Create a Personally Facilitated Experience

In May I attended the American Alliance of Museums Conference in Baltimore.  I want to share the on-site insight at the National Aquarium that I attended at AAM.

Heather Doggett, Director of Visitor Programs and Staff Training at the National Aquarium, noticed that children expressed disappointment upon discovering that an educator did not actually care for the animals.  She realized that visitors placed a higher value on encounters with content experts (animal caretakers) than trained educators.  Rather than be offended, she decided that placing animal care staff in the public spaces would be an excellent idea.

Of course, this affects the animal care staff.  It requires that they be active participants in visitor education and that they be comfortable interacting with visitors.  These are generally not activities that collections care staff are trained to do, so they were trained.  With up to 40 connections between content experts and visitors per day, this program requires buy-in from everyone.  Rather than replace education staff, a written goal for this program is “amplification of effort”, meaning that educators continue to present in the galleries, but animal care staff supplement through public feedings or other visitor encounters.  Discussion with one keeper who participates in these Personally Facilitated Experiences demonstrated that the animal care staff gets something from these encounters as well.  Cleaning cages is not glamorous when you do it every day, but to visitors it is often an exotic and exciting activity that sparks a bit of awe.  Cleaning the next cage may feel a bit more glamorous after a child’s “wow” at meeting the person who feeds the jellyfish.

Jellyfish aquarist at the National Aquarium interacting with visitors.

Where else can an experience such as this take place?  What the National Aquarium has realized is that they have two things that set them apart from any other activity a family in Baltimore might choose to do on any given day; their collection and their content experts.  The collection is on display for all visitors to enjoy, but the content experts were behind closed doors.  Placing them out in the public spaces provides opportunities for visitors to have a very personal experience.  If you found the curator of American Art at the Art Institute in Chicago standing in front of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks and they told you about their experience unpacking or cleaning the painting or expressed their opinion about it; wouldn’t you tell everyone about the encounter?  Wouldn’t you remember everything the curator told you about the painting?  Wouldn’t you have created a personal connection to that painting?  Wouldn’t you want to come back for more?  When you meet the jellyfish keeper and he tells you that he gets stung daily, which jellyfish hurts most, and how long the pain lasts; isn’t that more memorable than some facts about jellyfish stings?

This fabulous program could be repeated in any museum, provided that the museum actually has content experts.  In my humble opinion, it should be!  Not only are visitors rewarded, but staff are as well.  It provides opportunities for cross-pollination and idea sharing between educators and content experts and can help them each to better understand what the other does on a daily basis.  With recent layoffs of content experts at some prominent natural history museums, perhaps curators and collection managers should be thinking about increasing their relevance to the visitor.  When was the last time a curator or collection manager at your institution stepped out into the public space and interacted with a visitor who wasn’t a donor or VIP?  Natural history museums should follow in the footsteps of the National Aquarium.  Checking for pests, packing loans, and massaging field data may not seem glamorous when you do it every day, but there are visitors out there who would be fascinated by your stories.  Why not connect with them?

The Ft. Smith Museum of History

This post is a departure from my usual natural history museum writing, but why not take a break sometimes?

I was in Ft. Smith, Arkansas for a weekend while my daughter danced at a Regional Dance America Festival.  During the day, she had classes and I had school projects to complete.  I had planned to hole up in my hotel room and do nothing but schoolwork for three days, but of course, my plan was foiled by a museum.

On Saturday morning I used my Starbucks app to locate the nearest place for my iced grande two-pump vanilla non-fat latte fix and headed out – in the wrong direction.  That’s when I saw it.  The Fort Smith Museum of History is just three blocks away from my hotel!  Obviously, I was meant to see it.  After locating my caffeine fix and doing a couple of hours of school work, I took advantage of the absolutely gorgeous southern spring day and walked down to the museum.  When I arrived I discovered that I had picked a perfect day to visit.    It was the day of the Heritage Festival!  Museum entry was free and there were all kinds of activities to be found in and around the area, including historical re-enactments on the grounds of the Fort Smith National Historic Site.  Wait, there’s a National Park site here too?  Great!  Now the hour I had decided to spend in this little, local museum had turned into an afternoon, so much for school.

Where to begin?  This museum is charming and chock full of historical objects related to the town of Ft. Smith.  The entry area includes several large objects that anyone can see for free on any day the museum is open.  Two hand-crafted doll houses made by local women and the “New American” fire engine were the ones that drew me in.  I wish that we still put such lovely details on utilitarian things.  Fort Smith’s first professional fire engine is a work of art.  Granted, today’s engines are more effective, but this antique engine is just lovely to look at.

