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Curating a museum collection: patience, passion & plenty of hard work

Dr Mirriam Tawane, Curator of the Plio-Pleistocene collection at the DITSONG: National Museum of Natural History, is part of the team that is busy building the Bolt’s Farm exhibition. She has a Bachelor of Science (2006), an Honours degree (2007) and Master of Science in Palaeontology (2010, converted to PhD), and a PhD in Palaeoathropology (2012), all awarded by the University of the Witwatersrand. Creative Feel spoke to Dr Tawane to find out a bit more about the role of a museum curator and what the day-to-day duties of this position are. 

museum curator Dr Mirriam Tawane
Dr Mirriam Tawane

Creative Feel: Could you tell us a bit more about your background and how you got into palaeontology? 
Dr Mirriam Tawane: Well, palaeontology (or the palaeosciences) was not my first choice. I had decided a long time ago that I would study medicine. The plan was to conclude a BSc degree and join the Graduate Entry Medical Programme to obtain a medical degree. But during my third year in zoology, I had the opportunity to do a short course in palaeontology. This is when I learnt a lot about the field, especially about a significant hominin, the Taung child. Having grown up very close to the place of its discovery, and what I knew about the skull could only be dubbed the ‘village gossip’, I then decided to pursue a career in palaeontology. This would give me the opportunity to learn more about the field, the site back home, and share the information with the people back home. 

CF: What does the role of the curator entail within the museum space? How would you describe what you do?
MT: Curation is preserving and managing a collection of some scientific significance. These are tangible scientific assets housed either at a museum or a university. A curator safeguards these heritage objects for future generations. As often is the case in the world of palaeontology, where we deal with scarce fragmentary materials, once something is lost in a collection, it is lost forever. It cannot be replaced. Even a cast of that particular item does not hold the same significance as the original material. 
     A curator needs to ascertain a collection is safe from any detrimental conditions. The storage facilities storing these collections need to be of appropriate conditions to prevent any damage to the collection. Factors such as the humidity, temperature of the facility, exposure to sunlight should, at all times, be taken into account and controlled or kept stable as best as possible by the curator. 
     I also deliver tours/lectures to tourists (local and international) and scholars in our vault, the Broom Room. 

To read more of the interview, click on page 2 below.

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