For my internship at the Iziko South African Museum I have been placed under the guidance of Dr. Hamish Robertson, the Director of Natural History Collections since 2003. While I learned a great deal about my projects and the work done at the museum during my first week, I felt that it would be advantageous to know my supervisor better. With that in mind I decided to ask Dr. Robertson a few questions about his career and experiences with museums.
Dr. Robertson earned his Bachelor of Science in Zoology from the University of Cape Town, where he also completed his Honours year. From there he completed his Ph.D. in Entomology at Rhodes University. Following two years as a lecturer at Rhodes University he spent two years as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Witwatersrand. While there he realized he could continue work as a lecturer again, but realized that he “saw [himself] as being in research.” And so, although he had never envisioned himself in a museum setting, that’s where he found himself in 1989 after applying for a position at the South African Museum as the Head of Entomology. As Dr. Robertson puts it, “the nature of my research made myself more relevant to being in museums.”
While a student of entomology Dr. Robertson aspired to “understand the ants of southern Africa” of which there are approximately 725 known species. Now while he may forever be a work in progress in entomology (as all researchers typically are), I for one think he has drifted slowly away from ants for a good cause: Director of Natural History Collections at Iziko. Now he focuses more on a “rejuvenated” South African Museum “brought up to international standards.” As with all museums, areas of improvement exist, but Dr. Robertson has already begun to implement his vision. Thus far he has helped create new exhibitions where outdated displays once stood and “sustained the natural history department through a difficult period of transition.” In a time when “research could’ve died.” Dr. Robertson managed to keep a vibrant atmosphere by utilizing resources and focusing on mentorship programs.
Anyone who speaks with Dr. Robertson even briefly notices his humbleness, something that certainly shined during our talk. He insists that everything he does has been “accomplished through teamwork” and that his “greatest success is yet to come.” I find it refreshing for such an accomplished man to approach life that way. Because of his accomplishments up to this point, Dr. Robertson could have a sense of fulfillment. Instead he sees the transformation of the South African Museum from its colonial beginnings towards a space that matches the needs of modern South Africa and feels obligated to contribute. To do this Dr. Robertson emphasizes, “Human connections are vitally important.” He considers “training and mentorships,” the only way to fix the imbalance so that South African museums properly reflect the demographics of their country.
Although he loves the broad range of his position, Dr. Robertson does find the administrative hurdles challenging. As a creative person, he does not enjoy the bureaucracy that dominates his time. His solution to this challenge impresses me: tackling his “vision of a holistic view of biodiversity” during spare time. Documenting the wildlife of southern Africa on Biodiversity Explorer gives him a chance to be creative, something he misses from his days of entomology research. Even with side projects such as this, Dr. Robertson works to keep the Iziko museums a relevant resource for the South African community.
Through my discussion with Dr. Robertson he made it clear that life, as a museum specialist, is always a work-in-progress. But that does not mean he doesn’t love his career. In fact, it seems to be quite the opposite. He may not be the wealthiest man in the world financially, but he appears to have a wealth of happiness. Museums have provided him with an “exciting, creative life” that keeps him sharp and engaged.
During my interview with Dr. Robertson he offered advice that really applies to any career path someone could choose: “don’t do it unless you have a passion for it.” I think, however, that is the most important lesson I can learn from our conversation. Dr. Robertson found a career that he clearly enjoys and it shows in his approach to life. If you appreciate the work you do, then you will continue striving for greatness. It’s so easy to get stuck in a dead-end job with no opportunity to stretch your limits, but Dr. Robertson is passionate about what he does and it pushes him to set lofty goals. And the best part is, I know he has the drive to implement plans to make those goals reality.