A year in the life of a Natural History Curator

Dec 13 2011

Curator of Natural History, Alistair McLean, looks back at some of his highlights from 2011.
One of the reasons I love being a natural history curator is the variety of the work. One day you can be writing a scientific paper, the next, blowing dust off a gibbon and later lecturing on a huge range of topics from aliens in science fiction films to avian evolution. Here’s how my 2011 looked…

The beginning of the year was dominated by the launch of Sports Lab: The science behind the medals, which I co-curated. It was one of the most technically challenging temporary exhibitions we’d ever attempted. Thanks to the dedication of our technical team and our partners at Hallam University, the exhibition opened on time and proved to be very popular throughout the year.

As well as exhibitions, curators are responsible for documenting the city’s collections and this year I reached an important milestone by completing an audit of the taxidermy bird collections. This means we now have a photograph and computerised account of every specimen of mounted bird in Sheffield’s collection. This process also resulted in us discovering some previously unknown information, such as the specimens collected by Alfred Russell Wallace, who, along with Charles Darwin, came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Spring is the beginning of the naturalist’s year, as wildlife becomes more active. Not many people realise that part of a natural history curator’s role includes field research. My project this year was an ecological survey of Formica lugubris, the Northern Wood Ant, in Greno Wood, to determine whether the distribution of this nationally rare species has changed since the last survey, performed over 25 years ago. July marks the start of the bat season. This year, I led several bat detector walks through Greno Woods and Wards End in North Sheffield, both areas that had no previous recorded bat sightings. Wards End particularly proved to be a fantastic place to see and hear bats (and a range of other fascinating species), which was surprising considering its industrial location.

This year, my colleague Paul Richards and I ran a series of identification workshops on subjects including harvestmen, reptiles, amphibians and small mammals. The courses proved very popular and we hope to be able to run them again in the future.

I spent some of the final quarter of the year lecturing, first on ants and then on a subject very close to my heart, Theropod Dinosaurs (the two legged meat eating dinosaurs) – a subject I’ve been fascinated by for as long as I can remember. We also began to select marine specimens to go on display in the Under the Sea exhibition, coming to the Millennium Gallery early in 2012.  For a landlocked city, we have a surprisingly good collection of corals, but they’re very rarely displayed, partly because they are fantastic at absorbing dirt.

Next  year will see me continuing with the management of the collections, starting with the other vertebrates. I also hope to find time to continue research into Sheffield ants, with a view to publishing a local distribution atlas. Let’s hope 2012 proves to be as good a year as 2011.


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