From mammoth poo to supercomputers: A work placement with National Museums Scotland

Before starting my placement at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, I had visited two or three times. One day was never enough, considering that it houses five different sections, each able to stand as a museum on its own. This is something I really enjoy about it, as a visitor and as an intern, since it offers a holistic approach with connections springing out between topics that might seem unrelated at first glance. Even sharing the morning coffee with staff from World Cultures is a great way to avoid focusing too much on your topic and forgetting about everything else!

I came here as part of my Masters in Science Communication and Public Engagement at the University of Edinburgh. With a degree in biology and most of my work experience coming from research labs, I have to confess the museum environment seemed quite daunting, but an interesting challenge anyway. Most of my placement took place at the Department of Science and Technology (Keeper Alexander Hayward). My main supervisor was Klaus Staubermann, Principal Curator of Technology and co-supervisor Alison Taubman, Principal Curator of Communications.

On my first day, I was introduced to the Science and Technology Department and also to Learning and Programmes, who gave me an overview of what they do, which was very relevant to my studies. I was taken for a tour around the current Science and Technology galleries and got familiar with some plans for refurbishment and new galleries. My first task was to do some research on 3D printing leading up to an event for the Edinburgh International Science Festival.

My core task was to do research on a currently developing gallery about communications, and specifically about recent advances in computing and processing capacity. Here, my background in the life sciences came in handy, since many cutting edge applications (such as the Human Genome Project and the Human Brain Project) depend on supercomputers. I was also encouraged to develop an interactive for this gallery. Walking around the museum and observing to what extent visitors engaged with the interactives was an extremely useful exercise in the process of developing my own.

Klaus and Elsa Davidson (Curator of Technology) were kind enough to take me along to a trip to ARTEMIS Intelligent Power, a University of Edinburgh spin-off engineering company developing hydraulic power technologies. There, a possible collaboration was discussed, and we had the chance to look around, meet many employees and learn about the history and objectives of the organization. I was impressed by how many young inspired people worked there and I believe it should be an example for many workplaces. However, I was surprised by the lack of female employees. Are women so uninterested in engineering? Or are there other factors still keeping this profession male-dominated?

A peek at the amazing engineering world of ARTEMIS. Image courtesy of Artemis Intelligent Power.
A peek at the amazing engineering world of ARTEMIS. Image courtesy of Artemis Intelligent Power.

An unforgettable experience was visiting the National Museums Collection Centre at Granton. The amount of objects collected as well as the time span that is covered is truly astonishing. Additionally, seeing objects in storage gives you a good idea of the value of exhibiting and interpreting. Without labels telling stories, the objects appear naked and almost meaningless. Realising the cultural wealth ‘hidden’ in storage and how objects on exhibit are only the surface of this treasure was something unexpected.

Me marvelling at the heart of ATLAS, one of the world’s first supercomputers, at Granton
Me marvelling at the heart of ATLAS, one of the world’s first supercomputers, at Granton.

During my placement, I also had the chance to meet the Communications team and had a chat with Communications Officer Bruce Blacklaw about various roles in the interface between the Museum and the ‘outside’ world (marketing, PR, media and press relations). We also discussed what makes a topic newsworthy and how an interesting and informing press release should look. I wrote my own press release about the Mammoth Poo Detectives workshop planned for the Edinburgh International Science Festival and was glad to know it would actually be used by the Department. I also attended a photo shoot for a newspaper feature on the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which was exciting not least because of the privilege of seeing an exhibition before it was officially launched.

Finally, I had a brief discussion with Development Manager Charlotte di Corpo about fundraising and met Rose Watban, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Design in the Art and Design Department, to find out about the history of some of the collections, the challenges of bringing a gallery together and the infinite possibilities for inter-departmental collaborations.

Overall, my experience as an intern at the Museum was very interesting and rewarding. Klaus and Alison ensured I had great guidance and used my time productively, but also Maureen Kerr, Departmental Administrator, made sure my placement ran smoothly. Everyone at the Department of Science and Technology was very friendly and helpful, and people from other departments were happy to give me an idea of the work they do. I have to say I enjoyed my time here, met some lovely people, and enriched my own set of skills. Last but not least, I got familiar with a workplace I knew very little about and will consider further volunteering and maybe even work experience in the museums sector.

ATLAS supercomputer
My ATLAS impression

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