Future Prospects

This article was published in Museum Practice in September 2012 in their issue on starting your career in museums.

Taking on a Masters of Research in Heritage Science is a big task. Especially since the subject of mine was so interdisciplinary: it is about where geology and heritage meet, presenting an interesting and continually challenging environment to study in. This is especially important as the heritage field is itself constantly evolving, in a sector with so many innovative ideas and yet so small budgets. The best strategy for future students of the heritage sector is to ‘be prepared’.

Heritage Science is a relatively new discipline. Initially the term was coined in 2006 by the House of Lords’ report on ‘science and heritage’, bringing the discipline to life with respect to preservation of the UK’s national cultural heritage. In 2011, University College London began teaching the first course in heritage science, offered as a Masters of Research (MRes). The teaching part of the 2011/2012 course is now finished and the four pioneering students, including myself, are now well into our individual research projects on which our dissertations will be based.  While studying for the masters, two of us are already involved in heritage organisations: Pimpim is a project manager in an Asian heritage fund, Gabrielle is a senior conservator in an archive. Tiphaine is undertaking the MRes as the first year in her engineering doctorate and I am pursuing the course as a stand-alone Masters.

The research projects range from analysing traditional Tibetan building materials; finding out what non-textual information users of archival objects require when accessing digitised archives; using terahertz technology to image archival objects we cannot open due to their physical condition and finally understanding what users value in museum geological collections. All of our projects are practice-driven and based on collaboration with heritage institutions such as the National Archives of the Netherlands and the Natural History Museum in London.

The heritage science domain is a highly interdisciplinary field and allows for a wide range of interests to be catered for. As students you meet a vast number of people who can help you along your way and improve communication skills with all types of professions: from artists to curators, conservators to engineers; you will find that working together is a challenge and a reward. Clashes of opinion may be common, but these enrich the creative scientific process. I believe one of the key skills for working in such a highly interdisciplinary sector is being able to communicate with this wide range of personalities and disciplines, and to learn how best to communicate and synchronise ideas.

The state of the sector’s economic affairs means that there is high competition for jobs. Having talked to fellow students of conservation, it appears that every job opening or even unpaid internship is a rush for the finish line. Luckily, in heritage science this is not so much of an issue. With two students already engaged and our vastly differing fields of expertise there will be little competition between each other for jobs, but this does not mean it will be easy to secure a future in the heritage sector.

My experience with the course has taught me a lot about the heritage sector, and although I went into the course with dreams of being a curator in a geological museum and now want to work with outdoor heritage, this shift in ambition is not due to any failing as part of the course (although I wouldn’t turn down an offer to be a curator!). If anything it has opened my eyes to the wide selection of avenues I can go down within the heritage sector and allowed me to develop new and exciting ideas for future research projects and career paths.

Looking to the future, after her doctorate Tiphaine would like to continue to work in terahertz technology, possibly as an independent consultant or working for an archive and using the technology she is pioneering. Gabrielle would like to see her current role become more research focused and ideally sees herself coordinating and stimulating further projects with the help of the MRes in introducing her to scientific practice. Pimpim and I would like to work towards further qualifications, either taking the form of an MPhil or PhD. My ambition would be to continue to work within the heritage sector but take a step back from collaborating only with museums and extend this to the outdoors, looking at cultural landscapes and our natural heritage.

To achieve our ambitions we have realised that one of the key issues is to engage with heritage professionals and organisations from an early stage. For me, becoming a member of the Museums Association was one of the first steps, as well as a member of the Institute of Conservation. In addition to this my project involves collaboration with as many professional societies associated with my field as possible. I would highly recommend this approach to anyone looking to enter the heritage sector, as even if job opportunities do not abound you will find you learn much more about your subject and other, new and exciting aspects of heritage you never even knew existed.

Life After [Insert Discipline Here] : An Alternative Career Guide For Graduates

Life shuffles on, putting one tenuous foot in front of the other hoping that the next step leads somewhere decent, but eventually you manage to find some solid ground that doesn’t have the feeling that it might  run out of strength and fall from under you. With handing in my masters degree and finally managing to secure an awesome (and well paid!) job, it seems appropriate for me now to do a little post about life after university and the unexpected career and study routes that you can take in life.

Not many people expect to hear someone say they do heritage science, let alone that rocks need conserving and least of all that you used to be a geologist with a world of opportunities in the oil and gas industries ahead of you with people ready to offer you lots and lots of money. You explain that you aren’t driven by money (and groan internally at your own naivety) and that a research career in the heritage sector seemed like such a good idea when you found that course on the internet one day and ended up applying. The inevitable question follows “So, what made you want to do that?”. Short, to the point and identical to the question you have been asking yourself for the past year.

When I look at it now, I see a great fun experience in the past year and importantly a dissertation that I am immensely proud of. Unfortunately for many leaving their undergraduate in geology there are only two main career paths: academia or industry. Fortunately however there are alternatives that don’t mean you have to leave all that well learned knowledge behind but where you can be innovative and put them to good use in a range of other exciting disciplines.

