A Day in the Life of a Natural History Curator

I’ve been working at a smallish provincial museum for two years now, one of a dozen staff. People outside the museum profession (or hoping to enter it) sometimes wonder what a curator’s job entails, so here’s an account of a typical day.


06:00 Up, thanks to my ruthless internal clock. Check Twitter, news, and emails while still in my dressing gown. Sometimes I reply, but people who are obviously clearing their In tray at 07:30 are depressing.

08:20 Bike to work, only five minutes away. The joys of living in a small city.

08:30 More battling against the tide of emails. Once I adhered to the doctrine of Inbox Zero. No longer.

IMG_7656We’re sending out some mounted birds and moa bones as a short-term display elsewhere, responding to a loan request. I’ve made a shortlist of the specimens we could use, most of which need to be properly registered, photographed, and condition-reported. Two of them are huia, which are extinct and quite valuable. One of us will have to accompany the loan and install them in secure museum cases so there’s never a moment when they’re unsupervised. Then I check the cases everything’s supposed to go in and discover there’s no way the birds and bones I’ve sorted out will fit. Back to the drawing board.

10:30 Phone call: someone has turned up at the front desk with a mysterious insect. Now that it’s summer, I’m getting identifications of this sort about once a day, usually garden bugs, spiders, fossils, or things discovered on the beach. The visitor presents me with a small brightly-coloured insect wrapped in plastic, and he wants to know if it eats kiwifruit vines. I promise to get back to him. I remember seeing something like this in a Facebook group devoted to bug identification, find it, and double check in Andrew Crowe’s book to confirm. It’s a lichen bag moth, an Australian import. The larvae spend their lives in a bag they make themselves, eating lichen (not kiwifruit), and eventually hatch out as adults that live just a few hours – long enough to mate. The females are flightless and look a bit like brightly-coloured beetles. While calling the visitor back, I reflexively clean up the moth’s Wikipedia page and add a reference. Then I pin it for the collection, and log the “visitor interaction” in a Filemaker database for our stats.

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

Moa bone over 1000 years old conveniently labelled with 1938 typography

12:00 Just before lunch I meet up with the organiser of the Whanganui Science Forum. There’s a talk at the museum next week by a visiting Massey professor, on poisons in the environment, and I need to publicise it via Twitter and Facebook; I maintain the Museum’s Twitter account, help with the Facebook page, and sporadically feed Instagram with odd museum-related objects.

During lunchtime I have to take my new bike round for a checkup, as the pedals keep falling apart. While they switch out new pedals I try lunch at the Indian place round the corner, and find out why you don’t order the Indian Pizza lunch special.

13:00 Finished checking a case full of bones from the Makirikiri moa excavation of the 1930s, when the Museum recovered thousands of moa bones from a farm swamp a few miles upriver. Part of my job is to register, photograph, and display the entire collection in visible storage in its own dedicated gallery. I discovered that some suspicious-looking bones I was about to register were in fact from a horse, which must have fallen or been dumped in the swamp some time after the moa met their demise. To be sure, I checked them against Google image search, which is an excellent anatomy manual, and the mounted horse skeleton we happen to have on display at the moment.

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

Prattkeeping in the Moa Gallery

15:00 A meeting at the Department of Conservation offices for Friends of Gordon Park, a community conservation group looking after a local forest remnant. I want to do a collaborative research project with an Auckland researcher on the occurrence of Mecodema beetles in the remaining fragments of forest around Whanganui. Chatting with DOC about collecting permits on reserves gives bad news; the permit-processing backlog is currently four months, so I doubt I’ll be doing any collecting before next spring. Ah well. Perhaps I can find some forest on private land that won’t need a permit.

Tweets over the course of the day: celebrating Hector Day, a discussion with the Cawthron Institute on whether river restoration is so great if it’s just for nasty introduced trout, the awful comments posted on the newly-available TVNZ documentary Ghosts of Gondwana, a possible title for the new Indiana Jones movie (Indiana Jones and the Interminable Festschrift), the flag referendum, and the unbearable sogginess of Indian Pizza.

16:15 Flip through some other projects: another loan request, valuing the moa collection for insurance purposes, drafts of new Collection and Documentation policies for the natural history collection, and more emails.

17:30 Biked home in the rain, checking at the PO box to see if Monday’s Film Society movie had arrived yet (no; so much for overnight delivery). I’m on the committee of the Film Society, and handle the projection; movies screen IMG_2110at the Museum’s lecture theatre, downstairs from my office, which makes setup convenient.

19:30 After dinner, I bake granola, and correspond with Nicola Toki about this week’s Critter of the Week segment on the radio. Nicola picks a different endangered and uncharismatic species to talk about each week, and I make sure the Wikipedia page is spruced up and informative. Sometimes this involves writing a new article from scratch, but this week’s critter is the longfin eel, which is great, because the Wikipedia page for longfins is pretty good and only needs a little tidying up. I suggested Izatha caustopa, Chevron skink, and Pimelea actea as future Critters for Nicola. I add a news-story reference to the Hutton’s Shearwater page, and some nice photos supplied by DOC to the Powelliphanta article.

21:00 It’s Hector Day – Sir James Hector’s birthday – which reminds me I was supposed to write a review of Simon Nathan’s new Hector biography months ago. Refresh my memory by going through the Te Ara bio. Took the book off the shelf, flick through, make a couple of edits to his Wikipedia page instead.

21:45 Remember, at the last minute, that tomorrow I’m rostered on to supply the staff Thursday afternoon tea, so hurriedly whip up a tray of fly cemetaries. While they’re baking, Twitter and more emails. And so, eventually, to bed.


That’s my day: a mixture of curation, collection management, outreach, identification, exhibition, volunteer work, with research, reading the literature, and collecting mostly happening in my spare time. Pretty typical for a small museum with a limited budget. But if you’re ever in Whanganui, be sure to come and say hi. My office is right in the moa gallery, so you can tap on the window and I’ll wave back, in much the same way museum specimens don’t.

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