Inspiring Volunteers | Promoting Collections : Abstracts

Emma Bernard, Philippa Brewer, Simon Wills, David Ward, & Javier Parraga : Involving volunteers in large scale collections projects and outreach.

Between 2012 and 2014 the Department of Earth Sciences at the Natural History Museum (NHMUK), London undertook four digs to Woodeaton Quarry, Oxfordshire, a designated SSSI, to collect sediment to sample for microvertebrates.

Woodeaton Quarry is important as it exposes one of the most complete sections of the Middle and Late Bathonian in southern England, spanning from the top of the Taynton Limestone Formation (Great Oolite Group) to the lower part of the Forest Marble Formation (Great Oolite Group).

Over the course of our trips approximately 6.5 tonnes of sediment was collected, washed and sieved. The residue was then separated into different size fractions and examined. Due to the amount of material to curate, a team of volunteers were selected to assist with identifying and sorting the material into broad taxonomic groups (fish, mammal, amphibian, reptile and invertebrates) these are then shown to specialists within the Museum for further identification. This occurs behind a window in the collections area viewable from the public galleries with a microphone and monitor, so we can engage the public with current research ongoing within the NHM and discuss the project. To assist with identifications and future work, we are putting together a guide with descriptions and images.

Woodeaton Quarry offers the chance to provide some unique insights into the small vertebrate diversity of the Late Bathonian. Studies are currently underway focusing on the biostratigraphy, palaeoenvironments and taxonomy.


Rhys Charles: The Bristol Dinosaur Project: Palaeontology as a gateway to STEM learning

The Bristol Dinosaur Project (BDP) has been a prominent feature in the University of Bristol for nearly 20 years. Primarily focused on outreach, our aim has been to communicate and nurture an interest in science with local school children through dinosaurs and other extinct animals, with the city’s own Thecodontosaurus as a mascot. Over the years the BDP has taken part in extensive research into reconstructing the Mesozoic of the South West, including building a full-scale model of our local dinosaur and curating specimens from the local area. Over the past three years, the BDP has reached thousands of students and members of the public, through school visits and collaborations with institutions such as Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, and Bristol Zoo; our online presence has also been boosted with help from major internet influencers. The BDP couldn’t function without an extremely large group of dedicated volunteers, both current students and alumni, willing to give their time to communicate their enthusiasm in the field to a new generation. When dealing with outreach, it is important to look within an organisation, not just on external targets, focusing on what you can do to ensure that the volunteers have the best experience and will look back on their involvement fondly. Dedicated to equality in the educational experience, the BDP remains a free service for all, but funding issues leave this project in constant threat of being disregarded, and the University losing a valuable resource.


Claudia Hildebrandt: At the Feet of the Dinosaur Project (Poster)

Over the past 5 years undergraduate student volunteers from across Europe have undertaken specimen-based research at the University of Bristol Earth Sciences Collection as part of the ongoing ‘At the feet of the dinosaurs’ project. Student volunteers usually spend 2 to 8 weeks at the university studying and curating hitherto undescribed collections of fossil vertebrate remains from historically and geologically important sites of the Bristol area. Volunteers receive specialist academic and curatorial support throughout the project gaining invaluable professional skills in fossil identification, literature research, scientific and public writing, photography, fieldwork and curation. Research results of each project are published in a peer-reviewed, scientific paper and media articles – a unique achievement for an undergraduate student volunteer and a great promotion of the collection.

The project emphasises how upskilling volunteers and instilling curatorial best practice in young academics can be beneficial to collections and museums in the long run. Many of the participants have moved on to research projects that include museum specimens and benefit from their understanding of constraints and opportunities that are associated with studying museum collections.


Deborah Hutchinson – Doris and Friends: ‘Pliosaurus! – Dive into the Jurassic deep’ Volunteer Programme

In the summer of 2017 Bristol Museum & Art Gallery put on a summer exhibition entitled ‘Pliosaurus! – Dive into the Jurassic deep’. A large part of the exhibitions’ success was due to the amount of time that dedicated volunteers spent in the gallery space. This enabled a hugely rewarding immersive experience for visitors coming face to face with a life-size reconstruction of Pliosaurus carpenteri.  To enable this programme of volunteering funding was secured to employ a dedicated Volunteer Co-ordinator for the duration of the exhibition – Ryan Lewis. We would like to share our story as a case study to illustrate the important role volunteers played in this hands-on exhibition, how face-to-face engagement enhanced the visitor experience and also how volunteering for the exhibition was a rewarding experience for the volunteers themselves.


Deborah Hutchinson - ‘Project Theco’ (Poster)

Over the summer of 2018, 6 subject specialist volunteers (4 MSc Palaeobiology students and 2 MSci Palaeontology and Evolution students) audited the type collection of Thecodontosaurus antiquus cared for at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. This historically and scientifically important collection is regularly accessed by researchers and is a ‘store tour star’ being Bristol’s very own dinosaur. The collection was digitised, repackaged and catalogued with data and images now available via the museum’s Collections Online website. This project highlights the mutual benefit of subject specialist volunteers in a geological collection.


Martin Nunn – Using MOOCs to enhance the knowledge base of volunteers

MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses) have become increasingly popular in recent years. They are short courses (usually 4-12 weeks long), offering both introductory, and in depth studies across a diverse range of subjects. Many of the world’s top universities (e.g. Stanford, Harvard, MIT, UCL) have developed platforms and offer programs. 

