human evolution happened at the same time as major climatic deterioration through glaciations and global cooling has prompted questions on the extent that the two events are causally related, including the driving forces in hominid evolution. An issue that needs to be taken into account (not including the complexity of climatic interactions with life) is that of the fossil record, the reliability of dating methods and major tendency for the whole human evolutionary story to shift and change with every new find. Therefore, it is important to remember that correlations mean associations between factors and not necessarily causality. In addition if there is a lack of correlation it does not mean that there is no inter linking of associations. What is important is not only whether climate and hominid evolution are related but the nature of the mechanisms involved.

The lower the minimum or modal temperature, the higher probability of hominid extinction. Therefore, there is a distinct correlation between extinction and climate but not with speciation and climate, so that other primary factors control the first appearance of taxa. It has been found that species diversity varies somewhat with climate, but not in a robust manner. There is a difference in Homo to Australopithecus, where Homo vary positively (more) with low temperature and the latter negatively (less), so that the Australopithecus are more temperature sensitive than Homo. However it may also be the case that species diversity is a measure that shows how ecological changes determine the way in which speciation and extinction interact. When speciation is measured in relation to climatic stability a number of relationships can be observed. It was found that, unsurprisingly, the more stable the climate, the more hominid species. When split into groups of Homo and Australopithecus, it was found that Australopithecus were good with stable climates, but that Homo showed less speciation. There was not a very strong relationship between climatic stability and extinction with hominids, showing the more stable the climate the less extinction.

Climate is likely to be an important element in any model of evolutionary change, that goes hand in hand with competition. When climatic change occurs, it means that it operates through competition. The change will alter the nature, abundance and distribution of environments and resources within the areas initiating changes in the competitive relationships between species. It is these altered competitive relationships that are likely to lead to evolutionary consequences. The consequences might be extinction, speciation rising from reduced intra-community competition or the opening of new ecological opportunities. However, even with this interpretation of the effects of climate change, it is clear that this is not sufficient to describe the changes in speciation, diversity and extinction of taxa. So, it is probable that these effects are locally important effects of competition, but not from climate change as a global effect.

To finish with a flourish, as I promised at the beginning of this four part blog series, I will attempt to reel the palaeo-madness back in towards a more ‘cultural heritage’ alignment. Prehistoric Fossil Collectors by Ken McNamara, details the fascination that we, as species of hominids have had with fossils. Specifically, with the common sea urchin. When alive, the sea urchin can be beautiful, and their shells when washed up on the beach and non-fossilised are beautiful enough to see. However, it seems that the five pointed star that holds so much symbolism in many human cultures for hundreds (maybe thousands) of years can be traced back all the way to the Ordovician, 450 million years ago.

The earliest evidence we have of Homo collecting these trinkets is 400,000 years ago with Homo heidelbergensis where a hand axe has a fossil echinoid displayed on the side. Other usages of the fossils have been placement in graves, as necklaces with holes drilled through the middle, adorning windows and doors or homes and churches and many others.

It could be that in some cases these stars were thought to have some sort of spiritual significance, a trinket to ward off the Devil or to help them in the afterlife. Personally, I think that alongside these possibilities may be the fact that they were pretty, and formed a simple way to adorn the grave of a loved one much as we may do today, without any specific meaning having to be attached to the fossils. In many ways, we are pre-disposed to enjoy beautiful items, especially those with symmetry, which has many connotations for our own bodies, the legs, arms and neck/head symbolised in the five points.

What interests me is the idea that 400,000 years ago our ancestors picked up fossils and cherished them in some way. The practice could go back further, and I think would undoubtedly extend to other fossils. We find even as children that we are drawn to these objects without understanding what they are or have been, but maybe there is something in all of us that wants to understand how we got here. I love the fact that fossils and fossil collecting have been important for so long, and hope that we continue to understand the value of looking at rocks and understanding them in the future.

Recommended Reading:

Foley, R A, (1994), Speciation, extinction and climate change in hominid evolution, Journal of Human Evolution, 26, Available online: http://www.human-evol.cam.ac.uk/Members/Foley/pubs/94jhe-26(275-289).pdf

Brains and Plasticising – Getting Past the ‘Squeam’ Barrier

Yesterday I went to the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition on ‘BRAINS’. I didn’t think I would be squeamish at all when looking at all these bottled noggins, part of what is eerily called ‘the spirit collections’.  In actuality I was in awe that these were ACTUAL BRAINS sitting there, only a few centimetres away from me and not protected by  a skull, meninges or skin.

For me, the thing that sends tingles down my spine is the idea of plasticising. Unfortunately, when I Google this too many ‘Images for…’ come up and slightly freak me out, meaning that a definition of the process is lacking in this blog. I can’t quite put my finger on why this really pushes the buttons of my squeamishness – maybe pumping a body with plasticiser conjures up ideas of something between ‘Planet Terror’ scenes involving Bruce Willis and ‘The Hulk’ when he expands and becomes green.

