The Secret Life of a Museum Manager

Behind the scenes at the UNE Natural History Museum

Natural history museums are some of the most amazing institutions on Earth. They are treasure troves of knowledge housing specimens collected over many decades, or even centuries! I find myself in the very lucky situation where I manage the UNE Natural History Museum (NHM) in conjunction with UNE Discovery. The NHM is the only such institution between Armidale and Sydney and Armidale and Brisbane, making it a unique collection in a special place. As such, I felt it would be nice to document different aspects of my position and the use of the museum itself.

The museum collection is over 50 years old and was moved into a new home within the University about two years ago. To align with this move, a display to showcase the nicest parts of our collection was constructed. We have an amazing array of marine and terrestrial animals, insects, taxidermy and skeleton specimens, along with pretty minerals, flowers and even fossils. The most recent addition to our collection is a southern cassowary, a specimen not often seen in even Australian NHM collections.

However, we have limited space for the display, so only 1% of the collection is on show. The back end of the collection—the side most people do not get to see or even know exists—is even more diverse than the display. The majority of the rest of the collection are specimens in jars, somewhat like a scene out of Harry Potter: lots of shells, eggs and bird skins. These are mostly used in teaching but also in research. Work I have conducted outside of UNE Discovery has been micro-CT scanning some of the wet specimens (specimens in jars) to explore the insides without cutting them up. Which is nice as it saves mess!

Part of the job as a museum manager is documenting all parts of the collection. After all, if we do not know what we have we cannot tell people what we have! This means we have trouble attracting other researchers to visit us. To solve this issue and document our collection I have spent a lot of time photographing specimens in the collection. To do this, I pull out a bunch of jars, skeletons, bones, and dead things, putting them in the limelight and taking some snapshots. At present, we are about half way through the specimens in jars and will continue through the rest of this year, likely into next year to document all of our specimens and showcase this unique collection to the rest of the world.

Museums have one other use besides research and being a place to house specimens: museums are places of education and knowledge. The education side of my job with UNE Discovery involves taking visits from school and university classes in the museum itself. I introduce classes of all ages to various aspects of natural history through observations of form and function, anatomy and evolution/adaptation. This is probably the most fun part of my job. I have the opportunity to explore  natural science with students who might not often have the chance to consider this part of the world around us in any detail. And that is the most rewarding part of the museum position! It is in these moments that minds are opened to new, creative possibilities and science becomes much more accessible, relatable and interesting!

– By Russell Bicknell, UNE NHM Manager and horseshoe crab palaeontologist and conservationist