Training to Become a Preparator
A fossil preparator is the person responsible for preparing paleontological specimens for study or exhibit. This may involve removing the specimen from its surrounding matrix; repairing damaged specimens; cleaning specimens; carrying out work to strengthen and consolidate fossils; and developing supporting mounts and armatures for storage and display. Fossil preparators play a critical role in paleontology.
There are a number of different categories of staff that work on collections care in museums. All of them have different roles to play, although these roles often overlap to some extent depending on the museum in question.
- Conservator – a person specially trained in the preventive care and maintenance as well as restoration of works of art and museum objects or specimens.
- Collection Manager - a person specially trained in the preventive care and maintenance of objects and specimens, their documentation and associated information.
- Curator – one who has responsibility for the care, research, exhibition, and increase or improvement of a museum collection.
- Preparator – a person who is trained in techniques for the preparation of specimens for study or exhibit.
For more, read Caitlin Wylie’s 2009 paper “Preparation In Action: Paleontological Skill And The Role Of The Fossil Preparator” in Proceedings of the First Annual Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium. Edited by Matthew A. Brown, John F. Kane, and William G. Parker. Petrified Forest.
At present there are no formal degrees or training programs in fossil preparation and while the field is professionalizing rapidly, there is no widely accepted curriculum or standards. Prep work requires a mixture of skills and abilities; many of today’s preparators have gained these through a combination of academic study and practical training. This training is often likened to an apprenticeship, as experience is an essential component in developing the requisite skills.
Having an interest in paleontology is essential for preparation but an aptitude for the exacting and detail-oriented work is equally important. Poor preparation techniques can ruin a fossil. The best way to find out if you are suited for preparation is to volunteer in an established fossil preparation lab. Contact your local natural history museum to learn if there is a fossil preparation lab. If so, try and arrange an appointment to visit and meet with a preparator. Bring a CV. Motivation, resourcefulness, patience, and persistent interest are important traits for a preparator; having a good base of practical skills and knowledge will show that it will be worthwhile for a lab to invest the time and energy in training you.
You will need to demonstrate the manual dexterity that is required in the job. You might want to put together a portfolio of projects you have worked on that demanded fine motor skills, persistence, creative problem solving and the ability to focus for extended periods of time.
Preparation is not one skill but many. It begins when the fossil is excavated from the ground, continues in the laboratory, and never really finishes, because the specimen will require care throughout its life in the collections. It can involve careful digging with small and large tools in the field; use of hand and power tools in the lab; carpentry and metalworking in the construction of mounts for storage and display; use of a microscope for preparation of very small fossils; and awareness of different materials and their characteristics in consolidation, adhesion, and molding and casting. For this reason, training or experience in the following areas can be useful:
- Cabinetry, carpentry
- Molding and Casting
- Jewelry making
- Stone carving
- Fine art work (e.g. printmaking and sculpture)
- Foundry work (e.g. welding and brazing)
- Auto mechanics
While there is no substitute for aptitude and a genuine interest in preparation, an ambitious beginner who intends to make fossil preparation their career will greatly enhance their job qualifications by undertaking coursework in one or more of the following fields:
- Art conservation
- Comparative vertebrate anatomy with dissection
- Human anatomy
- Vertebrate physiology
- Vertebrate evolution
- Introductory and sedimentary geology
- Introductory and Organic Chemistry
As with many professions, good writing and communication skills are essential, as is familiarity with computers and digital photography.
Whether you are a dedicated amateur or in training to be a professional preparator, it is important to keep up-to-date with developments in the field. Try to attend professional meetings, such as the annual meetings of the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology or the Fossil Preparation and Collections Symposium, and talk to as many preparators as you can. If you are a practicing preparator, access additional information on training and professional development here.
The published formal literature is limited but growing; see the Bibliography and Links sections of this website for more information. For some web resources on preparation training take a look at:
- The Chicago Field Museum's YouTube channel has video clips relating to the preparation of ‘Sue” the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex fossil specimen yet discovered. In particular there is a clip on How Can I become a Preparator.
- Coursework on field and lab techniques are offered as part of the electives in the the Richard Gilder Graduate School at the American Museum of Natural History.
- The Department of Geology and Geological Engineering at the South Dakota School of Mines has both undergraduate and graduate degrees in Paleontology and runs a summer field school.
- Occasionally programs have been offered by the following institutions or departments:
- Smithsonian Institution – National Museum of Natural History. Contact Steve Jabo in the Department of Paleobiology for more information
- University of Michigan – through the Museum of Paleontology or Department of Geological Sciences and/or Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
- The Paleontology Certification Program at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science is a mandatory 8 week, 2 hr/wk class designed to weed out volunteers who discover the romance of preparation is not reality, and gets volunteers up to a certain level of competency for integration with more seasoned lab volunteers.