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After determining that there was no entrance fee on this special day, I turned to the paid area of the museum.  Right at the cashier I was confronted with two very interesting things.  The first was a sign:

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Not really an unusual sign until you take a trip through the museum.  There are artifacts everywhere.  Some are in cases and some have velvet rope to keep visitors reminded of their sacredness, but many of them are just – there.  A push lawnmower leaning against a wall, hoards of tools lying around on workbenches or hanging unsecured on walls, a cabinet full of typesetter’s blocks with drawers you can freely open to inspect, ladies stockings sitting on a table, a radio studio with welcoming seating and all the tools necessary to go on air, and much more.  In some ways, I found this shocking.  Wouldn’t visitors always be touching where they shouldn’t?  How many of those printing blocks get lifted every year?  Don’t kids pick up the swords and proceed to vanquish their enemies?  Ahhhhhhh!  But as I spent time in the museum, I realized that the visitors are locals and this is their history.  Everyone was polite and parents were mindful of their children.  It was crowded due to the Heritage Festival and free admission, so I saw plenty of visitors doing their thing and it was really nice to feel that this museum belongs to the community, not just those who run the museum.

The second thing that caught my eye at the register was the cell phone tour.  Just dial in and listen to J. Fred Patton, who wrote the History of Ft. Smith, Arkansas, give you a personal tour of the Time Line exhibit which begins with the establishment of the first fort in 1817 and continues through twentieth-century Ft. Smith.  The tour includes twenty-nine stops and takes just about an hour.  I listened through the first few stops and it is like having a docent along to tell you interesting and detailed stories about what you see on exhibit.  If I had been alone in the museum, I probably would have listened to every stop, but the number of people and their conversations distracted me and I decided that I wasn’t prepared to listen as attentively as I should, so I let my docent go.  A lot of time and excellent writing went into this tour and I hope that visitors take advantage of it.  I may dial in on my drive home and listen as I think it will be interesting even without the objects in front of me.  I suggest that the museum make this cell phone tour an online exhibition or series of podcasts and it would be an excellent resource for school children writing papers on local history with the added bonus of someone who sounds like grandpa telling you the story.

The cell phone tour is the only exhibition technology visible in the museum with the exception of two electronic photo frames in the Boy Scout exhibit, a video presentation in The Darby Room, and a television running a video outside the Boyd Gallery.  This doesn’t detract from the museum in the least.  In fact, much of the text in the exhibits is in the form of homemade poster board presentations that could have been created by school kids for history projects.

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Interestingly, they seem to be at home among the historical objects and they added to the feeling that this museum belongs to the citizens of Ft. Smith, not a cloistered group of intellectuals hidden from view.  Everything seems honest and sincere.  From the exhibits on the Trail of Tears to the gallery of Black History in Ft. Smith, the words are written by people who may have experienced events first hand, or knew someone who did, and it is refreshing.  It may not all be politically correct, but it is honest and seems well researched.

The first floor of the museum is generally given over to the Timeline exhibition.  It takes visitors on a time traveling journey through the day-to-day lives of the region’s inhabitants from the Native Americans to modern-day residents.   This exhibition is organized along a meandering route that can be confusing as the building is not set up for a linear exhibition.  I overheard several groups who felt lost or as if they had missed something and saw quite a few working through the exhibition backward.  The space is a bit cramped on a busy day and the exhibition isn’t exactly a linear timeline as it has offshoots to the Telephone Room, the Darby Room, and Boyd Gallery, which feel like part of the Timeline, but really are not.  The restrooms are located at the back of the exhibition at about the halfway point through and are a lesson in history themselves!  The museum has placed chairs scattered about the exhibition for those who need a rest, although it might be difficult to distinguish what is meant for this activity and what is part of an exhibit!

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There are some excellent opportunities to touch objects.  One of my favorites was the weaving samples made by a local professional weaver on the very loom displayed in the exhibit.  Possibly the only thing that would make this exhibit more interesting would be to have a person there weaving so that visitors could see the process and ask questions.  There is an opportunity to send a message by Morse code which I didn’t try because I had no one with me to go to the other station, and to place a call on an old rotary dial phone, which wasn’t working when I tried.  There are excellent examples of in-house created exhibit cases, like this one for allowing visitors to see both sides of a newspaper.

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The display spins, allowing visitors to inspect both sides of the newspaper, which is sandwiched between two sheets of glass.

