How and why to cite museum specimens in research

About once a year, I take the time to comb through the Internet for references in books and journal articles to museum specimens in the collections I manage. Despite the fact that I give all the researchers who visit the collections instructions for keeping the museum informed if/when their research gets published, sometimes it doesn’t happen. Sometimes it’s an innocent mistake: it can be a decade between data collection from specimens and publication and in the tweaking of manuscripts remembering to let the museum know about publications citing their specimens can drop off the priority list. Sometimes however, it seems like researchers failed to listen to what those annoying museum people said and just ‘forget’ or just make it up entirely.

Recently the researchers and collections managers at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History have undertaken a big drive to try to find orphaned citations of our collections going back to 2010 for our reporting cycles and with dogged determination to leave no stone unturned, we’ve managed to find an order of magnitude more citations that weren’t previously linked to the collections.

It’s really fundamental to the scientific process, the future or museums and the legacy of biological sciences that hypotheses and research can be repeated and that we can trace the theory back to the evidence that leads to new conclusions being made. It’s really important to properly cite specimens and here’s why and how. Continue reading

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Subject Specialist Knowledge: The Answers Part 1

It’s been a hot minute (read two months) since I got back from the Museums Association conference and wrote this blog post about what subject specialist knowledge means when it comes to museum professionals. I felt that the term ‘subject specialist knowledge’ is used so often that the meaning of the phrase has become a bit abstract. Ambitiously, I said I’d upload the ‘answers’ in a couple of weeks but it’s taken me so long to write these up precisely because, those snap decisions that your friendly neighbourhood curator inherently knows when thinking about museum specimens, is such a huge amount of information to type up.

So here are the six objects and the answers to the first half of the 32 questions I posted, that every good curator will know. I’d like to iterate that these are ‘easy’ ones for a natural historian and I’m sure colleagues in other fields can think of similar examples. This is the knowledge you lose when you don’t have the specialist on staff or access to a specialist or specialist network to advice. Continue reading

How to be More Helpful to Researchers

My last post was a ‘How To’ for researchers of all walks of life to write an enquiry to a museum. I’ve mentioned in a previous post for UCL Museums and Collections Blog about the foibles of finding and accessing museum specimens (specifically natural history museum in the UK) and I’d like to expand on that in this post. Accessibility and relevance of collections is enshrined in many museum’s ethos, founding principles or strategy yet as a museum researcher on occasion, as well as someone who works in a museum, the sector can make it very hard to link the people who would be users with collections. Anecdotally, I’ve heard from a number of researchers who have had a poor response from museum enquiries, even well structured ones, and I’ve got a three year old and one year old enquiry lodged somewhere in the pipes at two well known UK National Museums. With ever present pressure on resources within the sector as well as a need to justify why we need to plough resources into maintaining vast collections, here are a few things I think we could do, to get those collections better used. Continue reading

How to Write a Research Enquiry to a Museum

Museums are full of great stuff and the job of many museum curators and collections managers is to make museum collections as accessible as possible. Collections are there to be used, not hoarded for  some future end-of-world-saving scenario. Museums receive hundreds of thousands, if not millions of queries a year about the collections they hold from university researchers, students, artists, teachers and members of the public. However, there are a few top tips I’d like to suggest to ensure that your enquiry is as helpful as possible to the people who look after collections and ultimately to help you receive a response. I’ve written previously on the UCL Museums and Collections blog that museums could be a bit more helpful for researchers trying to locate material for their use, currently it’s not necessarily easy or straight forward to match potential users with the people and collections that could be helpful for them. The excellent Ministry of Curiosity wrote a blog post earlier in the year about academics accessing museums ‘Why won’t you respond to my emails and other woes of academics‘ and I’d like to expand on Kristin’s list for everybody who might be writing a query to a museum. Continue reading