Examples of work: Erasmus Darwin House

Introduction   Materials   Action Taken   Future


Erasmus Darwin House (EDH) is an independent museum supported by the Erasmus Darwin Foundation. The museum is in the former home of Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather, exploring his life and work in science, geology and biology. As well as several fossils on display in recreation of Erasmus Darwin’s study, the museum also has a number of fossils and other geological specimens stored in cupboards on site. These were mostly brought in by a volunteer and are used as a handling collection however one box of fossils and corals was donated by Councillor Gwyneth Boyle.

I conducted a benchmark assessment of the standards of care for the geology collections at EDH in January 2012. For objects in the stores, inappropriate storage materials such as non-archival tissue and bubble wrap were being used and the arrangement of objects was causing some abrasion. It was recommended that the geological specimens in the stores be repacked so that those loose in bags or boxes were at less risk of damage and more accessible.

I returned to EDH on the 19th March 2012 to assist with repacking work. Curator Alison Wallis and Tom Hobbs, another member of staff, were trained in how to pack, care for and identify fossils, and were advised on the best conditions for storage as well as possible uses for the collection in the future. PMAG were able to provide materials for this project through a grant from the Geologists’ Association Curry Fund, as well as staff time as part of the West Midlands Regional Geology Stewardship project, which is funded by the Esmée Fairburn Foundation.

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  •  1 x 7L Really Useful Box
  • 3 x 9L Really Useful Box
  • 20 sheets archival acid-free tissue paper (buffered)
  • 1.5m2 thick black plastazote
  • 2m2 thin black plastazote.
  • Approx. 50 polyethylene zipper bags of various sizes
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Action taken and project outcomes

Gwyneth Boyle collection – 14 specimens: 8 ammonites, 1 brachiopod, 1 other mollusc, 2 pieces of recent coral, 1 piece of recent sponge and 1 tooth shaped fossil. The 7L flat ‘Really Useful’ box was lined with 2 layers of thick plastazote. The fossils were then arranged on the plastazote and their outlines marked in pencil. Alison then worked to cut the correct shaped holes in the plastazote to support the specimens.

Condition and storage of fossils from the Gwyneth Boyle collection before repacking work.

Condition and storage of fossils from the Gwyneth Boyle collection after repacking work.

There were two other boxes of specimens. One of ‘minerals’, including a large folded schist and a piece of pyrite with extensive printed label information. The other box contained 50-60 fossils which were in thin plastic bags with only some non-archival tissue and bubble-wrap for padding

Fossils in the handling collection before repacking work.

Fossils in the handling collection after repacking work.

First the large minerals were wrapped and packed into one of the 9L ‘Really Useful’ boxes. Labels were written in archival ink on acid-free paper and the large schist was packed into a large zipper bag with a nest of acid-free tissue. The pyrite was put in a white card lidded box, padded with tissue and plastazote then put in a zipper bag with the printed label. Large sea urchin casts were also boxed and wrapped and stored in this box.

The next task was to sort the fossils into types: ammonites, bivalves, Gryphaea, fossil plants, etc. Many of the specimens had previously been identified to the genus or family level. These identifications were checked before making new labels.

The larger ammonites were bagged individually with nests of tissue and placed in the bottom of the second 9L ‘Really Useful’ box, along with the more robust fossil plant specimens. It was decided that smaller, lighter ammonites could be placed on top of these. The more interesting and well-preserved specimens were bagged individually while several more robust examples of the ammonite Promicroceras were placed in the same bag, padded with tissue and laid flat.

Newly packed fossils: first layer.

Newly packed fossils: second layer.

The remaining fossils, which included around 25 Gryphaea and a few bivalves and other molluscs (non-ammonites) were bagged, nested and labelled and put in a third 9L ‘Really Useful’ box. Finally each box was labelled with a card ‘Timecare’ box label in an adhesive plastic sleeve, identifying the types of fossils or minerals housed (e.g. ammonites, bivalves, etc.).

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The future of the collection

The packing project took 1 day, from 9.30am to 3pm. Alison and Tom were able to learn about the best ways to store geological specimens and how to handle and package objects for storage. During packing work, methods of identification and the characteristics of the fossil species in the collection were discussed, as well as ideas about how to use the specimens for educational events and displays. Staff were also given an advice pack on caring for and using geology collections.

The packing work has meant that the specimens are now stored in excellent conditions and staff have a much better understanding of geology and best practice for storage of natural science collections. The objects are now much more accessible and it has been useful to identify which specimens are suitable for educational handling and which are more suitable for display. It is now recommended that EDH accession, mark and clearly label the specimens they wish to keep and create a spreadsheet or database record of all the objects in the collection.

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Alison and Tom packing the fossils.


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