Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections

Jen here –

Walking from the Field Museum to the Hilton to get my registration set up.

I recently attended the annual meeting for the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC). This meeting is where museum staff from around the world come together–mainly those that work in some regard with natural history collections. This can be zoological collections, herbaria, paleontological, or geological and there are many different aspects of collections care. Some attendees were curators, others collections managers, and many faculty that had smaller collections that they were working to organize and make available.

Paul Mayer of the Field Museum introducing the conference.

I was attending as representative of the FOSSIL Project. Over the past year I have been working with web-developers to modify the current upload process on the myFOSSIL web-platform. Anyone can upload their fossil collections to this site but we want to make the data that are really high quality available for anyone to see – this is done by sending the data to data aggregators like iDigBio and GBIF. These are portals that anyone can use to search for organism data. iDigBio is primarily the home for museum collections data and is a great tool for finding where specimens are located that you may want to do research on.

These aggregators are very powerful. Are you interested in when and where a certain animal lived? This is something you can easily determine with the data input into the portal. In many cases the data are not complete, but it is an excellent way to start thinking about really big questions about biogeography, ecology, evolutionary history, and biodiversity through time.

So, this conference was an opportunity for me to present the work that we have been doing to make the myFOSSIL platform set up in a way to easily send the data to these aggregators. I participated in a full day workshop on the Natural History Collections Club Network, a relatively recent project to create a network of student led organizations associated with natural history collections. This was a lot of fun getting to learn about how people had set up these clubs at their universities and to listen to what worked and didn’t work as they aged.

The second day of the conference was rather short and focused on the keynote speakers of the event. For the majority of the day we were all in one large room listening to these talks. The first was by someone at GBIF and he spoke about all of the available data and how things operate on their end. It was really interesting, especially since I am so interested in data mobilization (through making specimen data available online). The next talk was by the in-house artist at the Field Museum. She spoke about how she goes about her work and the different processes and timelines that go into large projects. It was incredibly fun to listen to her talk about art, natural history, and all of the connections. The third and final talk was by the author of The Feather Thief, a book about a young man stealing exotic birds from the Natural History Museum in London to sell to people to make fishing flies. Read more about the plenary talks by clicking here.

Kyle Copas on GBIF!
Peggy Macnamara on collections and creation.
Kirk Johnson on Lessons of the Feather Thief and the Tring Heist.

Although we sat in the same room for most of the day, I was able to connect with some really interesting people from all over the country. I tend to not be incredibly social, I’m a quiet introverted person for the most part. But when things got too loud, I would simply walk off and find a quiet spot – often, it wasn’t just me doing this, so I was able to chat with other introverts as well =]

The third and fourth days of the conference were filled with 15-minute talks by many different people. These talks were organized by themes, so you had to decide what sort of theme you were most interested at each point in the day. There was also a special session called ‘Specimen Spotlight”. Where you had 5 minutes and 1 slide to discuss an important and impactful specimen from your collection. I did not participate in this session but did sit in for almost an hour of specimens! It was really fun and an exciting way to learn about lots of different things very quickly. Check out a few that I was able to tweet about by clicking here.

I gave a talk on the fourth afternoon about our work and it was pretty well attended considering it was 4 PM!!! Everyone gets pretty tired that late in the day. I had a few good questions and then stayed for the group discussion at the end of the session. It was really productive and exciting hearing about how we can better serve and support small collections. I also participated in an education share fair on Friday morning. This was two 30-minute sessions where presenters shared information on an activity, lesson, or resource that may be of interest to others in the community. I walked through the myFOSSIL website and asked questions to the group about involving amateur paleontologists in the collections, how they could use the platform in their classrooms, or even when training their volunteers as a database management example before setting people loose on their own system.

Standing with a Quetzalcoatl reconstruction! Very impressive!
SUE’s new home in the Field Museum!

Overall this was a hugely fun and rewarding experience. I learned an immense amount about museum collections and networked with many different people. I never felt uncomfortable or unwelcome and everyone was very kind to me. As my first SPNHC meeting I say it was a huge success!!!

Check out #SPNHC2019 on Twitter for all the updates!

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