Work in the collections at the Museum of Geology is primarily student-driven, that is to say that students comprise the bulk of our workforce. We have active undergraduate and graduate programs filled with enthusiastic young people eager to learn the collection management trade. As such, we emphasize experiential learning working directly with collections materials.
We’ve found students to be ideal participants in collection management endeavors because, with appropriate supervision, students regularly excel at all facets of collections management, including data acquisition, digitization, mapping, and dissemination in the form of website design, exhibit design, or blog entry. With such a large crew, collections are curated relatively rapidly as well.
Collection management efforts augment classroom experiences in an excellent capacity. While we incorporate specimen work into the classroom experience, working with collections provides students with more freedom to acquire direct insight and solidify concepts they’ve previously only encountered in books or lectures. Working with collections is a fantastic way to emphasize taxonomy, phylogeny, morphologic variation, faunal interactions, field and laboratory procedure, and the need for proper documentation. Additionally, students often recognize and develop their own research projects throughout the course of their work.
Josh Laird has been working in collections for two years on our IMLS grant. Josh has focused his efforts on the Gale A. Bishop collection of fossil decapods from the Western Interior Seaway. Josh has cataloged hundreds of specimens during his time here, and has developed many of the essential skills necessary for effective collections management. One of the best pieces of advice Josh can give based on his experiences is to keep thorough notes of your activities at all stages of work (field, lab, curation, etc.). Without detailed documentation, it is easy for you to forget what you’ve accomplished in your own efforts. This loss of information is only accentuated when people leave the institution or retire and a new generation has to interpret their efforts. Josh graduates in May with an MS in Paleontology.
Brooke Long has been cataloging lucinid bivalve specimens associated with one of our NSF grants. She’s been working with both dry and wet specimens of Recent invertebrates. Brooke has been lucky enough to work with specimens she collected herself, and has gotten to experience the entire curation process, from acquisition through cataloging. Brooke stresses the importance of diligence and patience when working with collections. It can take many, many hours to make progress, and double checking your work for accuracy is imperative. But, she also notes that working with both dry and wet specimens has improved her recognition and appreciation of bivalve anatomy immensely.
Collections management is a process best learned through active engagement with specimens. These and many more of our students will attest that this practice is an absolutely invaluable part of their training. So put those students to work, even if they may not be destined for a museum career. Lessons in diligence, patience, and documentation transcend vocation, and your students will be the better for their exposure to museum collections.