Halicore dugong ear bones

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

© University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge 2013

Jonathon Marten, collections volunteer at the Museum of Zoology, writes:

I’ve been volunteering at the museum for nearly two months now, helping to pack away the collections for safe transport and storage during the redevelopment. There’s a lot to do – there are millions of specimens in the museum, and only a fraction of those are out on display. There simply isn’t room to give everything the space it deserves!

One of the amazing privileges of the job is the fact that I get to see (and handle!) a lot of material that has been more or less untouched since it came into the collection, possibly hunderds of years ago. Some of the ways specimens were packaged up back then look archaic to us now, but every once in a while you stumble across a treasure.

I’ve seen wild horse bones and elephant teeth and a crabeater seal skull with a sea urchin living in its braincase, but this is probably my favourite specimen so far. While repacking a box of dugong bones I found a skull that had been damaged long ago. The right side and part of the base were broken away, exposing the tiny inner ear bones that are normally enclosed inside.

Whichever Victorian scientits had handled the skull before me had realised that these tiny bones were at risk of being lost. Rather than risk thism they placed them in a tiny burlap sack and tied them onto the intact zygomatic arch (cheek bone) on the left side of the skull. Ordinarily we would repackage something wrapped up in this kind of material, but the miniature sack of bones was such a wonderful window into the history of thes specimen that we decided to leave them exactly where they were – sealed inside a non-deteriorating ziplock bag, of course.

This gave me my first prope insight into how complex managing a museum collection must be. With such a diverse range of objects collected over such a long period of time, you are charged with more than just protecting the specimens themselves. Each one tells us a little bit about the practice of science through time. The history of a specimen could easily be as valuable to future generations as the specimen itself – we have to make sure we save the stories as well as the skeletons!

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