And there are objects whose significance will appeal to visitors from outside the community, like the ‘whatnot’ cabinet that was displayed in the Arkansas exhibition at the 1893 Colombian Exposition in Chicago.

I saw no photo restrictions in the museum, although they do place signs asking visitors to please not use flash as it damages the objects.  There are lovely examples of old museum display cases and new ideas for temporary gallery walls that facilitate changing out hanging objects.

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Stairs to the second floor

The second floor of the museum includes The Museum of Antique Tools, Progress in a Small Frontier Town:  The Story of the 1907 Atkinson-Williams Warehouse Building, In the Shadow of the Gallows, Black History in Fort Smith, The Court of Judge Isaac C. Parker, and The Garrison Avenue Exhibit.  Each of these holds something surprising, but you have to get there first!  I had to ask about the second floor, because the signage is a bit cryptic.  On the door of the elevator is a sign that says “Elevator to the second floor”.  Well that’s great, but am I allowed to go up?  Is there anything there for me to see?  Why not something like “Don’t miss the exhibits on the second floor!”?  In any case, I opted to take the stairs, which are dusty, dark, and give you the feeling of going behind the scenes.  They smell like museum storage and made me feel like I was getting to go somewhere special.  I think the museum should play this up.

There is a donation box right at the top of the stairs, which is also where the elevator lets visitors off.  My first thought was, why isn’t this at the entrance?  But on regular days, visitors would have paid an entrance fee and by the time they reached the second floor would potentially decide that that fee was not enough to cover all the great stuff they were getting to see.  So I decided it made sense and put my donation in.  The museum might consider moving the box to the first floor exit on free days, because based on the number of people on the second floor, many visitors don’t make it there but they would probably donate after spending time on the first floor for free.

The second floor is essentially one large open room separated into exhibitions by partition walls or hanging signage.  I thought the most impressive exhibition was the Court of Judge Isaac C. Parker, which is a recreation of a period courtroom, complete with spittoons.  Visitors are not allowed in the courtroom, which is a bit of a disappointment given the availability of the rest of the museum.  I really wanted to go sit on the bench or in one of the juror seats.   I think that some mannequins in period clothing would add to this room and possibly audio of a court proceeding rather than the music that was playing.

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The Story of the 1907 Atkinson-Williams Warehouse Building is about the construction of the building and got me looking at the ceiling and the floors and thinking about how construction methods haven’t really changed much over time.  I learned that the Garrison Street exhibition started as a Boy Scout Eagle Award Project, which reinforced the community feel of the entire museum.  How many museums turn over a whole exhibition to a Boy Scout?  I found this idea wonderful!

I ended my visit with a trip to the Soda Fountain, which was offering a $3 build-your-own sundae bar on this special day.  The majority of the Soda Fountain room is actually another exhibition that is loaded with old apothecary tools, containers, and even some raw materials.  All fascinating, and I was picturing a pharmacist dressed in period clothing behind the counter offering up compounded remedies for what ailed me.

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The museum also runs a gift shop that carries a variety of history books, some locally made crafts, and an assortment of memorabilia.

I am generally not a history buff, but I spent an enjoyable couple of hours in the Fort Smith Museum of History.  It is much more personal and inviting than the professional and slick museum run by the National Park Service in the Fort Smith National Historic Site.  If you are a local and have never crossed the threshold of the Fort Smith Museum of History, I suggest that you take an afternoon, slow down, and spend some time with the history of your community.  You’ll probably learn something new and you may connect dots that you never knew were connected.  You may even find that you want to be a participant in the making of this museum.  Volunteers are encouraged to apply and who knows?  You might end up curating the next temporary exhibition or refurbishing a permanent one.  I see opportunities for local kids to create Wikipedia pages about historical Ft. Smith figures or structures and extend the museum’s exhibitions into the community and beyond through technology.  If you are just visiting Ft. Smith, stop in and meet the “keeper and teller of Fort Smith’s rich and colorful history”  (Fort Smith Museum of History).  It will be an hour or two well spent.

The Fort Smith Museum of History is open Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 – 5:00. They are closed Sunday and Monday, except during the summer months when they are also open Sunday 1:00 – 5:00.   Admission is $5 for adults, $2 for children over 6 and children under age 6 are free.  The museum is located at 320 Rogers Avenue, Fort Smith, Arkansas 72901 and can be reached by telephone at (479)783-7841.  If you are interested in listening to the cell phone tour, dial (479) 221-9185.  The museum’s website is http://www.fortsmithmuseum.com/ .  Enjoy!

