May 6, 2019

Volunteering for all

Elliott Cowie has chatted to Museum Administrator Sarah Hammond about his love of fossils and how his diagnosis of Autistic Spectrum Disorder plays a part in his day while volunteering at the Museum.
Category: 2019
Posted by: Sarah


Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

I was born in Cambridge and am 18 years old. I was diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Disorder at 3 and a half. Like some Autistic people I have had some obsessions as I grew up, my earliest one was Thomas the Tank Engine, before I moved onto Dinosaurs. I have also had a few interests like Star Wars.

What made you want to volunteer at the Sedgwick Museum?

I have a fascination for palaeontology and have been visiting the Museum numerous times over many years enjoying the collections on display. So, when an opportunity arose to volunteer, I jumped at the chance.

What is your role at the Sedgwick Museum?

I work in the gallery making sure everything is tidy and where it should be, and if any visitors have questions, I am available to answer them to the best of my abilities.

What kind of things do you do on a volunteer shift?

I keep interaction areas like the puzzle areas tidy after visitors have enjoyed them ready for the next visitor. Sometimes I have had to inform parents giving their children incorrect information about the exhibits, as I have good knowledge of the exhibits. I also make sure there is no litter left around.

Have you always been interested in Earth Sciences?

People on the autistic spectrum tend to get obsessive about some their interests, I have been interested in palaeontology for well over 10 years now.

Are you particularly interested in one area of Earth Sciences?

Palaeontology is my biggest interest, Dinosaurs being my favourite part of palaeontology.

Have you ever collected fossils yourself?

I do have my own fossil collection, some found by myself in Charmouth Bay on the Jurassic coast whilst on holiday, some given to me that other people have found, some have been birthday and Christmas presents and I also visit the fossil and rock stall in the Cambridge market and have purchased some of my collection there.

Do you have a favourite object in the Museum?

I enjoy most of the exhibits on display, but my favourite exhibits are the Archaeopteryx and the Deinonychus.

Deinonychus model

Why are these your favourite objects?

I have a fascination with feathered dinosaurs

What do you enjoy most about volunteering at the Sedgwick Museum?

I get time just to walk around one of my favourite museums, I get to talk to other people with the same interests as me and I am helping the Museum. My ultimate goal is to become a palaeontologist and I hope my volunteering will help me along this path. It is a place I feel comfortable and can be myself which is important for an Autistic person.


The Sedgwick Museum is currently advertising for gallery volunteers and we are looking forward to welcoming more people to the team over the summer to engage with our visitors and take part in other upcoming Museum projects.


Monday to Friday
10:00 to 13:00 & 14:00 to 17:00

10:00 to 16:00 


My name is Andrew Simpson and I am a gallery volunteer at the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and a recent MGeol graduate in Geology with Paleobiology from the University of Leicester. My main interest is in vertebrate palaeontology, however, I like writing about all facets of palaeontology, from evolutionary history to fossil lagerstätten.

Science, like any organism, is constantly changing over time with scientific theories evolving to fit the best available evidence. This phenomenon is prevalent throughout the scientific world but can be very clearly seen in Palaeontology. There are many instances of reconstructions of extinct life being different in the past than they are today. One example, represented in the Sedgwick Museum, is the Carboniferous arthropod Megarachne ("Great Spider"). Once thought to be the largest spider ever, further research in 2005 found it to instead be a medium sized species of freshwater sea scorpion (though I don’t think this makes Megarachne less unsettling to look at!)

However one of the most interesting cases of an extinct animal whose palaeontological reconstruction has changed with new discoveries is the Cambrian arthropod Anomalocaris ("strange shrimp"). The Cambrian, from an evolutionary perspective, was a renaissance. New body plans and weird evolutionary experiments were emerging. Some animals became extinct soon after they appeared. Some, like the trilobites, survived for an amazingly long period of time. While others would evolve into the main animal groups alive today.
Anomalocaris is one of these weird wonders. It was discovered in 1892 by Joseph Whiteeves in the Burgess Shale formation in Canada. The original fossil looked shrimp-like but with no clear headparts. For a long time this was the only known description, its lifestyle a complete mystery. Later in 1911 the palaeontologist Charles Walcott, who also worked on the Burgess Shale, discovered a fossil which looked like a primitive jellyfish. He gave it the name Peytoia nathorsti.
Now you may be wondering "I thought you were going to be talking about Anomalocaris? Why have you wondered off topic?" Well this is where it gets interesting! In the early 1980s, Cambridge University palaeontologist, Harry Whittington, saw something astounding whilst preparing another Burgess Shale fossil. As he chipped away at the rock he noticed two Anomalocaris "shrimps" attached to the head of a larger body of another creature. Not only that, but a Peytoia fossil was attached to this same head. It became clear that the Anomalocaris shrimp and the Peytoia jellyfish were not separate species, but all part of one large Cambrian animal.

Anomalocaris was the top predator of its day. At around a metre long it was the largest animal the earth had seen to that point. After identifying its prey using large compound eyes, it then used its prongs to grab its prey. Anomalocaris then held its prey close to its mouth-parts so they could break through the hard exoskeleton. anomalocarids were widely successful, ranging across the globe from Canada to China and living from the Early to Middle Cambrian. While most anomalocarids were predators, a filter feeding species was described in 2014 and named Tamisiocaris borealis ("sieve shrimp").
So anomalocarids, the strange shrimps of the Cambrian, really are one of the most fascinating group of arthropods known. They are a great example of the evolutionary variety that has evolved on this planet.

Andrew Simpson

This week we reached a major landmark in the development of the Museum’s new Collections Research Centre. We’ve just been handed the keys to the brand new Colin Forbes Building, a purpose-built collections store to house our internationally important rock and fossil collections.  We now start the ambitious task of moving our rock collection – weighing more than 150 tonnes – from a variety of locations across Cambridge.  Bringing our collections together, and creating a space where we can welcome research visitors enables us to take a big step towards our aim of creating a world-leading centre for Earth Sciences collections research.