Iziko South African Museum

My fascination with museums started when I was a young child, growing up in Cape Town South Africa. My parents and grandparents often took me and my siblings to the Iziko South African Museum in Cape Town and I even had a couple of birthday parties in the gardens and the planetarium attached to the museum. I was obsessed with dinosaurs and fossils as a kid and one of my prized possessions was a fossilised piece of wood that my grandfather gave me. As a kid, I was frustrated by the lack of known African dinosaurs especially compared with the diverse and famous northern hemisphere dinosaur assemblages. In spite of this, the museum had some exhibits of amazing creatures called cynodonts and their fossilised burrows (see http://dev.iziko.org.za.dedi6.cpt3.host-h.net/collections/karoo-palaeontology for pictures). These creatures are part of the therapsid or “mammal-like reptile” group which, over time gave rise to the mammals we know today.

One of my other favourite exhibits was the whale gallery, which had amazing assembled whale skeletons suspended overhead and a wonderful chamber that you could climb into that played whale songs.

Later, when I was a teenager I spent a week at the Iziko museum job-shadowing a palaeontologist and learning to prepare fossils with his technical assistants. I found that the people who worked in the museum were fascinating and fun and this behind-the-scenes access made me want to work in a museum.

In 2008, I started a PhD in Zoology at the University of Adelaide, South Australia. Two of my supervisors were museum staff and I spent a great deal of time using the museum labs and learning about taxonomy and systematics of invertebrates. Taxonomy and systematics are the fields that study how all organisms are related to each other and discover and name new species. Prior to starting my PhD, I volunteered in the palaeontology lab at the South Australian Museum and spent a few weeks helping to re-assemble a large fossil egg from the extinct, giant Australian bird species, Genyornis newtoni. It was like building a delicate jig-saw puzzle with missing pieces and eroded edges – not an easy task!

After I completed my PhD, I got my first job in a museum, which was very exciting. I moved to Perth, Western Australia to start a 3 year position as a Research Officer in the Western Australian Museum. While I am not employed by the museum anymore, I still work there sometimes as a Research Associate, in a facility called the Collections and Research Centre where the collections are kept for study and preservation (https://www.facebook.com/WAMCollectionsandResearch/). The main Perth museum which houses the galleries has been closed for a few years while most of the building was being rebuilt and expanded. The new museum is due to open in November this year and everyone is very excited (http://museum.wa.gov.au/newmuseum). One of the main attractions will be an amazing assembled Blue Whale skeleton, suspended above the gallery. I have been lucky enough to contribute to one of the galleries which will feature subterranean animals, which are my area of expertise. These animals have completely adapted to living in the dark and so have reduced or lost their eyes completely as well as their pigment, which makes them a pale or translucent colour.

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Kym Abrams