These courses offer the potential to greatly enhance the knowledge base of volunteers (I myself am a case study for this,) and museum floor staff. Of relevance to the GCG, subjects include, general earth sciences and geology, volcanism, plate tectonics, mountains, oceanography, solar system formation, general palaeontology, Mesozoic Era, human evolution, ecology and animal behaviour, evolutionary biology, genetics and natural history illustration.

The providers have created online platforms that are a lively and engaging teaching environment, generally comprising a mix of video lectures, reading tasks, discussion forum with regular input from course facilitators, quizzes, assignments and exams. One additional benefit in times of severe budget restraint, is that the vast majority of these courses can be audited for free, with the option of paying for the course and receiving a certificate if so desired. This talk will cover: what is a MOOC?, examples of relevant courses, how it has helped me as an individual, how it has helped the museum where I volunteer, and ideas on how museums could utilise MOOCs into formal / informal training provision, for volunteers and potentially other museum staff.


Emma Nicholls: Hindsight at the Horniman- My Experiences Shared.

When I started as Deputy Keeper of Natural History at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in south east London, I inherited two volunteers from my predecessor. Not long afterwards, I took on a third volunteer and between the four of us, we took one palaeontology project and one mineralogy project forward at a very respectable rate of knots. However, inheriting volunteers who had each been there for between 2 and 5 years before I arrived, came with a rather unique set of challenges and turned out to be a learning curve that I hadn’t expected.

After two of my three volunteers got onto the career ladder this year, I set about developing a new volunteer programme ahead of recruiting replacements, rather than using the same model I had inherited. I aimed to use the volunteer management skills I had gained at other museums in previous roles, and the aforementioned highs and lows from my time thus far at the Horniman, and subsequently felt I was in a good position to set up the new projects.

Before I had finished writing the Volunteer Role Descriptions, some fortuitously timed training sessions came up at the Museum of London in 1) Volunteer Management - Recruitment and Selection, and 2) Volunteer Management - Support and Supervision. Although my line manager was initially worried I wouldn’t get much from it, given I’ve managed volunteers for years, I still thought it could be valuable and we decided I should go along. The training completely changed my outlook on volunteering programmes and made me realise that having a lot of on the job experience in managing volunteers, doesn’t always mean you’re doing the best job that you possibly can. I was really glad to have had the opportunity to go on the training. I took a lot away from it, and have subsequently re-thought the way I manage the volunteer programme in the Natural History department at the Horniman Museum.


John Pring, Irina Bastrokova, Neal Evans: Using Citizen Science to Rescue an old and valuable collection of microscope slides

Since the federation of Australia in 1901, Geoscience Australia and its predecessor organisations, have amassed a significant collection of microscope slide based items (including: thin sections of rocks, micro- and nano-fossils) from across Australia, Antarctica, and adjacent regions. The extensive nature and the diverse and remote locations mean that the cost of recreating the collection would be $100Ms (AUS), if it was possible to recreate the collection at all. The original samples, are the result of extensive government geological mapping programs and the agency’s support of more specific scientific expeditions and investigative work conducted for major Commonwealth initiatives such as the Snowy Mountains Scheme. The slides are technically open to industry, educational institutions and the public, but are essentially unknown and almost impossible to access in a meaningful modern way due to the outdated in-consistent analogue management system.

The management of this collection was based largely on an aged card catalogue and ledger system, which had evolved over time and was not uniform. The nature of the management system, with the increasing potential for the deterioration of physical media and the loss of access to even some of the original contributors has meant that rescue work was (and still is) needed urgently.  In the current environment rescuing the microscope slide collection has necessitated the use of non-traditional means and has seen the extensive use of web-based non-subject matter expert citizen scientists and reference to a small number of onsite expert volunteers. The web-based volunteers have conducted a letter for letter, word for word transcription process of, at times challenging hand-written records using the DigiVol platform. This Australian based platform is used internationally by such organisations as: Botanic Garden Meise (Belgium), National Zoological Gardens of South Africa and the Smithsonian Institution (National Herbarium).

The project has seen the transcription of some 40,000 sample metadata records. This presentation looks at the process that was undertaken and the part played by Citizen Science. It will look at the value and benefits to Geoscience Australia, participating volunteers and potential users of the collection.


Mike Smith: Life as a Typical (or Atypical?) Volunteer at the Natural History Museum, London.

The presentation will give a brief overview of my background and how I came to be a volunteer in the fossil fish section at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London in 2010. It will cover the typical tasks that volunteers are asked to undertake and how, being a volunteer, has led to opportunities to be involved in projects that are not directly associated with my everyday work with the fossil fish collection. I will talk about my particular interests and personality traits that I believe have been of benefit to the NHM. I hope that relating my experiences at the NHM will perhaps encourage future volunteers and help curators in recruiting those volunteers.


Roy Starkey: Hidden Treasures of Deeside

This presentation provides an overview of work I did to curate and subsequently prepare public displays of specimens from the Farquharson of Invercauld collection at Braemar Castle, and the Royal Collection at Balmoral Castle. It will include a historical overview of the significance of the specimens, the “rescue” in the case of the Farquharson collection, and images of specimens generally not available to the public. I curated two public exhibitions at Braemar Castle, one on the Minerals of the Cairngorms (see below), and the other on the use of Cairngorm Quartz in jewellery; and this year (2018) I also organised an exhibition of specimens from the Queen’s collection which ran at Balmoral Castle from March to July (see https://www.balmoralcastle.com/exhibitions.htm) .