Happy days for fossils at the Booth Museum

One of the jobs that a Keeper of Natural Sciences in a museum must do is look after the scientific interests of the collections for which he is responsible. I have blogged several times about visits to the Booth Museum by British and international scientists who come to consult our collections. Since my specialty is the Earth Sciences, for me that means especially our marvellous fossil collections. The collections most often used by researchers are the fossils from the Chalk – especially the fish but also reptiles, sea urchins and starfish. – fossil insects, plants and dinosaurs from the Weald, but many others too. Eventually these scientists publish the results of their work in scientific journals, and often this means them describing and illustrating specimens from the Booth’s collections. They may give them new names (even naming some after yours truly: Turgonalus cooperi and Cooperaeschnidium durandi) or simply refer to them in describing some aspect of Sussex geology or fossil animal group. For whatever reason, the specimens they publish take on a whole new level of importance within the science: in the future other scientists may want to re-examine and re-interpret the original research. So it becomes our responsibility to look after them very carefully.

John Cooper with one of the most famous fossils in the Booth fossil collections: “Mr. Willett’s Crocodile”, first published in 1878 and many times since, most recently in 2011. It was again consulted by Dr Michela Johnson from Canada in May 2014. It comes from rocks in the Weald and is about 140 million years old.
John Cooper with one of the most famous fossils in the Booth fossil collections: “Mr. Willett’s Crocodile”, first published in 1878 and many times since, most recently in 2011. It was again consulted by Dr Michela Johnson from Canada in May 2014. It comes from rocks in the Weald and is about 140 million years old.

One of the ways I do this is to publish the information about what we call the Type and Figured collection (type means that a specimen is THE chosen specimen to represent the new species, and figured means that it has been illustrated). In the old days this meant actually publishing a catalogue of the specimens in a learned journal, or maybe even in a separate book. But now it is far better to publish on the internet; names of fossils can be searched for by anyone around the world very easily and uploading to the web is very simple (and cheap) compared to publishing the printed word.

I have just finished updating my online catalogue by adding the details of specimens from the Booth that were used in a book called English Wealden fossils which, although not on everyone’s Christmas list is of great significance to palaeontologists. The catalogue itself doesn’t make exciting reading, though I hope that those with an interest in museums, history and science might like the introductory parts. A link to the Catalogue can be found here.

I started gathering information about Type & Figured specimens not long after I started work at the Museum in 1981 and my initial list has continued to grow. The earliest publication which featured specimens now in the Booth Museum is a book by Frederick Dixon on Sussex Geology dated 1850! There are now some 470 specimens in the catalogue. This represents an extraordinary richness of collections giving the Booth Museum a high ranking in the world of natural history museums. It is one of the reasons why the Museum was awarded its Designated status by the Museums & Galleries Commission in 1997, an accolade meaning that ALL our collections are officially recognised to be of national importance.

John Cooper, Keeper of Natural Science

Leave a Reply