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  • Writer's pictureKatie

Leah Fitzpatrick- Skulls & Science! Museums in Conservation.

May I introduce one of the most amazing human beings- Leah Fitzpatrick! Here to talk today about her experience with museums and museums role in conservation!

**Hello! Leah here! Before we go any further, just a heads up that I’m a volunteer, everything I say is my own opinion and isn’t a reflection of what the NHM believes. Back to the interview! **

Short bio about yourself and your career so far:

Hi, I’m Leah! A Learning Volunteer at the Natural History Museum in London, have a collection of 50+ specimens for outreach and I finished my MSc in October! I met Katie on our first day of university at Anglia Ruskin University and we’ve been friends since then (besties!), even sharing a house together for 2 years! I started volunteering at the museum in 2014 and all of sudden I had a real outlet for my love of nature.

Through training, loads of experience on gallery and a very generous grant from ARU, in 2016 I bought a collection of animal skull replicas to start my own independent volunteering. I use the name “Undercover Discover”, although I’ll be honest, I haven’t updated the Facebook page in a long time! Since then I’ve taken the collection to schools, museums and libraries – I sat down the other day to try to calculate how many people have spoken to me with the collection and it’s around 2,500…!

I love bringing my specimens to people, how often do YOU get to hold a Lion skull? Or know you can ask a question about bones without being laughed at? If you don’t know about something, you will find it hard to care and that’s what motivates me to volunteer. If you fancy me and the skulls coming to visit you/your organisation in the future, feel free to contact me (my twitter is best, I’ll leave it at the end).

Outside of volunteering, I give talks! Mostly with the Cambridge Natural History Society on topics from Man-Eating Animals to Venom, I also gave a TEDx talk but uh, it’s a bit old now and I feel I’ve done much better since then. Last year I won £500 for explaining my research on False Widow Spiders in 3 minutes at Imperial College London and did a stand up on being a volunteer with Museum Showoff. Katie kindly organised me to come up to do a talk/mini workshop on spiders at Abberton Nature Reserve which was fantastic as it was my first time speaking just on my favourite animals.

I’m hoping to nab a PhD in the future focusing on my favourite topic (Venom) or carrying on the work I’ve started looking at False Widow Spiders because, well, why not! I was in the process of gathering more data with a look to publishing my findings this year on venom systems in different spiders or the relationship between Black Widows and False Widows but unfortunately that’s on hold until post-lockdown.

How did you begin volunteering at the NHM?

I pulled a sickie so I wouldn’t have to go to school, I hadn’t finished an A level biology assignment and didn’t want to get shouted at! I remember procrastinating on facebook, seeing the advertisement from the NHM for volunteer roles and spent the whole day filling in the application instead of my work. Not the smartest decision but I don’t regret it!

What does your voluntary role there entail?

Being a Learning Volunteer is all about engaging the public. We’ve got loads of specimens that we take out on gallery, letting people ask questions and hold them too. A number of our specimens are focused in activities, such as sorting out minerals by descriptions or organising various arthropods into groups but there is no pressure on doing them! We don’t just go out on gallery during the day, we volunteer during the monthly Late events, at festivals (such as the Exhibition Road Festival) and special one-off events like Science Uncovered. The whole ethos is about getting people to think, have fun and enjoy their day at the museum.

How does the museum contribute to wildlife conservation?

The NHM does a lot of active research – there are currently 300 scientists working on collections, the labs or in the field. That’s not including the students and volunteer projects, so there’s a huge amount of research, especially based on conservation! For example, our former classmate Emily went on to do her MRes with the NHM and Imperial College, she used the mammal collections to “tag” where different species of pangolins have been collected from. This data can then be used to assess the best areas to focus resources to protect them.

Another really cool project is being led by Dr Ken Johnson at the museum – analysing fossil corals to predict how our current reefs will respond to the changing climate by comparing which species survived or how different cataclysmic events effected these corals millions of years ago. Even ancient specimens within the museum are being used to support conservation of important ecosystems!

There are countless projects, far too many to list and if you’re curious as to what other areas the museum is looking at, I’d recommend checking out the “Our Science” page on the NHM website.

Why are museums of natural history important?

I’m cracking out a list for this because there are certainly a few reasons!

1. The collections that natural history museums have are historically significant and available for people to see. Extinct species such as the Quagga or Dinosaurs, rare specimens like fossils cephalopods or meteorites and significant specimens like Darwin’s finches or Cheddar Man are examples of ones just in the NHM. There are over 80 million specimens, available for anyone to come and use them for research, art or filming (by request!).

2. These specimens, even the most mundane ones, are so vital for future work – specimens deposited in museums have a lot of associated data allowing it to be used in important research. Just look at Emily’s amazing study above on Pangolins! That work is only a slither of what is produced by just the NHM, imagine how much is being conducted worldwide!?

3. Outside of the collections, museums can be the only place were people will be able to see some of the specimens. There will be many people who have never seen a polar bear, a giant sequoia or a blue whale – natural history museums allow you to see these species. Sadly, with the way our planet is heading, it may be the last place we’ll see some of them. Being able to see these animals does help people to connect with them and feel more empathetic about them, hopefully get them to care more about what they can do to help them!

