My Space: John Cooper

June 28, 2017

Emeritus Keeper of Natural Sciences at The Booth Museum

 

Photos by Adam Bronkhorst 

 

"Science isn’t as exact as you might imagine. It changes according to interpretation, new techniques, new discoveries – now, with DNA analysis and genetic work, you can show connections between different families of insects or birds in ways that you couldn’t do before.So people have looked at our collections in the past and have written their books, then new people come along with a new technique and say, ‘hey, can we look at our collections again?’ The Victorian tradition of collecting things and giving them names is kind of in the background, but the tendency nowadays is that it’s useful research they’re doing, rather than research for its own sake. You might look at insects which are agricultural pests, or carry disease, that sort of thing.

 

"The constant role of museum keepers is to know their collections and to catalogue their collections – some guy once defined museum curatorship as ‘sticking damn numbers on damn specimens’, and there’s truth in that. So long as we know when they were collected, where they were collected, and who collected them, they form a basis for scientific work. You could test a skeleton for its calcium carbonate content, phosphate content, you could look for pollutants… then you can put this information on a graph, so you can show what’s been happening or what’s not been happening with a species. It’s that kind of science that we can support, but it’s not all suitable for display. I’ve got a lovely collection of fossilised greenfly wings – scientifically interesting, just not terribly exciting to look at. But we’re not size-ist; it’s important that little things are looked at just as much as big things.

 

Photos by Adam Bronkhorst 

 

"I look after the geological collections – we have cupboards full of fossils. We’ve got a mineral collection and we’ve got a rock collection, but it’s the fossils that are most numerous and most significant. The first donation to Brighton Museum in 1860 was a collection of chalk fossils, which we’ve still got [natural history displays from Brighton Museum were moved into the Booth in the 1960s]. It was given to us by Mr Willett, who famously wrote: ‘To be a happy and successful student, one must be humble and reverent, and if the inspection of this collection should help one young man to find his pleasure and to spend his spare time in this direction rather than to waste it in billiards or idleness, it will not have been formed nor presented in vain. ’Note ‘one young man’ – he was of his time, I suppose.

 

"People started to produce massive books like The Geology of Sussex, describing and figuring all the fossils that were known, and they were known because of collections like Mr Willett’s. Quite a lot of what’s in the book can be found in this museum now, so anybody who was interested in, say,these particular fish from the chalk - these are about a hundred million years old - will come here to look at these original specimens, to read the original descriptions and compare them with their findings.

 

Photos by Adam Bronkhorst 

 

"This is a collection of tiny vertebrae (above), and that’s a jaw and those are teeth, and it was a reptile that was given the name ‘Coniosaurus’. This specimen is given the description: ‘Fossilised thick-toothed lizard, right ramus of lower jaw, type specimen’– so it’s the first one that had been found. It was published in this book too, and you see in the book that all of the teeth are there, so what I don’t know is whether that’s cheating and they were never there in the first place, or whether they’ve been falling out since. So Coniosaurus crassidens was established by this picture and the description, and that’s why it’s a type specimen. Then I get a call from a researcher in Canada, that he’s interested in chalk reptiles, can he come over and have a look at this, so I said ‘yes’,of course. And he looked at specimens of this species in lots of different places around the world, analysed the teeth and the jaws, and concluded that this isn’t a lower jaw, it’s an upper jaw. So he’s reinterpreted and redescribed Coniosaurus crassidens. That’s the way palaeontology moves forward.

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