I’ve been traipsing around North America a lot lately for a fresh burst of museum visits, which got me to thinking about the things I need to do in order to do research in museum collections. I thought I’d share some advice about visiting museum collections – consider this a mix of tips for beginners and experienced collections researchers alike. Obviously this advice is geared towards palaeontological research, but I bet it’s applicable to many other fields as well, and it would be interesting to hear about differences! Also beware, this post is more text-heavy than usual for me!
Before going to the museum:
- Before visiting a collection, you’ll need to contact a curator or collections manager to request access to the collections. Write a polite (but brief!) email outlining who you are, what you want to see, and the dates you’re interested in visiting.
- Once you’ve settled on a visit, you should also ask the collections manager or curator what time you should arrive and if there is a special entrance you should arrive at – sometimes you aren’t entering through the regular public entrance but a staff entrance, so make sure you know where to go. If you’re visiting a collection located on a university campus, ask if they can point you towards a campus map, since it’s often a bit more difficult to navigate around unfamiliar campuses. I rarely rent a car when I’m traveling, but if you are arriving via a car, make sure you check out parking rates and locations ahead of time – university parking lots are notoriously expensive for visitors or have restricted access for non-permit holders.
- It’s also good to ask if the collections are closed during lunch, and what time you need to leave by. I usually also ask (or check the museum’s website) to see if there is a cafe or restaurant nearby for lunch – a notable example where there is no food on site is the Canadian Museum of Nature collections: bring your own lunch if you’re visiting there, as there isn’t any food nearby!
On the plus side, the CMN staff cafeteria looks over a very pleasant pond, and also there is an Amargasaurus to keep you company!
What to bring with you:
- DSLR camera – although I typically use a point-and-shoot or cellphone camera for fun and casual pictures, for specimen photos I use a DSLR camera. I am by no means an accomplished photographer and I really ought to take some classes or watch some tutorials to get the most out of my camera, but having at least a basic beginner’s DSLR is important for getting publication-worthy specimens photos. BUT, in the earliest days of my MSc I got away with a point-and-shoot digital camera because I had a:
- Tripod – you can get away with a less good camera if you have a tripod. I have a nice Manfrotto tripod that extends out to about as tall as I am and has a pivoting head. It set me back about $100 CAD, but a tripod is really crucial for getting good photos. A tripod and decent lighting will get you 90% of the way to a good photo if you’re working with large-ish dinosaur fossils; for small fossils, you probably need some different gear.
- That being said, keep a backup camera on you in case something happens to your ‘good’ camera! I also have had pretty good success pointing a regular digital camera down the eyepiece of a microscope to take pictures when I didn’t really have a proper setup for doing that kind of work. The DSLR didn’t work as well in that instance so I was glad I had my little point-and-shoot camera.
- Calipers – I have a digital caliper that I love to death because I am a lazy butt and don’t want to fuss about with reading the actual numbers on the calipers. Turn it on, zero it, line it up, and bam you’re done. They are the best. If you work on very small fossils and/or require a super high degree of accuracy, you might want to invest in fancier calipers, but for me these calipers from Canadian Tire get the job done. Pro tip: avoid packing calipers in your carry-on luggage – I have run into trouble with security thinking they could be used as a weapon, and have almost had them confiscated!
My basic kit! If you’ve got these, you’re 90% of the way there.
- Measuring tape – some of my fossils are too big for my calipers, so I still rely on measuring tape for the large fossils. Also, soft measuring tape is crucial for taking circumference measurements, say if you want to eventually calculate body mass using limb bones. Don’t leave home without measuring tape!
- Notebook and pencil kit – I am a weirdo who likes to write down my measurements before transferring them to Excel or wherever, so I always keep a lined notebook and a bunch of pens, pencils, pencil crayons, erasers, and pencil sharpeners on hand for museum trips. Secret pro tip: only write on one side of your notebook pages – it seems wasteful, but prevents bleed-through of your notes if you scan your pages later or as ink penetrates the paper, and prevents smudging on opposite pages if you’re using pencil.
