My work in the 10 hundred most common words

So, I followed the craze and wrote about my MRes research project in the 10 hundred most common words! See it here:

I look at groups of rocks in places that keep them for a very long time so that people can continue to learn from them and remember those that learned from them first. What I want to know is, what do people like the most about these rocks? When I know this, I then tell others about it – especially the people that look after the groups of rocks in the places that keep them for a very long time. They like this because it tells them how to look after the rocks, what the rocks can help others learn and best of all why we should keep them for a much longer time – so that me and you can see these amazing rocks and find out lots about our world!

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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.

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!

Science and Heritage: Seeking a Sustainable Future

Here is an article I wrote for Museums and Heritage Online Comment section recently, addressing the students’ role in the future of the heritage sector: http://www.mandh-online.com/in_focus/content/1883/science_and_heritage_seeking_a_sustainable_future

“Heritage science is an emerging field. It combines many disciplines that really come together with two main purposes… both scientific and social… and engage[s] a range of disciplines to do that effectively.” Professor May Cassar, Director for the Centre for Sustainable Heritage at University College London (UCL) and Director of the AHRC/EPSRC Science and Heritage Programme.

Dr Matija Strlič, Senior Lecturer and Course Director of the MRes Heritage Science at UCL, explains: “Heritage science is about understanding heritage on various levels, the knowledge of the stories that the object can tell from a chemical level to a personal one but also something that spreads over to an interdisciplinary understanding of heritage management.”

Until recently, the science of heritage was disparate and fragmented. The field was in decline with less research funding available from the European Commission. This matter began to be addressed towards the end of the 20th century when pan European conferences began to be held on the subject of science and heritage.  Independently, the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee chose to consider Science and Heritage in their 2005/6 programme of inquiries.

Prof. Cassar stresses how the heritage sector was lucky to have an inquiry shine a light on heritage science, particularly the issue of declining resources in the sector. This was preventing knowledge and expertise from being effectively passed on to new generations. The inquiry did not only coin the term ‘heritage science’ but its recommendations encouraged the development of courses to train and develop younger heritage professionals to deal with the demographic time bomb in the sector.

Prof. Cassar says: “All courses in the heritage sector should aim to extend the research and evidence base to enable better decisions on heritage management and use of resources.” Courses should challenge the ‘hands-off’ approach; heritage science should be open to as wide an audience as possible. But how useful are university courses in heritage science compared to professional experience?

Gabrielle Beentjes has been a senior conservator at the National Archives of the Netherlands for over four years and currently studies heritage science part-time at Masters level. She feels that the course is extremely useful to the heritage sector and especially for someone at her professional level. “It makes the heritage sector more aware of the possibilities of science,” she says, and hopes in the future to be more involved in co-ordinating and stimulating research through the skills the course has taught her.

According to Dr Strlič, “the biggest benefit courses will bring to the sector is that of a broad view of important research questions, and the ability of graduates to question, identify and answer real research needs in the field”.

But what is the future for the students of heritage science? In an age of austerity do new graduates fit into a sector that is littered with budget cuts?

Dr Strlič feels that it would be wise for heritage institutions to build capacity now, to embrace more conservation practitioners, including heritage scientists, in the future. Prof. Cassar notes that for this to happen, the heritage sector will, in the future, need to rely on itself more as the Government has been singularly lacking in moral leadership.

In an age of austerity, prospects for graduates might seem grim, but it is hoped that the heritage sector sees enough merit in the need for heritage science. With fresh approaches, it can look to itself for moral guidance and to provide new opportunities.

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