Vlog: Meet Glenn Roadley, Natural Science Curator
Hello everyone, and welcome to the first in what will hopefully be a series of videos from behind the scenes at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. Each week we’ll quizzing a different member of our team to find out just what makes the museum tick. In this first episode I’ll be interviewing – myself.
What is your name and job title?
My name is Glenn Roadley, and I’m Curator of Natural Science at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.
What are Natural Science Collections and What do you do as a Curator?
My role in a nutshell is to care for and provide access to the approximately 150,000 specimens in our Natural Science Collections – that’s the plants, rocks, dead animals. Natural Science Collections are an incredible resource. They give people the chance to get up close to nature and to see the diverse range of wildlife that can be found on their doorstep. I hope that they encourage our visitors get outside and appreciate and protect nature.
The collections themselves are used for display, education, inspiration and science. Each specimen comes with information about when and where it was collected. When data from historical collections are combined with modern surveys and collections we can see how a species distribution might have changed over time. This could be compared with factors such climate change or habitat loss to see how wildlife has been affected and better inform future environmental decisions.
And of course, physical specimens can also be used in science requiring the study of anatomy or DNA.
So, whilst some people may find the collecting of dead animals to be a bit macabre, they’re actually vital in protecting the animals which are still alive.
My job involves ensuring that each specimen in our collection is recorded in our digital catalogue, that they are organised and stored in a way that allows them to be easily found. I monitor their condition and make sure they are safe pest damage or unsuitable climate conditions (such as unstable temperature or humidity). I plan and contribute to our programme of exhibitions and displays, attend educational outreach events, manage collection donations and loans.
I also have a couple of ‘extra-curricular’ roles – I sit as Staff Representative for the Friends of The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, an independent charity which supports the museum, and I sit on the committee of the Natural Sciences Collections Association, a charity which supports natural history collections and the people who work with them.
How long have you worked at the museum?
I’ve worked at PMAG since September 2016. Before that I was a Natural Science Collections Assistant in Sheffield.
What’s your favourite thing about working here?
The variety – I can be cataloguing vials of spiders one day and teaching a bunch of kids about monitor lizards the next. As a Curator of such a broad collection no two days are the same.
What’s your favourite museum object?
I’d probably have to go with our fossil fish head. We think this is a fish called Rhabdoderma – we know it was rescued by a member of the public when it was thrown out from a museum in Burton-on-Trent in the 1950s, and donated to us in 2016, but other than that we have no information of where it came from. There is tragically a nice rectangular mark where an information label used to be. It’s probably a local specimen due to the species and rock type – it’s from coal measures like those on which Stoke-on-Trent is built, between 300 and 360 million years old. Fossils are often squashed due to pressure over millions of years, but this specimen retains an amazing 3D preservation. It’s not currently on display but I hope to change that soon.
And now we have some questions from our social media channels…
How many different species of animals, birds, fish and insects are stored in the museum?
No idea – we’re still counting! Of our 150,000 objects, about 81,000 are individually registered on our database. About 55,000 of those are animals. The rest are plants, fungi, rocks, minerals and fossils. At the moment there’s no easy way to get a species count out of our database, it would take a few hours wrangling with the data. Sorry! It’s definitely going to be in the 10s of thousands.
Is your focus entirely local (flora, fauna, geology)? If so, does this create tension with a demand to see more ‘exotic’ items e.g. dinosaurs?
Yeah, they say ‘nature knows no boundaries’, but our Collections Development Policy does. We don’t have unlimited space so have to be choosy when collecting. Our biological collections are mostly focused on Staffordshire, with much of the geology covering the West Midlands to provide a wider context. We are regularly asked why we don’t have any dinosaurs – as you might know, the rocks under Stoke-on-Trent are too old for dinosaurs so we don’t find any around here. We do have some exotic specimens in our Discovery Zone part of the Natural Science Gallery to help put our local specimens into context within the greater tree of life, such as our fruit bat skeleton, and we’ve worked with local artists to produce a dinosaur sculpture from recycled materials. While not a real skeleton, I still think it’s pretty cool!
I’m keen to hear a bit about the stuffed animals and how old some of them are (convinced that squirrel 🐿 has been on display since I was a kid… )
So we have about 5000 taxidermy mounts (stuffed animals) in our collection, mostly birds and mammals. They’re made by skinning the animal and positioning the skin around a model. It’s difficult to do well and not something we do in house at the museum. It requires a lot of specialist knowledge, knowledge of anatomy and artistic skill. The oldest specimens are from the mid-1800s. They were part of the North Staffordshire Field Club Collection when their specimens because the basis of the Natural History Collection at the Hanley Museum & Art Gallery which opened on Pall Mall in 1908.
We’re often asked why we killed all the animals – but we don’t kill animals for display. All of our modern taxidermy is ethically sourced. People donate animals that have died of natural causes or have been a victim of things like a car collision or a cat.
The squirrel – I presume you mean the one sitting in the tree hollow on open touchable display? Yeah, that’s definitely seen better days. That one was acquired by the museum in 2002 and has been on display since 2008. It’s looking well-loved now so we have commissioned a fresh specimen and swapping them around is on the to-do list!
How are fossils made?
Fossils are the remains of plants or animals that have been basically turned to stone over millions of years, preserving the shape of the original. It works best if the newly dead-soon to be fossil falls to the bottom of some water. The rocks around Stoke-on-Trent are about 300 million years old, and around that time The Potteries were under tropical shallow seas and swamp forests. All this shallow water provided the perfect environment for fossils to form – as the dead things fell to the bottom, they got covered up with mud and sediment over millions of years. The mud compacts and turns into rock, and the organism underneath begins to rot and dissolve away. As it does, the spaces left behind get filled in by minerals in the water, creating a rock in the shape of the dead plant or animal. By the time this happens, most of an animal will have rotted away, which is why we usually only find fossils of hard things, like bones, teeth and scales.
I’d recommend you have a look online for more info because there’s probably some great diagrams and videos out there that explain it better than I can!
What’s the strangest thing in the collection?
Probably our mummified cats… we have two of them. They’re pretty modern, and were found in building roof spaces. Due to the dry conditions of where they died, they just naturally dried out and now have this weird hairless shrinkwrapped look to them. One is on display in the Discovery Zone of the Natural Science Gallery.
And with that I’m going to wrap up! Thanks so much for watching – be sure to let us know what you’d like to hear us ramble about in any future episodes, just pop something in the comments below.