And although yesterday I was in a room filled with brains, suspended from their normal decomposition through submersion in methylated spirit and accosted by videos of brain surgery (pretty unnerving) the piece to really set it off for me was the plasticised vein system of the brain. Why? Well, after a discussion with a fellow brain fiend at the exhibit I began to ask myself what really is the difference between looking at a spirit collection and a plasticised body?

I used to have an issue with black pudding. The concept of eating what is essentially just blood was a bit gruesome, although I thoroughly enjoy vampire lore. But, after some careful thought I decided that if I eat steak rare and love haggis then really I have no feet to stand on when it comes to a justifiable argument for not eating black pudding. I love it.

I also love going to the stuffed animal section of museums, and have no problem looking at huge dinosaur fossil skeletons. And in all honesty, when it comes to looking at a plasticised animal I don’t feel quite as squeamish. In the Natural History Museum they currently have an exhibition on plasticised animals, and have a great big plasticised camel in the entrance hall on show.  When I first saw this I was intrigued and thought it looked great although I was not aware of the exhibition at the time I had a sneaking suspicion about what it was…but I decided to feign ignorance with myself and enjoy the show.

So maybe there is some sort of link here, I can look at animals in any form and not feel a huge sense of ‘squeam’ but that changes when it comes to humans being plasticised. Why? I read an interesting blog today about the Brains exhibit at the Wellcome Collection which touched on this slightly. He talked about the avoidance of things that make us remember our own mortality, even such important things as writing a will. Is this what makes me feel odd about plasticising? Possibly. But something more than that is the idea that these are people who have died and should be decomposing. They are not meant to be in this stasis, in these poses. You can, I hear, ask to be plasticised in your will so then possibly you could argue that they are meant to be like this. Maybe I feel that they should be allowed to rest, to be sitting in their graves and allowed to lie there for eternity rather than be put on display in all their stripped, plasticised glory. Maybe it is just something I would never want for me.  But this still doesn’t explain why I do not feel the same about a stuffed animal.

My brain fiend friend noted something else, he said that some people don’t like to be reminded that they are just an animal. Some people want to feel that humans are better than the world around them, more intelligent and some sort of higher being. However, we both agreed that it’s nice to be reminded that you are just an animal, a natural being that has evolved just like every other species on this planet. Sometimes it’s reassuring in such a fast paced and stressful world that we build ourselves. Seeing the inner workings of the human body puts us in our rightful place in the kingdom of life, in a comparable state to other species, such as what Darwin discovered and later many scientists would study: “…all hands start out in much the same way. There is a network of many genes that builds a hand, and all hands are built by variations on that same network. Some sculpt the wrist; others lengthen the fingers. It takes only subtle shifts in these genes to make fingers longer, to make some of them disappear, to turn nails into claws.” National Geographic Magazine, The Common Hand. Additionally, I just finished reading the book Prey by Michael Crichton – a good read for anyone feeling a bit high on the food chain.

To be honest, I think the reason I don’t feel the ‘squeam’ when I visit stuffed animal displays is because I have done so since I was a child. I did not think of my own mortality at that time, and certainly not that of any other animal. Also, crucially I had not encountered any horror films of books at that stage either!

In the end, I will be going to see the current plasticised exhibition at the Natural History Museum which is on until the 16th September. Regardless of squeamishness, knowledge and understanding of science is crucial and I would highly recommend everyone to get a grip and go see the dead plastic things.

Photo courtesy of Cameron Robinson

The Online Initiative: A Look at the British Geological Survey

The thing about rocks in collections is that there are a lot of questions surrounding them, hanging around like elephants in the room, sheepishly trying to make their bulky form as invisible as possible. At some point someone needs to address those elephants and tell them to scram. In my opinion, now is a perfect time.

At the British Geological Survey (BGS), there are some great initiatives that not only help budge those elephants but also put in place a fantastic source of information about their collections, many of which I am sure no-one even knows exist!

The issue of destructive sampling in museums is ‘touchy’. When it comes to geological collections the boundaries are hazy. We need to sample rocks to learn about them, and who is really there to say that we shouldn’t? But my question is how much is too much, and how can we come to making this decision on a unanimous basis?

The BGS has relatively recently begun making digital archives of their collections, including boreholes, rocks, minerals, fossils and thin sections. Currently they have a search record online at: http://www.bgs.ac.uk/data/boreholescans/ where you can access onshore borehole records and their associated metadata, along with hydrogeological data from the National Well Archive. This not only allows a larger community to understand and interpret some of the available data but ensures that needless sampling of boreholes does not occur.

In some instances, companies or institutions may ask to sample a particular item the BGS has in its various collections. Either someone is sent to sample it or the BGS will sample a part of it themselves and send it off. The problem in the past with this process is that the company or institution may realise once they have the sample that this is not the correct piece, and request another one. This wastes valuable samples. The online initiative allows users to access a very basic set of information about the specimen in the first place, from which they can then decide on whether this is the right kind of specimen they need in the first place and roughly where and how the best way to sample it could be.

