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Sally Shelton and Gene K. Hess Membership Profile

Profile of a Collections Family

This time around, we are profiling two of our members, because they are a pair, having married in 2003 after corresponding professionally, and meeting up at a number of SPNHC annual conferences. 

What is your name? Sally Shelton

What is your position called? Associate director and faculty instructor

Where do you work? Museum of Geology, South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (also serve as curator and board member, The Journey Museum; collections committee member, The Mammoth Site of Hot Springs, Inc.; the Historic Preservation Commission of Rapid City)

How many years have you been working in this capacity? 4+ in the Museum of Geology; 32 years in the museum field

When did you join SPNHC? 1988, following participation in the Collections Care Pilot Training Program (CCPTP) in 1987


What is your name? Gene K. Hess

What is your position called? I am the retired Collection Manager of the Bird Collection at the Delaware Museum of Natural History (DMNH).

Where do you work? I am a volunteer collections manager at the South Dakota School of Mines Museum of Geology (SDSM): I also volunteer at the SDSM library.

How many years have you been working in this capacity? I was at DMNH for 31 years and have been at the Museum of Geology for two years (when the new building opened and the collections became accessible to me) and at the library for four years.
When did you join SPNHC? 1989.

What drew you to the natural history field?
Sally: I was always interested in natural history and museums, and was fortunate enough to be at a university (Texas A&M) that combined a wildlife biology major with a museum science option. There was no looking back after that. I went from there to the museum science graduate program at Texas Tech University. I think the phrase "You can major in that?!" covers most of the reactions from friends and family. I think it was complimentary. That's what I choose to believe, anyway.

Gene: I’ve had an interest in natural history since childhood. Some of my earliest memories involve birds and other wildlife. I had thought to pursue marine biology as a career but was dissuaded by being advised that there very few job opportunities. That summer I worked at DMNH and was invited back for the winter break and never looked back.

Describe the nature of the collections you work with.
Sally: Paleontology, mineralogy, petrology, biology, archives and library holdings, estimated at the moment at 500,000+ items. The Museum of Geology began in 1885, and the collecting program has been vigorous.

Gene: At DMNH I was responsible for all the vertebrate collections and for many years the departmental library. Birds (preserved as skins, skels, and pickles) formed the largest part followed by mammals (same formats), and lastly reptiles and fish, both very small collections. At SDSM I work primarily in the fossil and modern invertebrate and modern vertebrate collections. I expect that at some point I will be involved with the fossil and modern botany collections.

What are your responsibilities for them?
Sally: Collections management, care and conservation; policy writing and implementation; storage planning and upgrades. We have just concluded moving our collections from sub-standard storage in the basement of an old gym to a 33,000 sq.ft. dedicated collections repository that is also the first state-owned LEED Gold building. That entailed inventory, packing, triaging, labeling, and other tasks to bring order out of chaos.

Gene: Broadly speaking, at DMNH I was responsible for keeping the collections safe from damage; making them available for research, teaching, and exhibit; specimen preparation and cataloging. At the Museum of Geology I work with the Emeritus Curator of Invertebrates to organize and catalogue those collections. I am organizing the modern vertebrate collection. I am setting up the computer data entry system including data entry and scanning standards & procedures for all specimen collections at the Museum.

Describe some of your activities.
• Collections sorting and databasing
• Museum administration and planning
• Teaching undergraduate and graduate courses in museum curation/conservation, museum exhibits/public programs, and the first formal paleontology resource management course in the country
• Liaison with our Federal, tribal, and state partners working with collections and related issues

Gene: At DMNH I wore many hats: working with volunteers doing specimen preparation, data entry, packing/unpacking loans, putting specimens away. I gave tours to the public and VIPs, answered questions from the Education and Exhibits Departments and the public. I taught bird identification classes, and worked with the local bird rescue group, identifying birds and release sites. I also did field work, for example the Breeding Bird Survey (state coordinator), International Shorebird Survey, the Delaware shorebird monitoring program, the Coastal Plain Swamp Sparrow survey, several state sponsored bird surveys and others. I was also the museum’s computer manager. And of course, there were the inevitable budgets and reports.

What do you find most interesting about your work?
The opportunity to work with the next generation of museum professionals and watch them move into 21st century collections management approaches.
Things I never thought I'd do, need or have when I was in graduate school:
• Most of the local movers and moving van rental places on speed-dial
• A three-wheel electric forklift and a license to drive it
• Fluency in Federal-ese

Gene: Two things come to mind, first the variety of the work to be done. On any given day something unexpected could occur that requires a solution. Second, is meeting people, sharing the value of collections with them and seeing them get excited about collections. At SDSM I particularly enjoy giving students hands on experience working with collections.

What accomplishments are you most proud of?
• PERMIT-L, which grew out of a symposium I put together in San Diego on Federal and international scientific collecting permits
• Cultivating an active partnership with our Lakota colleagues to develop plans and policies for the care of natural history collections from tribal lands
• Completing the aforesaid new building and collections move, which fulfilled a promise I made to myself in 1995 that I would someday come back to Rapid City and help get the collections in order. I never thought it would happen this way, and I couldn’t be happier that it did.
• Creating the paleontology resource management course and watching our graduates get good jobs in museum and resource management fields.

Gene: At the top of the list must be Birds of Delaware. Then in no particular order: expanding the DMNH bird skeletal and pickle collections, the latter now having many examples of local birds at various growth stages; contributing a history of DMNH to Contributions to the History to North American Ornithology series; managing the Bird Collection during the thirteen years when there was no curator, editing the local bird club’s journal.

What have you learned from SPNHC to be particularly helpful? How has SPNHC helped you?
Sally: SPNHC has been immensely important to me from the beginning. Discovering that there were other people interested in the best possible preservation of natural history collections was like coming home. Starting with the 1987 CCPTP, I’ve been blessed to meet and network with the best people ever. I also discovered that I could help come up with the answers to preservation questions that more traditional curators told me were unanswerable, and that I could help train others in finding the answers. The best thing for me has been seeing collections management come of age as a discipline and profession in and of itself. In 1987, we were being told that collections management was something for wanna-be curators to mark time doing until they got real jobs. SPNHC has led the way, more than any other natural history collections group, in changing that attitude and in professionalizing our field. As we discover new analytical methods for unlocking the profound depths of information associated with natural history materials, we are more committed than ever to the best possible preservation to ensure that this information will be available now and in the future. And that is largely due to the tireless efforts of the SPNHC people.

Gene: In my early years, SPNHC via talks, workshops , and meeting other collection managers provided much needed information & training. At that time collection management was just emerging as a recognized field and there were few places where one could be trained – assuming one knew of the possibility. Meeting other collection managers and sharing problems and solutions is a definite plus. Also, learning who various vendors are, made it much easier to find suppliers. Remember this was before there was much in the way of an Internet or a World Wide Web. What I learned from meetings helped me make the case for justifying the expense of making purchases of conservationally sound materials. As result of thinking long term, I began recording additional data on specimen preparation. This has just paid off in the ability to identify the probable source of a recently identified problem.