- Scale bars – I keep like a billion scale bars on me at all times because I lose them everywhere. You should always keep a scale bar in your photographs! I like to buy the official Society of Vertebrate Paleontology scale bars (although the new ones are not as good, SVP exec! Bring back the old blue ones!), but I have frequently gotten good freebies at conferences, and some cool credit-card sized ones from the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology and the Canadian Museum of Nature that can stay in my wallet! You can get away with just your measuring tape and/or calipers, but scale bars look nicer.
- Things I don’t do yet: Portable lights! Most museums have a variety of desk lamps or photography setups for visiting researchers, but not everywhere. While you can still get pretty ok photographs sometimes without extra lighting, sometimes you might want some low-angle lighting to highlight skin impressions or other subtle features, or you might want light to penetrate more deeply into an object, like the palatal region of a skull. I have sometimes included a small flashlight in my kit, for spotlighting areas on fossils and for peering into dark racks and cabinets. I have been considering purchasing a small desk lamp that could travel in my checked luggage – readers, do you travel with your own lighting?
- While I don’t often use a background cloth, some of my friends travel with either a white or black sheet to lay under fossils. Somewhat counterintuitively, black works well if you have dark fossils, because of the way it makes your camera interpret the light. I don’t mind deleting out backgrounds manually from my photos, but a uniform white or black background probably cuts down the processing time for some people.
At the museum:
- Be gentle with fossils! Make sure you’re handling fossils carefully, by lifting them at the most sturdy parts and supporting as much as them as possible. Use carts wherever possible, and keep them on foam – if there isn’t foam already on the cart or table, scavenge around the collections until you find some. When photographing specimens in different views, try to keep delicate parts supported on foam or sandbags; if for some reason those things are not readily available, I have occasionally used erasers (white and gum) to provide soft-ish supports for fossils during photography.
- Be nice to collections managers and curators: put fossils back exactly where you found them, and keep specimen cards with the specimens. If something breaks, tell them!
- Take more photos than you think you need – make sure you get orthogonal views (top, bottom, sides, etc.), but try varying the angle of your light sources, your zoom, your angle, etc. It’s also helpful to have a variety of close-ups for interesting features (braincases, noses, palates), and to have unorthodox views that might jog your memory or reveal proportions or angles that are lost in orthogonal-only views. Sometimes I literally just walk around the specimen snapping photos, such that I could probably make some photogrammetry models from things I photographed 10 years ago before photogrammetry was a thing. I take hundreds of photos each day during a collections visit.
- When you’re photographing a specimen, include a least a few photos where you include the original specimen tag – this helps keep the info with the specimen for years later when you may be revisiting old photos.
- Lunchtime is a good time to visit the exhibits and snoop on how people are interacting with the museum’s interpretive materials, which is one of my favourite creepy pastimes.
Here’s me and my inexplicably hidden face (I obviously haven’t totally figured out this new ‘do yet) working in the Ft Worth collections last week! Working in museum collections is awesome and one of my favourite parts of being a palaeontologist.
After your visit:
- Download your photos each night and sort them by specimen number. I have a huge folder of all of my specimen photos sorted by museum, visit (when I’ve been to a collection more than once), date, and specimen number. I’m a weirdo and tend to remember things in time-relative terms, so sorting by date helps me remember specimens and correlate back to my notebook; you might prefer to sort by taxon and then museum, or museum and then taxon, or any way that works for you.
- Scan/photograph/photocopy your notebook as a backup.
- Send a thank you email to the people who helped you during your visit! It’s just good manners and also it is nice to be nice to other people.
Ok, that’s my slightly too long stream-of-consciousness discussion of museum visit tips and tricks! What things do you bring with you or do in order to have a successful research visit in museum collections? What would you recommend to beginners in the field?