In another instance, the wider availability of this data on the BGS’s collections means that users can find out if the geographical areas they need information on have already been sampled. For example a particular stratigraphic sequence in the North Sea could have already been boreholed and a simple online archive of this could allow the user to not sample that area again.

The other initiatives the BGS have include a database of their collections – from Christmas cards to mineral collections – http://geoscenic.bgs.ac.uk/asset-bank/action/browseItems?categoryId=1022&categoryTypeId=1. Suddenly we have an amazing resource of information on collections that I would bet a lot of people didn’t know existed!

They are currently digitally photographing thin sections from their vast collection, a process I have seen first hand (and even taken a few photos!) up in their Edinburgh offices. At present, they have photographed around 30,000 thin sections with the help of several volunteers – from students to retirees.

The topic of online databases and museums is a hot spot of activity in the culture sector, just take a look at:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network (http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog),

http://www.futureofmuseums.org/ (http://futureofmuseums.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/digesting-future-of-museum-ethics.html),

the latest from http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/mw2012 (http://www.museumsandtheweb.com/blog)

or a museum technologists opinion at http://openobjects.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/museum-technologists-redux-its-not.html.

Online databases of collections such as the BGS’s initiative, or that of many national and non-national museums are an important modern factor in museums engagement and management. For museums it is more important to make sure that they include their vast quantity of online visitors, but for those who may feel there is no substitute for the ‘real thing’ make sure the institution still entices people with their content.  Not only could these online initiatives help in management issues such as destructive sampling but in gaining more information from the objects and materials themselves using techniques such as crowdsourcing, or purely getting more people inspired and involved with their local or national heritage.

If you have any comments on how online resources are used in the geological or heritage sector, leave a comment below!

The Problem with ‘Condition’ in Geological Collections

Does a crack matter? We know a painter (assuming that he’s not into new-modern-post-wierdness art) didn’t paint his mural with a cracked hole in the middle of it, but can we say the same for minerals? Why would it matter anyway? To someone viewing a mural, an essential piece of the story is missing, but with a mineral the exact chemical formula (lets not get technical here for those of you who are know-it-all’s, let’s make it simple!) is repeated everywhere, so what are we missing?

The term ‘in perpetuity’ is complex. To preserve something exactly as it is for ever is impossible, a problem all conservators and curators will be intimately familiar with. In heritage collections it is a fact that objects will become more fragile with time and the institution holding them will do their best to ensure the object is in the best condition relative to its original state (i.e. a solid, liquid or gas – a nice definition offered by Jonathan Ashley-Smith in one of our course lectures). This process may involve preventive conservation measures to ensure that the possibility of common problems affecting the condition, referred to as degradation, is limited. One of the first steps to carrying out preventive conservation is condition assessment.

In geological collections, you immediately come across some complex aspects regarding condition. To what state would we attempt to conserve this specimen – the time at which it was first formed on the surface of the earth or the point at which it enters a collection? How do we know that state unless we have documented evidence? Of course, in other heritage collections it is often possible to speculate about the original state, we assume what ceramic jars, oil paintings and tapestries should look like when they are first made. In these types of heritage collections it is also less difficult to say whether there has been alteration to the original state, dulling of a painting, breakage of ceramics or fraying of a tapestry all involve loss of an object’s integrity. When it comes to a geological specimen it is difficult to quantify where or when there is loss of integrity. Is it when it breaks, dulls, the label becomes damaged or all three? Even unlike other natural history collections where a beetle specimen may lose a wing and with it vital biological information, in geological collections defining state and detrimental alteration to an original state is difficult and may be impossible!

Although you can in some cases i.e. light degradation possibly get the ‘original’ mineral’s colour back, how applicable is this for condition assessments? I would say not very, since it should not be a time-consuming process. It may be possible to eventually make a comprehensive list of all the original colours of minerals with this problem, but then again who says this is the ‘pre-defined’ state you wish to assess from?

If the use of a specimen is to sit in a box all the time then fading is not a problem, but if you need these specimens for display or education their condition may drop – then again for a researcher the colour might not matter, and the crystal lattice and the chemical structure is more important. For a painting, it may be more important to see the original brushwork, the colours and vibrancy that the artist intended to appreciate the true meaning behind the image. For this to happen we need a starting point, an original state from which to infer condition, and then begin our conservation efforts.

What is my point?

Well, first off condition in geological collections should be measured with respect to the use a specimen is meant for. But secondly, can we even technically measure condition in geological collections at all? Is it possible to decide on an abstract original state for a mineral and assign condition accordingly? Then, how can we make these kinds of results comparable between collections or museums? Should there be some sort of globally defined original state for each mineral? Really, this is implausible and unlikely. Even if we can take a mineral back to its original colour, is that useful? What we want to know is how good it is for the uses we need it for – research, education, display. Just because a mineral specimen is not like it was when it came out of the ground does not make it automatically in bad condition, but it does throw up some interesting conceptual barriers to condition and its definition.

Tell me your thoughts on ‘condition’ and geological collections: leave a comment below!