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Careering off course: Jon Radley (Museum Curator)

Note: this article featured on the previous Palaeontological Association website but was not part of the Careering off Course! Newsletter series; however it is now included within the series for consistency.

Dr. Jon Radley has for the last 20 years worked as a geologist principally within the museum sector and has developed expertise in the public understanding and interpretation of science, collecting philosophies, and geoconservation. Jon also has a spare-time research profile, notably concerning the Lower and Middle Jurassic strata of central England and the non-marine Lower Cretaceous strata of southern England.


My job

I work as Keeper of Geology for Warwickshire's County Museum Service. I am based at the Market Hall Museum Warwick, working closely with Keepers of non-geological collections, as well as designers, managers and administrative staff. I am employed to protect and promote Warwickshire's varied but threatened geological heritage, represented by existing collections and geological features in their natural field contexts. The work is extremely varied and during any working day I can find myself dealing with dozens of tasks and enquiries, geological and non-geological.

Working with existing collections remains a vital part of the job, but finding sufficient time is challenging. Ongoing work includes monitoring the physical conditions of stores, computer documentation of backlogs and augmenting the collections with new material. These tasks have to be juggled with demands from general enquiries, provision of events, exhibitions and talks, dealing with planning applications, updating site records, working with local groups and supervising volunteers, to name but a few.

Purely academic research, though encouraged and valued, remains a largely spare-time activity. Work-based fieldwork mainly involves documenting new geological exposures, which provides data for Warwickshire Museum's Geological Localities Record Centre.

How I got there.

I first started collecting rocks at the age of six on a family holiday to the Peak District. I spent my teenage years living in Buckinghamshire where I became interested in the local late Jurassic succession. I ultimately studied geology at what was then Oxford Polytechnic (now Oxford Brookes). I later continued my researches into the late Jurassic Portland Beds at Keele University, writing up my results for a Master's degree in the late 1980s. After a brief spell as field geologist with the Buckinghamshire County Museum, I studied micropalaeontology at University College London, for another Master's degree. Whilst I enjoyed museums, job prospects at that time were poor and industrial micropalaeontology seemed a better bet.

Despite the scarcity of jobs I was offered the post of Assistant Curator at the Museum of Isle of Wight Geology, soon after finishing at University College. Here I gained my first real experience with museum collections and studied for a Postgraduate Certificate in Museum Studies (Leicester), an extremely useful qualification nowadays. I also developed interests in the dinosaur-bearing early Cretaceous Wealden beds, applying my previous experiences in palaeoecology, sedimentology and micropalaeontology to solve palaeoenvironmental questions. Publications arising from this work formed the basis of a part-time Ph.D. at Portsmouth.

Following a mercifully brief spell at Bristol City Museum in the mid 1990s I became involved in project work based at PRIS, University of Reading, drafting a major publication on Wealden sites with Prof. Perce Allen. As the contract ended I managed to get back into the world of museums (my current post in Warwickshire), but Perce and I continue our writing.

Is this the usual route?

Purely geological posts are scarce in local authority museums, and competition is intense. My route into this field is certainly not typical. A good first degree is vital and a postgraduate museum qualification advantageous, but two Master's degrees and a doctorate are well over the top. However a postgraduate qualification in palaeontology can certainly help. Note that dinosaurs and marine reptiles remain extremely popular, so some knowledge of vertebrate palaeontology can go a long way in some institutions.

It should also be borne in mind that academic research often takes a back seat in local authority museums. However, a thorough understanding of geological and palaeontological principles leads to an enriched understanding and appreciation of geological collections, which is great for job satisfaction and work quality.

I consider myself extremely fortunate in working as part of a small but highly motivated team, dedicated to making the most of and protecting Warwickshire's human and natural heritage. Warwickshire's geology is sufficiently 'cryptic' to negate the sorts of pressures associated with highly fossiliferous coastal areas, but includes many features of outstanding interest and presents unique challenges in its own right.

Working in a well-managed museum as part of a strong team can be extremely rewarding and challenging. A position as geologist and/or natural historian will ensure the opportunity to tackle a wide range of tasks and contribute significantly to the public understanding and appreciation of palaeontology.

As for research, I still find spare time to pursue my interests in shell bed sedimentology and palaeoecology, both locally and further afield. In recent email correspondence, Susan Kidwell (University of Chicago) referred to the British Jurassic as a 'candy shop', with reference to the potential of its skeletal concentrations for information gain. This is no exaggeration and I'm starting to discover fantastic things right on my doorstep, keeping me busy between trips further afield. A range of new materials is now entering Warwickshire Museum's collections, some of which are already featuring in exhibitions and displays.

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