For me, it was science communication. At 16 I somehow landed an amazing position as front of house staff (after a horrendous interview) at a science centre in Edinburgh. I kept the job throughout university, and used my expanding knowledge of science to progress my communication skills in the job. It was an ideal match and a great maturing experience. Through my director of studies at university, I was then offered a position with the Scottish Earth Science Education Forum (which he was the director of) and became involved in some amazing projects across the country delivering formal education resources for the earth sciences to secondary schools.

Nearing the end of my degree, I started to wonder what I wanted to do next. I can’t quite remember what drove me to do further education rather than get a job in science communication but I think that one of the main factors that enticed me was the uniqueness of the particular masters and the fact that it was at one of the best universities in the world. The idea for going into heritage mainly spawned from the fact I didn’t want to do pure geology and I always wanted to be a curator in a geology museum when I was younger, and had always had an interest in history and archaeology. Simple, really.

Since the masters was only one year long it wasn’t long before I was panicking about what to do next – again. Because I like keeping as many options open and was dreading not having a job at the end of the year I began to look at some of the interesting questions I had come across when doing the research project, but couldn’t address in such a short project. From this spawned a proposal for another research project that began as a one page summary, but with encouragement and interest from a couple of supervisors in the sustainable heritage centre it grew into a fully fledged PhD proposal. I also applied for another PhD at another university, and although I was not qualified for it they wanted to keep in touch and get me involved in other projects, which led to one of them becoming a partner for the PhD proposal. This has happened to me again since in an interview, where although I wasn’t right for the job they referred me on to others and I have ended up cultivating some useful and interesting professional relationships from these experiences.

Towards the end of the degree however I felt that I needed a break from academia, another 3 years of study immediately after did not look exciting to me at the time. i considered taking a part time job and doing the PhD, but realised that this would be too much work and double the amount of time needed to complete the degree. So, I postponed the proposal indefinitely to enable me to get a job for a couple of years and reanimate the proposal at a time to suit me.

This then meant I had to find a job. I thought I had lots of skills that are all highly transferable, but I soon realised that this was also my enemy. Combined with the fact that I had no set idea of exactly what I wanted to do meant that tailoring my CV and LinkedIn profile was nightmarish. However, I knew that ‘communications’ in a broad sense was my biggest passion and skill. This led me to look at a wide range of jobs ranging from marketing and public relations positions in random businesses and press office and publishing/editorial roles to science communications and community development in science/government and higher education organisations. I think I was too transferable for a large number of the jobs I applied for. However, I did get a number of interviews where the particular range of skills were relevant – niche and innovative or new roles that needed lots of strong competencies or specific qualifications/knowledge.

I finally got a job that I was very excited about and knew I had the correct skills for as soon as I saw the advert. The position is looking at ways to engage students more effectively in their higher education to ensure they get the best possible experience from their time at university. Now more than ever this is important as students have to pay higher fees, and universities need to prove they can provide an all-round excellent experience bringing out the best skills in their graduates. I will be developing a range of initiatives for mainly postgraduate and doctorate students and see it as an exciting role that utilises my best communications, research and project management skills. Not only will it also develop me in a really exciting area that I can see a bright future in terms of a career, but also for when I want to return to the PhD proposal.

Looking at my LinkedIn profile and CV now, I have a much better idea of what skills and experience I should highlight. I think that especially for my online professional presence I was trying to put too much into the space provided, and it was difficult to see what I was looking for in  a job as well as where my relevant skills were. However, I also realised how many disciplines I could go into with the skills I had to gain experience in a range of abstract fields.

I think it is important for graduates to be able to look critically at their experiences and manage to tease out their best skills and individual experiences that could see them with a successful career in something they would not have even dreamed of at the beginning of their degree. You don’t have to stick to what you choose early on in your studies or career, and knowing that there is a whole world of possibilities is crucial. But even more crucial is knowing how to actually do this, because it can get depressing when you know you could do something but just can’t seem to get the right opportunity. Making graduates aware of this and how to market themselves effectively is just one of the things I want to implement in this new position I have, and hopefully it is something other graduates will feel is useful too.

UPDATE: ‘Creationism and Geological History: What Do They Have in Common?’

In response to the post I wrote on creationism and geological history here, I would like to update those of you interested in the petition for removal of the creationist interpretation by the National Trust at the Giant’s Causeway.

This month’s Geoscientist emphasises the importance that everyone is free to believe what they wish, but this does not imply that respected institutions and organisations with their own stance (made public via their mission statements) on wide ranging issues should have to accommodate for those who do not agree. Free speech and belief also means that those organisations are free to stand up for what they think is right as well, without succumbing to pressure from other sources. I was glad to see that this was picked up by Geoscientist and it’s good to see the wider geological community reacting to this type of issue.

This article published in late July indicates that the National Trust has decided to review the interpretation, to ensure there is ‘absolute clarity’ that there is no debate in the age of the rocks there. However, later in the article the National Trust supposedly noted their intention as there to “provide visitors with a flavour of the wide range of opinions and views — not to promote or legitimise any of these views”. I personally think this is still ridiculous, because they certainly should be legitimising the fact that the scientific facts are there to prove that these rocks are much more than 6,000 years old. The statement is also in contention with how they would like to ensure there is absolute clarity about the age of the rocks.

I for one am in agreement with Geoscientist when they say that they would congratulate the Trust in agreeing to review the interpretation, but  there is too much disappointment in the fact that this situation has arisen in the first place.

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!