Behind the scenes at the Booth Museum

Day 1

Just after the longest day in June on a torrential Monday morning very unlike a summer morning I started my work experience at the Booth Museum in Hove; something I have been looking forward to with great excitement. I was not disappointed. As soon as John Cooper open the special secret door at the back of the museum, I glimpsed behind him two skeletons holding each other one of them wearing a hat and there on a cabinet a bison head and further along a pangolin. So much to see so much that I want to find out about it was my real life Behind the Scenes at the museum.

Mr Cooper also has a shed unlike any other. No ice cream or fish fingers; instead loads of frozen specimens – they are frozen to kill the parasites that might feed on them. One of my first tasks was cataloguing drawers full of butterflies, looking for any damage. It was all very peaceful until 2 groups of excited primary school children arrived and followed a trail around the museum. I remember coming here when I was their age and hope to help prepare a new trail for the museum.

I was welcomed into the back office with my laptop and set up ready to go, seated next to the hollowed out body of a bird of paradise and surrounded by creatures and bones. This is the perfect office.

Later that afternoon, I organised fossils of invertebrates. Mr Cooper was suddenly called away to attend to 2 injured seagulls, that later died. He would store and use them for taxidermy workshops. Gruesome recycling.

Pangolin illustration by Alec Thomson
Pangolin illustration by Alec Thomson

Day 2

In the morning, I continued to catalogue any damage to butterflies. Later on, I helped to update the archives, sticking in newspaper cuttings from a variety of sources about the museum. There were lots of articles so the museum obviously creates a lot of interest. There were some meetings going on in the museum, planning for events and discussing displays.

The museum was quite quiet, until the schools finished this afternoon, when we had visitors and also some foreign tourists, who couldn’t believe they’d stumbled across this amazing place. I noticed some exhibits newly on display, – a 2 toed silky anteater and also a strange ‘flying machine’ that was used in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Other strange things appeared, for example, when I went to wash up my tea cup, there were wrapped up bird specimens on every surface – you never know what you are going to find round the corner. Things are always moving around. I noticed a Greenland falcon on display which I think is the biggest falcon in the world. There is always something new to learn.

Morpho Butterfly illustration by Alec Thomson
Morpho Butterfly illustration by Alec Thomson

Day 3

Today was very busy, with a couple of school groups, first coming to learn how to look through microscopes. There was someone dressed up as Mrs. Booth, wife of Mr. Booth who set up the museum, to bring it to life. The museum is a great place to get people interested in science and history and there are lots of events going on. Later, some other children were having a talk about birds of prey, including hands on sessions with a brilliant stuffed buzzard. Lee Ismail helped to supervise this morning and he talked about the exotic birds he had seen when he lived in Malaysia. He also showed me a photo of an as yet unidentified mammal that looked a bit like a tree shrew. So that was exciting. Mr Cooper spoke to me about the television series Your Inner Fish, presented and based on the book by Neil Shubin, which I am also watching. It is very interesting to see how they can trace back our bones, organs and other structures to the first fish that crawled out of the sea. They had to find the fossilised fish first of course and so had to find the right rocks to look in. Mr. Cooper knows about rocks as he is a Geologist. 

Earlier in the day, I finished off the children’s museum trail and helped to update displays for a group of turtles and tortoise and for some Australasian animals. Mr. Cooper helped me fill in my work experience booklet. One of the main perks of working in the museum, he said, was being able to study and work with all these amazing specimens. Today I brought in a few things to the museum, including a couple of bones I had found in the garden for Mr. Cooper to identify. One was a chicken bone, probably from our dinner one day; the other was not obvious as it had been in the ground quite a long time. Also I brought in a skeleton of a slow worm and this needed to go in the freezer for one week, then brought out again, so that any surviving bugs or bacteria are tricked into thinking it is time to grow or hatch, and then put back in again for another week to kill everything off.  

Later I helped with more archiving and soon it was time to go. A tiring and interesting day.

Tortoise illustration by Alec Thomson
Tortoise illustration by Alec Thomson

Day 4

It was very hot today and sometimes spookily quiet like there are eyes watching you. And there probably are, as there are many hidden treasures, including some of my favourite animals – lemurs and especially aye-ayes.

Today my teacher came in and I showed her around, carefully avoiding amphibians as she has a frog phobia.

This afternoon I catalogued more damaged butterflies – preserving the specimens takes a lot of attention. They used to use moth balls but not any more though you can still smell them. There were also some books to put into order. On the computer, I created a birds’ eye view map of the museum and left it at the front shop / entrance area so visitors can see the layout. Today we talked about Springwatch and about places we know in Malaga in Spain including Fuengirola zoo & a crocodile sanctuary. I also finished off the minecraft world of the Booth Museum that I have been creating.

Every day has been really good and I have been learning a lot. Today was special because the museum is closed to the public; only those with special reason to be there can stay and this time it included me.

Aye Aye illustration by Alec Thomson
Aye Aye illustration by Alec Thomson

Day 5

Just to keep me on my toes, this morning when I rang the bell, Mr. Cooper appeared from a different door. This museum is like the Tardis, lots of hidden areas. So, this is my last day – it has all gone too quickly. I wish I could stay longer. But first, more cataloguing damaged insects.  I have learned that behind the scenes, a museum has to spend lots of time making sure their specimens are checked and kept in good condition. There were more books to put in order and as it was a sunny day, Mr. Cooper showed me another special area, a small pond with some interesting amphibians.

Another teacher of mine visited today. Mr. Cooper has been very kind letting me have some visitors and it has made me feel special and trusted.

There were some booklets and paperwork to fill in today, which helped me find out more about the museum and about what it is like to work there. I know already that there is a great team and that a lot more goes on that you might imagine just from visiting. Mr Cooper is a brilliant mentor and what he doesn’t know about looking after (curating) or identifying specimens is not worth knowing. It’s easy to find things in common as he has such a lot of experience. Today as we were working, we could hear some classical music – opera I think, and also interviews with Stephen Fry, someone I also like. Lee Ismail has helped me a lot too and I have enjoyed listening to his encounters with interesting animals.

I am really privileged to have been allowed to be part of this very special world. It was as wonderful as I imagined and I would love to work in the museum and hope they will have me back as a volunteer. We took a great photo of Mr. Cooper, Mr. Ismail and myself, standing in front of one of the birds of prey. So it’s 3 men and a buzzard! This has been one of the best weeks ever.

Alec, John and Lee
Alec, John and Lee

THANK YOU!

Alec Thomson, Work Experience at the Booth Museum