Don's diary: watch out for fish bones

November 1, 2002

Fortnight one
Would I like to come and dig up a specimen of the world's largest fish just outside Peterborough? I nearly bite the hands off my colleagues from Portsmouth and Glasgow universities when asked. Previous field-collecting experience and handling of specimens of the Jurassic Leedsichthys, a fish that may have reached a length of up to 25m, stand me in good stead.

A miserable week of rain, but when the sun shines, and the remains emerge from beneath the clay, they exceed all expectations. Some 240 bones are lifted from just 2 sq m. The fish is articulated and apparently complete from the shoulders forwards - the most complete specimen found for more than 100 years.

Fortnight two
Return to the Sedgwick Museum. Wade through hundreds of emails, then get back up to speed with museum work.

With a major gallery redevelopment due to finish in two months, the work is piling up. Writing displays and sourcing suitable images is incredibly time-consuming.

Light relief is provided at the weekend, with more of the "big dead fish" to excavate, followed by a lock-in at the local hostelry.

Fortnight three
Liz, project manager at the museum, begins maternity leave, so I am left holding the metaphorical redevelopment baby. Drafts and proofs of the display-case text and layouts pass back and forth between us in an unending flow of paper and emails. With an international vertebrate palaeontology conference looming, we get the final circular out late on Friday afternoon.

Nearly miss the train on the way to the fish dig, but the rush is worthwhile as we lift a block containing a single fin that is a phenomenal 1.8m long. A student volunteer finds a promising cluster of articulated ichthyosaur bones protruding from beneath 8m of cliff face.

Fortnight four
The museum is looking good, with dressing panels adding colour to the previously drab gallery. Proofs continue to fly back and forth as deadlines close in and the reopening of the gallery approaches.

Birthday celebrations are quashed as I am called for interview, but this is tempered by the knowledge that a full-time job in the museum is on offer. It goes to the other candidate, but I am offered a new, specially created post - I almost fall over at the news.

With a conference in the offing, the fish dig for me is winding down, although permission is obtained to excavate the ichthyosaur remains.

Fortnight five
While discussing proofs on the phone with Liz, she casually informs me she is now a mum, with a baby girl born just four hours earlier. Decide not to take up the offer to call her about work for a while. With the palaeontology conference upon us, there is no end of running around, between which proofs have to be signed off.

The post-conference field trip to the fish impresses all, especially as the newly excavated ichthyosaur turns out to be complete, articulated and exposed for all to view. The timing could not have been better. Feel like a week's sleep is needed, but redevelopment matters press.

Fortnight six
Final push to get the museum gallery ready for opening. The last of the printing arrives just in time for installation.

We are still cleaning glass when Sir David Attenborough arrives. We periodically have to duck behind display cases during photo shoots and TV interviews.

The opening goes like a dream with no end of positive feedback. The public opening brings in a steady stream of visitors, until a security alert closes the front gate. Somehow visitors find the side entrance and are let in.

Fortnight seven
Time to relax. A week attempting to finish writing a research paper turns into tidying and problem-solving in the museum gallery. Decide it's time to visit London to unwind.

Leslie Noè, major projects officer, The Sedgwick Museum, department of earth sciences, University of Cambridge.

Got a Don's Diary proposal?
Contact Anna Thomson on 020 7782 3168 or email her at anna.thomson@thes.co.uk

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