Virtual Placement at the Grant Museum During Lockdown
By Tannis Davidson, on 28 September 2020
During Spring/Summer 2020, when UCL was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, UCL Culture’s curatorial team worked with students from the Institute of Archaeology’s MA Museum Studies on our first-ever virtual work placements. These projects, which included archive transcription, documentation and object label writing, provided opportunities for the students to gain practical curatorial skills to prepare them for their future careers while undertaking valuable work towards better understanding the collections.
This blog post was written by Owen Fullarton, UCL MA Museum Studies student.
I worked with the Grant Museum of Zoology in two capacities this academic year. Firstly, for the Collections Curatorship module and then for my placement both of which are part of the Museum Studies MA. My experience with the museum has been extremely enjoyable and it has been a great opportunity to work with a very interesting and unique collection. Through my placement, I also gained a significant insight into how a museum operates and the types of work curators carry out, in my case, primary transcription of archival documentation.
I was fortunate to be able to view the museum before the pandemic and carry out my placement during it, enabling a constant connection with the Grant Museum even during these challenging times. It has some very special objects that highlight what an important zoological collection it contains and this is all ingrained within the history of UCL, my particular favourites being the quagga skeleton and dodo bones. I find these specimens interesting because they are from two extinct species and provide a physical and tangible connection to animals that we can no longer see in life. The uniqueness of the Grant Museum’s collection and the museum’s temporary exhibition Displays of Power (showing the links between nature and colonialism) made it my favourite institution to explore this year at UCL.
Due to the pandemic, I had to undertake my placement virtually – from home. I worked transcribing digitally scanned files of zoological material that was transferred from Imperial College London to the Grant Museum during the 1980s due to the closure of Imperial’s zoology department. The Grant Museum acquired specimens from several other London university collections during this decade as new developments in biochemistry, molecular biology and genetics took centre stage while comparative anatomy fell out of fashion. The Grant Museum is now the only remaining university zoology museum in London. The digitally scanned sheets were loosely arranged by animal group and listed material from fossil shark teeth to jellyfish. The primary aim was to transcribe the entries by taxonomy and put them in master sheets to make the information more accessible and enhance the documentation of these specimens.
The two images below show part of one of the scanned sheets I transcribed and this information entered into my spreadsheet:
I had never transcribed material before and doing it in an official capacity made me considerably nervous when I first started my placement. As I completed spreadsheets and got more acquainted with how to carry out transcription however, I felt my confidence grow and this became a catalyst for developing a new system of how I transcribed which proved to be more effective for me personally. There were several instances where it was difficult to decipher the handwriting on the sheets and therefore some entries required further research to determine the correct taxonomic names in order to cross check the information and file it accordingly. In all, I was able to document over 1400 specimen records – all of the Imperial College transferred fossil and invertebrate material.
The placement helped my professional development in a number of ways. It boosted my confidence about the ability to work in a professional environment, it enabled me to develop new skills such as transcription but also improve upon others such as research and organisation. My organisational skills were enhanced through confirming that all the entries were in the right place and making sure that aesthetically the spreadsheets looked professional and showcased the taxonomies the entries belonged to explicitly.
The Benefits of Working with the Grant Museum and UCL Culture
I am very pleased to have been able to write this blog about my experience this year and discuss how UCL Culture has played significant part in a challenging year for everyone. The Grant Museum has consistently been the main vehicle through which I have experienced what UCL Culture has to offer, however, I have also visited other institutions under this umbrella such as the Petrie Museum, which also boasts a fascinating and influential collection. I am also due to be part of a video detailing my experiences and I am looking forward to speaking even more about the impact they have had on me personally and professionally.
The primary aspects I have taken from my work with the Grant Museum have been the professional skills the museum have helped me develop, the understanding it has given me of how museums operate as well as the importance of preserving these collections for everyone to enjoy. I hope that the Grant Museum has benefited from me and my work as much as I have from working with it! I would recommend the experiences that are available through UCL Culture and through the courses at UCL to anyone as it can significantly help your professional development but above all, it is fascinating and enjoyable. Working with the Grant Museum has provided me with tools for the future and great insight into the sector I hope to enter.