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/ .

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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!