As soon as Russell Dornan saw Jurassic Park (20 years ago!) he knew “that’s” what he wanted to do. His love of dinosaurs has since evolved to include the full diversity natural history has to offer. After volunteering at the Natural History Museum for a few years, he completed a twelve month curatorial traineeship and gained fantastic experience in various areas of curatorial duties. Russell was able to travel across the UK and as far as Berlin to visit museums and attend excellent training opportunities. He was kept on at the end of his traineeship as Assistant Documentation Officer to sort out the documentation of the geology collection. Russell’s role at the Horniman Museum allows him to combine his love of social media; his natural history knowledge; and his curatorial and documentation experience at one of his favourite museums in London. When not at work, he’s usually visiting other museums, having fun with his camera or relentlessly watching films.
I work at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in Southeast London. I’m the Natural History Project Co-ordinator, working on a Bioblitz-style Collections Review of the 250,000 natural history specimens. You can find out more here. It essentially involves reconciling the specimens and their records, day to day curation, helping to develop the review method and its implementation, assisting the reviewers, capturing all the information generated before, during and after the reviews and sharing that with the rest of the museum sector and the public.
What’s your educational background?
I studied Zoology at Royal Holloway, University of London. After graduating, I spent some time in the Gambia doing fieldwork before moving to London with the intention of doing a Masters. When the funding fell through, I started working at the Natural History Museum bookshop and volunteered behind the scenes for over three years. After moving to Toronto for a year, I returned to the UK for a curatorial traineeship in natural history and spent twelve months learning the skills required to be a curator. I was then kept on as an assistant Documentation Officer until I started at the Horniman Museum in London.
What was your ‘sticky’ moment?
My sticky moment was deciding to leave the UK after three years of volunteering at the NHM but still not having enough experience to get a job in the science departments. Luckily I had a fantastic year in Toronto and got to indulge in other interests more effectively (such as photography). That’s also when I started blogging; it was a great way to share my experiences with family and friends back home.
What is the name of your blog? How long have you been blogging?
My blog is called Wunderkammer. I’ve been blogging for about three years, although I’ve only been doing it “seriously” for just over two. Upon returning to the UK to do the curatorial traineeship, I decided to write about it, so I started a regular blog. I also blog in my current role and have been doing so for about 4 months.
What do you blog about? Why?
I blog about the work I do in my museum roles, covering interesting specimens, various museum procedures and practices, engagement, display, training and visits to other museums. Initially, I thought it would be a great way to simultaneously record what I was learning (for the traineeship funders and other stakeholders to see) and create a portfolio for my own use later down the line. As soon as I started, friends, family, the public and wider museum sector responded very positively to it. Blogging about working behind the scenes in various museums offered me the chance to show people amazing things they would never normally see. It also allowed me to engage with people who had no idea that kind of work went on in museums; people who were fascinated by the processes and specimens; people in museums that enjoyed seeing how other institutions do things or simply what other museums had in their collections.
What’s your “go-to” blog/online museum resource?
I love The Brain Scoop, based at the University of Montana Zoological Museum. They have a Tumblr, YouTube, Twitter and Facebook presence. It’s their educational video content that I can’t get enough of: it’s charming, funny, interesting and a fantastic way of showing people the sorts of things going on behind museum doors. It also brings natural history out of the dusty cupboards and into the light, using amazing specimens to educate and excite the public. I follow a lot of museums/museum staff blogs, Tumblrs and Twitter feeds but The Brain Scoop engages with people in a way I think other institutions can only dream of. And they need our support!
If you didn’t work in a museum what would you be doing?
Outside of work, my biggest interest is photography. Having enjoyed it as a hobby for a long time, I volunteered for various organisations for a few years before moving to Toronto. It was there I got my first paid job as a photographer as well as being able to exhibit work in a gallery for the first time. Now that I have finally made my way into the museum sector, I am happy to still be able to use photography in a big way. During my traineeship, I photographed specimens, displays and procedures as much as I could and used the photographs to extensively illustrate my blog. In my current position, I have been photographing the collections review process and have used the images on the Horniman’s blog posts I’ve written. The images seem to engage with people more immediately and leave a lasting impression. If I wasn’t working in museums, I think I would focus on photography as a career, perhaps combined with my love of social media. I imagine museums would still come into it, since I have developed both a love and a certain amount of skill for shooting long-dead specimens in badly-lit corners of old buildings.
Do you tweet? Why or why not?
I do indeed tweet (@RussellDornan). A lot. I use my account in a professional as well as a personal capacity; I find it quite easy and natural to go from tweeting about films or music to museum practice. It’s been a great way to get in touch with like-minded people all over the world who are able to point me in the direction of things I’d like or find interesting. From a professional point of view, it’s been an invaluable tool to network and engage with the wider museum sector. I’ve often “met” people from other museums on Twitter first which has made approaching them at conferences much easier; it’s a great ice breaker. You can also maintain connections with people more readily once that seminar is over or the conference has finished. I also tweet on behalf of the project I’m working on at the Horniman (@HornimanReviews). It’s been an interesting challenge, learning how to use Twitter in a different way, but essentially the same rules apply and I’ve enjoyed it a lot.
If you were forced to spend the rest of your life in a library, a museum or a zoo, which would you choose and why?
As sycophantic as it may sound, I’d probably choose the Horniman Museum and Gardens. It’s sufficiently large enough so I wouldn’t go round the twist but it’s not so huge that I would feel terribly small and insignificant in it. Because I work there, I’m very used to it and it’s familiar in a way that would be comforting if I were forced to live there for the rest of my life. The cafeteria would be very good for midnight snacks and the shop stocks sweets I could survive on. Learning’s hands-on base is full of objects covering the museum’s subject areas (natural history, musical instruments and anthropology) so I would have costumes to dress up in, instruments to play with and taxidermy critters to keep me company. The Horniman also has extensive gardens and outside space with incredible views, so if my incarceration included access to those, I think it would be an awesome place to forced to live.
Share one piece of advice for those interested in working in the museum field:
The best piece of advice I can give, considering I’m fairly new to the museum sector myself, is to be passionate about what you do or want to do and make sure that passion comes across. Luckily, most museum people do that anyway. For me, blogging and tweeting about museum work, and photographing it, is a fun way to demonstrate my passion. Handily, it’s also visible and engaging (hopefully). If you can be innovative with it, all the better. As in most sectors, there seem to be fewer jobs and more candidates all the time: many people volunteer for years; loads have museum Masters; dozens are completing traineeships. How do you stand out and make people remember you? Connect with them using tools such as Twitter and blogs. Actively look for people doing things you’d like to do or working in places you dream of working and comment, discuss and share with them. Make your mark in the sector in some way so people already know you before they meet you or before they read your application form.
Thanks for participating in Meet a Museum Blogger, Russell!
In case you missed it, Russell blogs at Wunderkammer.
Do you have any additional questions for Russell regarding his profile above? Feel free to start a conversation in the comments below or reach out to him directly on Twitter. His Twitter handle is @RussellDornan (and don’t forget about @HornimanReviews). I highly encourage you to use the #MuseumBlogger hashtag. TY!
Are you interested in being profiled or know someone who would be? Send an email to MuseumMinute@gmail.com.