I’m at the stage of my research now where I’m doing the hands-on stuff. In practice this means that my weeks are weeks of two halves, the first being concerned with the living (in my day job) and the second being all about the dead (in my research). I’ll leave you to work out which cause me the most trouble. So I’m now spending a good deal of my allocated PhD time visiting museums and museum stores looking at human remains, many of which haven’t seen the light of day for decades.I have a roving research kit that I take with me on every trip for which I have a check-list that I refer to each time to make sure I haven’t forgotten anything vital, such as my glasses, the absence of which would be disastrous and render it impossible to read anything or take any measurements.
None of this is a chore as I am fascinated by my research area – and I do love museums. As well as being a regular visitor, I’ve been lucky enough to work in them on various projects. These have included cataloguing and rationalising a large collection of African animal bones, which was thoroughly enjoyable (although if I never see another antelope skeleton it’ll be too soon), and cataloguing a local history collection, the highlights of which were a dead rat and an 18th century bedpan complete with coprolite in situ. I’ve also worked on the cataloguing of archaeological collections and currently I’m involved in a project involving prehistoric human remains (separate to my PhD research, more of which to follow).I have to say, in my experience, the curators, staff and volunteers in museums are always really nice people. There must be something about the heritage sector that attracts the good ones (it almost sounds like I’m including myself in that sweeping generalisation). Take today, for example. I arrived at the museum (late, my satnav having led me astray) and the curator came straight away to meet me, introduced me to the other staff and then set me up in my own space to get on with my work with tables, a chair and even a heater. He popped back now and then to check that I was okay and even supplied hot drinks, including during the staff lunch break for which I joined them. I was made to feel totally welcome.
My research includes seeking permission to study particular skeletal remains and I never take this for granted as there are things that can make this impractical or inappropriate. However, when it does work out, I gratefully take the opportunity and try my best to be reliable, professional and as a little trouble as possible. I also think it’s important for museum collections to be studied by the likes of me to help justify their existence. My study area starts quite local to me and then expands outwards across south-east England so, inevitably, my journeys – and research days themselves – will get longer as time goes on, so a good relationship with curatorial staff is very important to making this successful and ideally enjoyable process for all concerned.