Getting a grip on Life


Hello. My name is Mark Carnall and this is my first post for More than a Dodo. It’s my third week as the new collections manager for Life Collections here at the Museum, which means I now have responsibility for all of the life-related material that isn’t entomological (so no insects, spiders, millipedes and other creatures which loosely fall under the term ‘minibeasts’).

Mark CarnallWhile I’m thankful that my job is made a little easier for not including roughly two thirds of animal life, it’s challenging enough: microscopic snail shells up to entire whale skeletons – and everything in between – fall under my purview.

There are approximately half a million specimens in my care: mammals (including humans), birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians, sponges, corals, jellyfish, molluscs, echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins and their allies), and a whole host of more obscure but equally interesting animals.

Hippopotamii, hippopotamuses Skulls of hippos in the mammal osteological store

How does one go about getting to grips which such a large and varied collection? Well, rather than starting at aardvarks and working through to zebras, perhaps the best way to learn about the collection is by facilitating the use of it.

Already, enquiries have been coming in from researchers, other museum professionals and members of the public. So far, I’ve had questions about preserving giant squid; the number of gorilla specimens we hold; the sexy parts of crabs; the history of the whale specimens on display; the identity of a bird-footed cup; and a number of queries about our human remains material.

I’ve also been taking the time to geek out over explore the collections, and there’s barely a drawer or cabinet that doesn’t have a first, largest or oldest. It’s not all treasures though: there’s material that scientists might regard as barely interesting as a data point, but is perfect for engaging and enthusing visitors in displays, events and workshops.

Molluscs- Sun dappled mollusc cabinets. I love the smell of molluscs in the morning.
Sun-dappled mollusc cabinets. I love the smell of molluscs in the morning.

This was highlighted in my first week here when a visitor brought a specimen in for identification. Although it was ‘just a cow tooth’, its owners were so happy to solve their mystery that they wanted to print and frame the identification (hopefully this sparked a lifelong interest in natural history too).

So I’ll be spending the next weeks finding my way around the collections and you’ll be discovering it all at the same time through blog posts here, my Spotlight Specimen slots in the Museum and no doubt through our jam-packed public events programme.

Next time, I’ve got a whale of a tale for you. Or perhaps that should be tales of a whale for you…

Mark Carnall, Collections Manager, Life Collections

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