Profile of a Curator
Name: Kamal Khidas
Position: Curator, vertebrate zoology collections
Institution: Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa
How many years have you been working in this capacity? I was hired in December 2006 as Chief collection manager – my title at that time.
When did you join SPNHC? I joined SPNHC in 2007 as a member.
What drew you to the natural history field?
I grew up in a school of agriculture, where my father worked as accountant. Most of the day, particularly during the lovely summer season while all the studentsft the school for vacation, I would roam about freely within croplands in the nearby hills, stables, hen houses and hutches. So, very early in my childhood, I started to build up interests in nature and animals within this fascinating learning environment, wondering about mysteries of life, how living beings grow up and evolve during their life cycle. Hanging around amidst farm animals triggered in me fascination in the animal world. At the age of 7-8, I dreamed of being a veterinarian. At the age of 10, my father even offered to me the privilege of being the keeper of the two dozen or so rabbits that he was breeding in his garage.
My very first collection of objects consisted of stamps. The school administration used to receive tons of letters from African and European countries; gathering stamps of various size and provenance was rather an easy job for me. But I would also come back from my croplands and orchards expeditions with a handful of plants and a couple of beetles and grasshoppers to keep in what I would call my budding natural history collection. It was later in high school that I learned more about the business of starting up a true natural history collection with series of pinned insects in boxes. Later on after studies in biology, I started a university professor career, teaching biology, almost all kinds of biology courses. My research focused on ecology and behavior of mammals. For these research purposes, I visited several museums in Europe and North Africa and used their collections (specimens and data). I then realized how resourceful museum collections actually were. Thus, memorable childhood experiences, teaching a wide range of biology courses, field and laboratory studies on mammals, and museum collections allowed me to nurture different perspectives on the nature of things and natural history.
Describe the nature of the collections you work with.
The Canadian Museum of Nature (CMN) has a federal mandate to establish, maintain and develop for research and posterity, natural history collections. The CMN's vertebrate collections, with special but not exclusive reference to Canada, carry more than 1.26 million specimens from thousands of species, with hundreds of type specimens, from fish to mammals. The vast majority consists of fluid-preserved specimens. Tens of thousands of study skins, pelts, mounts and skeletons make up the rest. The vertebrate collections’ emphasis is on geographic and life history variation of species in Canada, with extensive coverage of Arctic regions.
What are your responsibilities for them?
To develop long-term strategies on and set up plans for collection care and development, while ensuring the collections are made easily accessible physically and electronically for diverse users. All for the benefit of science, education, and public awareness.
Describe some of your activities.
A typical day for me consists of dealing with many issues at a time – multitasking in its purest, absolute sense – from episodic, trivial bug incursion alerts, loan preparation and returns, recurrent meetings, to finishing writing up a manuscript to submit for publication. Nonetheless, I strive to focus on defining strategies on improvement in collection content and care, and overseeing action plans. Because I cannot see myself managing a collection without generating new knowledge from it, I also spend some time carrying out collection-based research. Beyond scientific results, research also allows me to understand better the needs of other scientists, and consequently tune up, when necessary, my collection-related business.
What do you find most interesting about your work?
To contribute to enlightening the general public about the value of nature, and the usefulness of natural history collections in understanding it better; to share research results (CMN’s and others’).
What accomplishments are you most proud of?
I pride myself upon bringing down to a reasonable level a large collection backlog that started to pile up in 1960s. For instance, the mammal collection backlog was estimated at 35% (ca. 30,000 specimens) at the time I took over my new position as curator. With action plans I set up, this backlog was brought down to 9% after a few years. This is particularly true for a stunning collection of thousands of whale samples collected in the 1960s and early 1970s. The overall backlog of the vertebrate collections is reduced today to 1.8% (care, physical organization, data update, documentation improvement, and cataloguing included).
What do you find most fulfilling about your work?
Managing natural history collections had never been a career objective for me. I did set up a collection of small North African mammals for the needs of my research studies – something of a larger scale than the miscellaneous, budding one of my youth; however, maintaining it “professionally” was completely foreign to me. Besides, I was just happy to blindly rely on my technician to take care of the collection of frozen specimens we kept for teaching purposes at the university. Then, visiting museums for work goals inspired me to have a museum career as I saw much potential in working with collections. I seriously considered the option of switching from university to museum, to make it a sort of second stage in my scientific career. Today, I can see that I was right on as my involvement in teaching, research, and public awareness takes an interesting, complementary perspective. The bonus also is that I can help scientists and educators by making vertebrate collections (specimens and data) accessible, while continuing to share with others, professionals and the general public, my expert knowledge in vertebrate zoology. The other thrilling aspect of my job consists of developing partnerships with diverse institutions for collection development and research.
What have you learned from SPNHC to be particularly helpful?
I learned a lot about methods, techniques, and innovative ways of preserving natural history collections. I also learned a lot about my counterparts’ concerns.
How has SPNHC helped you?
SPNHC meetings are excellent opportunities for networking with collection experts from across the world. Sharing work experiences with collection professionals, be they newer recruits or senior managers, represents each time a tremendous way of learning and improving. The high number of presentations I attended and posters I eagerly read during annual meetings opened wide my mind and allowed me to hone strategies and plans.