In a locked room bedecked with both blunt and sharp objects, two figures hunch over a lifeless form lying on an odd-looking table. They’re wearing soiled aprons, masks and large glasses. One clasps a nightmarish contraption resembling an over-sized dentist’s drill. Women, men? We don’t know. The machine is lowered, a razor-sharp diamond bit screams into a spin as somewhere a foot pedal is depressed. It’s clearly no fun being a pedal.
Welcome to the Preparation Room of…
The Kimmeridge Project
History in the Recovering
Images courtesy Morgan Carey Architects
We are witnessing the recovery of a fossil, a specimen buried within an otherwise non-descript lump of rock, probably identified through nothing more conspicuous than a shiny node no larger than the head of a flooring nail. There’s a good chance the operator we’re watching is the globally-renowned Steve Etches, painstakingly removing scurf and detritus to reveal an ancient life form; the observer will likely be a student or volunteer there to learn the fine art of preparation from the Master. We see them clearly and up close because they are mere feet away – separated by clear panels specially installed for us to safely witness the workmanship that normally goes on behind the scenes and closed doors.
What these plans and mock-ups show is so much more than a proposal for a mere building; they are the blueprint for a truly working museum.
It has been primarily designed to house the internationally-recognised Steve Etches Collection – samples of which have appeared in editions of this journal. However, seeing them in the flesh (as it were) is something altogether, eye-poppingly different. Seasoned campaigners have broken down and wept; bishops have fled. It’s described as being of ‘global significance’ and at long last will be available for the world to marvel at first-hand.
Kimmeridge Clay specimens are so very highly-prized by researchers because of the degree of preservation they display, showing cartilage and soft tissue which have, on occasion, confounded previously held beliefs regarding how certain creatures might have appeared and moved. Amazingly, Steve and his colleagues regularly unearth species previously unknown to science, filling the crevices and sometimes spanning the yawning chasms in our knowledge of the evolutionary march (see Editions One, Two, Three and Four or visit the Earth section on our website).
Indeed, there are over 2000 specimens in the Etches Collection, many of them of previously unknown species, and it’s the largest macrofossil gathering of its type outside the Natural History Museum (a large building situated somewhere north of here, largely inaccessible). One of the wonderful experiences the Kimmeridge Project will provide is that visitors will stand on the very ground, looking at the same hills, from which the Collection was drawn. The connection is exciting – knowing there’s a good chance of finding your own fossil just by taking a walk along the coast path minutes from the museum’s gate. All the same, it’s good to know what you’re looking for. This is where the ‘working’ part comes in.
The Preparation Room will be a functioning workshop. New specimens will flow into it fresh from the ground; some will have been tracked for months (or even years) as they emerged from the cliffs. Local knowledge will have played an unimaginably important role: surprisingly little collecting happens by chance and the old hands have the most extraordinary eye for detail. This living link imbues the whole project with vitality and with a spirit of generosity which will become even more important as the world’s attention is focused upon it.
On any given day, palaeontologists from all over the planet will be hunkering about the displays, studying and discussing their observations with whoever happens to be around. As well as the stunning fossil displays, life-sized models will hang from the ceiling and terrify the forecourt, virtual tours of the Jurassic world will entertain and inform, and there are also plans for both indoor and outdoor learning areas.
So, no nightmare but a dream almost come true. The KP is through the first round of funding applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund and, as we go to press, the Trustees have up to two years to submit a detailed proposal. But we reckon they’ll be quicker than that – someone’s been working towards this for eons…
One of the figures shakes off the dust and emerges from the fleck-speckled Preparation Room, removing his mask to reveal a sinewy, moustachioed face, bearing a soft grin which opens up to quietly address the half-dozen rapt witnesses present: “We’ve just found a species unknown to science”, Mr Etches calmly announces.