As a child, Paolo Viscardi had a morbid fascination with death and a penchant for skulls, offering a limited range of vocations for his future. After discounting a career in a death metal band (no musical talent) or a job as an assassin (a saturated market in the early 90’s) he opted to train as a palaeontologist. This dubious loss to music and espionage was a questionable gain for the academic world and it wasn’t until Paolo managed to break into the museum sector that he finally found his true vocation. It’s where he also found his talented, capable and super-humanly tolerant wife Melissa – who has not only allowed a dead and bloody albino badger to go in the fridge at their home, but who actually suggested putting it in there.
Paolo is a representative of the Natural Sciences Collections Association and a Fellow of the Linnean Society sitting on the Taxonomy & Systematics Committee. For fun Paolo is involved in a range of science engagement activities. He is an administrator on the Biology Q&A site Ask A Biologist, he runs a monthly science communication event called PubSci, he delivers talks and performances on a variety of natural history topics and he runs the blog Zygoma.
I work at the Horniman Museum and Gardens in Southeast London. I’m the Deputy Keeper of Natural History, responsible for the curation of the osteology (bone), geology (rock) and palaeontology (fossil) collections – that’s about 180,000 specimens in total. I identify and research specimens, deal with enquiries, provide access for researchers and artists, write interpretation for objects, develop partnerships and collaborations with other institutions and provide input on issues relating to policy and legislation regarding collections.
What’s your educational background?
I studied Biology and Geology at Bristol University as an undergraduate and my postgraduate research at the University of Leeds was on the biomechanics of bird flight. Many of my research projects involved museum specimens and during my postgrad I taught a lot of practical courses to undergraduates using the collections in the departmental museum, which gave me the experience needed to get my first paid museum job at the National Museum of Ireland – which is where my real education started!
What was your ‘sticky’ moment?
According to my mum I’ve wanted to work in museums since I was 4. Seeing the door into the Palaeontology department at the Natural History Museum in London (the one next to the Megatherium specimen) is one of the clearest memories from my childhood – it was at that point I realized there must be people working behind the scenes in museums and that I could be one of them. Of course, I considered other career options when I was growing up, but none of them very seriously!
What is the name of your blog? How long have you been blogging?
My blog is called Zygoma, which is the anatomical name for the cheek bone. Originally it was supposed to feature bones from the Horniman’s collections and to provide an outlet for my irreverent and sometimes cheeky sense of humour. I’m not sure that the name was particularly relevant in the end, but after more than 4 years it’s probably a bit late to change it.
What do you blog about? Why?
I mostly blog about bones, since they are my main interest, but sometimes I touch on topics where I think an injection of reason is required. Zygoma has become largely dominated by my ‘Friday mystery object’, which is where I upload a photo of a specimen and people try to identify it (usually successfully), then I post an answer on the following Monday. This format was adopted in July 2009 and I’ve done it every week since then – although I’m planning to change the format slightly after my 200th object. This format has allowed an active community to become established and it’s been really rewarding to interact with the fascinating people who regularly visit Zygoma. Hopefully they’ve enjoyed it and feel more confident about identifying and discussing bones.
What’s the nicest comment you’ve ever received?
Comments are one of the things that I like most about blogging – they provide the feedback mechanism that really differentiates a blog from a website and they also provide the engagement mechanism needed to allow online communities to develop. Usually the comments on my blog are intelligent, interesting and useful, but sometimes they can also be touching, upsetting or just plain bonkers. One of the nicest comments I’ve received came from a young boy called Jake who has been reading my blog since not long after it started.
Back in 2010 Jake said: “I’m just a eight year old boy who has a hobby of bone collecting. I love this bit on a Friday because its awesome and I get to see some stuff I’ve never seen before.”
The best thing about this comment is that Jake (now 11) still gets involved with the mystery object every week, but he also writes his own award-winning blog called Jake’s Bones and he’s in the process of writing what promises to be a brilliant book about bones for other children to enjoy. He recently left another comment on my blog saying:
“The thing I like about your blog is that it’s fun, you don’t use complicated scientific terms (I try not to either), and you find out about skulls and animals from different countries as well as what a skull shape or bone shape actually means for the animal… Thank you for blogging so much ! It inspired me with mine.”
That’s one of the nicest comments I could ever hope for!
What’s your most read blog post? Tell us about it.
My most read post is a recent one on misidentification of human remains and the mishandling of this sensitive subject matter by the media. Somehow it managed to get over 20,000 views in 24 hours, which is a lot for me! It wasn’t really focused on museums, although it does use museum specimens as a source of information. The content also deals with issues around the respectful treatment of human remains, which is an area that museum professionals need to consider sensibly and carefully.
Do you tweet? Why or why not?
I’ve been using Twitter under the name @PaoloViscardi since I set up my blog, and I find it to be a really useful resource. Twitter provides a great method of finding out about interesting topics and sharing what I’ve been up to (you would be amazed at the interest generated by a simple tweet about a wet badger). It also provides an effective mechanism for engaging with people and crowdsourcing information.
If you didn’t work in a museum what would you be doing?
I dread to think! Whatever I did, I’d be collecting bones and writing about them in my spare time.
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing museums today?
The current financial crisis is by far the biggest challenge facing museums at the moment. Collections need to be both used now and maintained for future use. For that to happen there is a need for skilled, knowledgeable and experienced staff to work with collections. Unfortunately, financially tough times equate to job losses, and unfortunately some institutions view knowledge and experience (and even collections!) as expendable compared to other public-facing museum activities. Of course, collections are what define a museum, so losing knowledge and experience of collections means losing the ability to effectively use the most fundamental resource available.
Thanks for participating in Meet a Museum Blogger, Paolo!
In case you missed it, Paolo blogs at Zygoma.
Do you have any additional questions for Paolo 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 @PaoloViscardi. I highly encourage you to use the #MuseumBlogger hashtag. TY!
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