The role of a museum curator

by Patrick Couper, Senior Curator of Reptiles and Amphibians, Queensland Museum

The role of a museum curator is diverse and hugely rewarding with every day offering something new. My primary role is to oversee the museum’s frog and reptile collections, which now number around 86,000 specimens, and I undertake taxonomic research (the branch of science concerned with the classification of organisms – in my case, reptiles) which I publish in scientific journals. As a reptile expert, I am called on by other government departments, private businesses and the public to provide advice and specimen identifications. I also contribute to the museum’s display and popular publications programs.  

Something that starts as a research project often leads to multiple outcomes. For instance, work I began in the early 1990s, assisting Dr Colin Limpus (from the Department of Environment and Science) with his marine turtle studies, led to papers discussing the population structures of Green and Loggerhead Turtles living in Moreton Bay and a popular article on the decline of Loggerhead Turtles in South-East Queensland. Follow-up work saw me heading to far North-East Queensland to reassess the status of the world’s largest Flatback Turtle rookery. The early 90s also coincided with a spate of turtle deaths, following a coccidiosis outbreak in Moreton Bay. This provided an opportunity to expand the museum’s marine turtle holdings. Most of these beach-washed carcasses were heat macerated and processed as skeletons, adding to the research collection. The better specimens were kept frozen and later cast as fibreglass replicas. These formed the basis of our Living with our marine reptiles display (later rebranded as Coral Coast), showcasing the life histories of marine turtles, turtle research in Queensland, our diverse sea snake fauna and Saltwater Crocodiles. The beach and coral reef dioramas remained as popular exhibits on the museum’s display floor for 23 years.

Since 2016, in conjunction with the World Science Festival Brisbane, the museum has been running The Hatchery: Turtle Conservation Experience. Here, museum visitors experience the miracle of turtle hatchlings emerging from their eggs, something that usually occurs 60 cm below the beach surface. The Hatchery stems from an idea I discussed with Col Limpus in the 90s, when we were planning events for the opening of the Living with our marine reptiles exhibit. It didn’t materialise then but has now been resurrected as an ongoing, hugely popular, festival event – just one of many projects stemming from something I began 30 years ago. 

That’s what I like about museums – you never know quite what you’ll be doing next – one thing leads to another. What began 30 years ago, as fieldwork in Moreton Bay, has led to a field study in far north Queensland, scientific papers and popular articles, growth of the research collection, a major museum exhibit and now The Hatchery. To top things off, I’m surrounded daily by amazing biological specimens and work with a bunch of knowledgeable, hugely talented people.

Learn more about Patrick Couper.

The reef component of the Coral Coast exhibit on the display floor of the Queensland Museum from 1993-2016.
A Loggerhead Turtle hatchling emerging from its egg during the World Science Festival Brisbane, March 2021.
Loggerhead Turtle hatchling from the World Science Festival Brisbane, released 20km off the Sunshine Coast, 2018.