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How did you become... Head of Life Collections

8 April 14 -- jsuess
Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections, Museum of Natural History

The short answer is enthusiasm, volunteering and a lot of luck. Terry Denman, my junior school teacher, gave me four hissing cockroaches when I left for the ‘big school’. I doubt he realised that he’d unleashed a passion (some would say obsession) for insects that is still with me today. I was unfortunate enough to be born and raised in Coventry. However, the one advantage of that city was the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum (HAGM), where as a precocious 15 year old I embarked on two weeks work experience with Adam Wright and Chris Palmer. After day one I had decided I wanted to be a museum entomologist and returned that summer to volunteer. In fact they didn’t get rid of me until I left Coventry some years later. Adam and Ray Barnett (who had replaced Chris by then) were joined by Steve Lane and others to form the ‘Coventry Ecological Survey’, a group of entomologists who were to give me the best entomological education I could have wished for, and I owe much to their early influences. Although cockroaches were my first love, apart from the restaurants and hospitals, Coventry lacked my chosen specialism, so with the help of the HAGM staff I branched out into sawflies, hoverflies and beetles. I soon delved in to the world of dung beetles and became a complete devotee.

Darren at the Museum's 'Bug Club' event 'How to pin insects'

I studied on the now defunct postgraduate diploma in ‘Insect Taxonomy and Systematics’ at Cardiff University, and as it turns out, this was probably the most fortuitous event in my career. This course not only encouraged me to take on challenges in taxonomy and identification, but also introduced me to John Deeming, Ashley Kirk-Spriggs, Mark Pavett and Mike Wilson at the National Museums Wales, Cardiff. Deeming with his infinite knowledge and attention to detail and Kirk-Spriggs with his exceptional curatorial skills provided me with the foundations to become a ‘proper’ museum curator. Mike later became my boss and encouraged my research and curatorial skills, while Mark and I spent every available minute in the field competing for the best catch of the day.

In 1997 I applied for a job as the 'collections technician’ at the Hope Entomological Collections, Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH). Thinking I had no chance of getting it, I had a relaxed and good-humoured attitude during interview, which seemed to suite Steve Simpson and George McGavin, who to my utter amazement offered me the job. As a manager, I could not have had better than George, as not only did he put up with my idiosyncrasies, bad language and jokes, but also gave me encouragement to develop my research interests and gave me a degree of autonomy to develop and manage the insect collections. 

Darren teaching for the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust, 'how to do bug walks'

Although since joining the OUMNH my time spent outside collecting insects has dwindled, this has been richly compensated by increased curation, collections management and dung beetle research. In the sixteen years at Oxford, I’ve moved thousands of drawers and millions of specimens, pushed a lot of paper, taught some students and collected and identified a few dung beetles. Somehow, by doing what I love doing I’ve managed to creep up the promotional ladder, first becoming a Collections Manager, then Assistant Curator and now Head of Life Collections. Although with promotion comes more administration and less collections time, this is balanced by being involved at a senior management level in the Museum, ensuring the fun, encouragement and opportunities I was so privileged to have at Coventry, Plymouth and Cardiff are available to those wishing to use the collections or volunteer in Oxford.

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