4. Finally, following on from the last point and this might be in my (slightly biased!) opinion but natural history museums are important for LEARNING! You can actually talk to real scientists, discover new species you’d never heard of and just ask any question you’ve ever wanted. It breaks my heart talking to teenagers or adults who say they don’t like science because it’s more likely they hate how it’s taught or they’ve been shamed for not knowing something. That’s where museums (in general, let alone natural history) can be the wonderful introduction to how fascinating things are and how learning it in a different style can help make things make sense.

What is your favourite exhibit at the museum and why?

That’s probably the massive Blue Whale model in the Whale Hall – it was built in 1938 and while it is a bit inaccurate (real Blue Whales are a lot more streamlined) it’s still amazing.

The reason why is because the entrance to the hall is around a corner, meaning the first thing you see as you come in is a massive life size whale! The volunteer room is near by the entrance and we can hear people’s reaction as they come in to the hall – hearing everyone’s reaction to seeing the whale model for the first time is honestly one of my favourite things.

The Model being built! The model now

Please highlight a conservation issue you are particularly interested in:

Invasive species! It can be a rather touchy subject when talking about species that people like (Ringneck parakeets for example) but I really wish it was taken as seriously as deforestation and poaching is by people outside of biology. They can be incredibly detrimental to other native species, outcompeting them for resources and pushing them to extinction, throwing off the whole ecosystem.

If you asked the public to name an invasive species, most could probably name Japanese Knotweed or Grey Squirrels but did you know there are nearly 2000 different invasive species in the UK?! I think why I’m particularly interested in it is because the Noble False Widow (S.nobilis) is an invasive species and I’m extremely interested in trying to formally document their spread.

What can people do to help with this issue?

You can record sightings of invasive species you see on iRecord, especially of any invertebrate or plant species which are typically less reported. This helps scientist keep track of species to see if they’re spreading or other species that could be displacing. I know it seems like everyone says “record sightings for us!!” but it is so helpful for data sets, you can honestly make a difference.

The best place to go for information, advice and tips specific on invasive species is the NNSS (Non-Native Species secretariat) website! I’m including a link for their recording page but check out their ID guides and you can check if a species if invasive.

What has been your greatest achievement?

1. Speaking at our undergrad graduation

2. Achieving an MSc & BSc despite failing my A-Levels

3. Filling out that application form for the Learning Volunteer programme at the NHM!

What is your favourite species and why?

Oh God, this is like picking a favourite child. It’s a strong competition between the False Widow Spider (S.nobilis) and Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta). Both are brilliant animals with striking patterns and get an awful lot of hatred from most people due to misinformation. I really do have a soft spot for “unlovable” animals, getting someone to be even just a smidge more interested in them is such a joy.

Museums are often a forgotten route into contributing to wildlife conservation. Do you agree with this statement and what would you say to encourage people into visiting natural history museums?

Yes, although I do understand why it’s not a popular route to take for wildlife conservation. Museums are excellent as drivers of outreach and data collection but a lot of the support in the field is “behind the scenes” compared to zoo’s or wildlife charities who would more likely have dedicated reserves or provide training relating to live animals for example. Museums also provide way of producing future conservationists via degrees or courses available in conjunction with institutions – the museum ran a programme for 4 years training people in identification of fauna/flora between 2014-2018 (see link).

For those motivated by conservation and wondering why they should visit the NHM, there are some key things for you:

1. The Wildlife Garden! A paradise in Central London, with examples of different biomes in the UK and some very special displays including dinosaur footprints! During the summer months, activities such as pond dipping or some fun identification training are normally run. The way the garden is run is incredibly methodical and it sets a real standard for anyone ecologically minded, you can certainly get ideas for your own green space to help wildlife. Also, they have sheep sometimes and they’re very cute.

2. Nature Lives! Theses are talks on the weekend, twice a day, featuring a REAL™ scientist from the museum. Topics are really broad but an awful lot do end up focusing on conservation, either featuring a project at the museum or someone’s research. They’re still doing them in lockdown and a great one to watch is the “Plastic in the Thames” one by PhD student Alex McGoran.

3. The Cocoon! This is a whopping big structure found in the Orange Zone, you can’t miss it. Inside it gives you details of work that’s done at the museum with videos from current curators, explaining how things like taxonomy work and also gives you glimpses into the collections/the laboratory! It explains in great detail how museums do so much more than just house dead animals and highlights ways the museum promotes conservation.

Advice for people wanting to pursue volunteering at a museum or pursue a career in that field?

For those who are after just volunteering: try local/smaller museums and don’t immediately dismiss the idea of volunteering at somewhere if it doesn’t quite fit your interests. Lots of the skills you’ll pick up volunteering in one place, you can certainly transfer to another! And the biggest chunk of advice I can give: enthusiasm and passion are more valuable than academic qualifications. Those traits are so much more sought after by volunteer managers/fellow volunteers! Anyone can learn all there is about specimen but only someone who is sincerely interested in sharing that learning can be a volunteer.

For those interested in a career: I am going to be majorly cynical here but prepare yourself for an incredibly difficult challenge. Museum jobs are highly competitive, poorly paid and often require specific skills that are awkward to obtain (ie object conservation). Don’t be fussy, if a museum has a position and you’d enjoy it, go for it even if it’s not quite your interest (ie you’d like a position in an art gallery, but land in a science centre instead). Don’t entirely scrap the idea but it’s good to be flexible with your goals and career – a lot of great people at the NHM have a very varied background!

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