Works Cited

Fort Smith Museum of History. (n.d.). Home. Retrieved April 6, 2013, from Fort Smith Museum of History: http://www.fortsmithmuseum.com/

 

Serendipitous interaction – make it happen

To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.  That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices. Some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings. – Marissa Mayer, Yahoo! CEO, as quoted in (Knowles, 2013)

How far are you from everyone else in your institution?  When even high-tech companies realize the value in face-to-face interactions between their employees, it is time for museum collection staff to take note and get out of their basements and off-site storage facilities.  Steve Jobs designed Pixar’s campus so that chance meetings happened regularly.  John Lasseter, Creative Lead at Pixar said, “I kept on running into people I hadn’t seen for months.  I’ve never seen a building that promoted collaboration and creativity as well as this one” (Drought, 2012).

Collaboration is something that everyone in natural history collections needs to be thinking about.  Not just collaboration with each other, but with everyone in our home institutions.  If we remain quietly tucked away pouring over our specimens, we eventually become invisible.  It is never too late to start.  Although you may be sequestered in a warehouse miles from the rest of your institution, you must make an effort to be seen.  Plan two trips a week to the ‘main’ building and make sure you talk to as many people as possible.  Invite others to your space for lunch, meetings, or coffee.  Whatever you do, make the opportunity for those serendipitous interactions to occur.  Don’t let a culture that ignores the collection take root.  If it already has, work harder to turn back that tide.  Sure, there is too much work to be done in the collection, but if you want help, you will have to recruit it yourself.

There’s a temptation in our networked age to think that ideas can be developed by email and iChat.  That’s crazy.  Creativity comes from spontaneous meetings, from random discussions.  You run into someone, you ask what they’re doing, you say ‘Wow’ and soon you’re cooking up all sorts of ideas. – Steve Jobs as quoted in (Drought, 2012)

This is why conventions and professional association meetings are so popular and successful.  People make creative connections there.  When is the last creative connection that you made in the office?  When is the last time you had a spontaneous conversation with someone within your institution, but outside of the collection department?  Educators and administrators can make plans without you when they don’t know you or what you do all day.  Make sure they know you and make sure you know what they are working on.  When you are in the know, your institution will make better use of and take better care of your collection.

It may seem like a waste of time, but these chance encounters can lead to big things.  Harvard Medical School investigators found that they help scientists produce better research.  In a study that analyzed the number of citations each paper generated and the distances between coauthors, they found a greater number of citations for articles where the first and last authors are physically close with citations declining as the distance grew.  In addition, the average number of citations for a paper with four or fewer authors who were based in the same building was 45 percent more than one with authors in different buildings.  The Harvard Medical School study’s first author, Lee, said “if you put people who have the potential to collaborate close together it might lead to better results” (Ruder, 2012).

Does administration in your institution know this?  Is the culture of your institution conducive to collaboration?  If the answer to either of these questions is no, you should take the first step to change your institution.  Don’t stay hidden away, get out and meet people.  You never know who will inspire your next research project or how you might inspire an education program.  Don’t wait for your institution to change.  “As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” – Gandhi

See you at the water cooler!

Works Cited

Drought, M. (2012, Oct 09). Steve Jobs and the Art of Office Design. Retrieved Feb 28, 2013, from Fourfront Group: http://www.fourfrontgroup.co.uk/News/2012-10-09/Steve-Jobsthe-art-of-office-design/

Knowles, D. (2013, Feb 25). Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer lays down the law, telling telecommuting employees either to show up at the office or find a new job. Retrieved Feb 28, 2013, from New York Daily News: http://www.nydailynews.com/yahoo-telecommuting-article-1.1273250

Ruder, D. B. (2012, May-June). The “Water Cooler” Effect. Retrieved Feb 28, 2013, from Harvard Magazine: http://harvardmagazine.com/2011/05/water-cooler-effect

Adapting Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide to natural history specimens

Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide by Gail Durbin, Susan Morris, and Sue Wilkinson (1996) is a slim volume focused on teaching with man-made objects, but the concepts could be applied to natural history specimens.  The authors assert that objects provide creative and emotional stimulus and aid the memory because physical sensations, experiences, and emotions may be more permanent than facts or ideas learned orally or visually.  Visitors to natural history museums come to see the specimens.  Allowing visitors more opportunities to interact with the specimens should lead to more learning and better retention.

The authors offer a formula for investigating objects that includes questions related to physical features, construction, function, design, and value.  Other than physical features (What does it look and feel like?), the remaining categories might not seem to translate well to natural history specimens, but a little creative thinking is all that is necessary.

Construction – Although biological and geological specimens are not constructed by people, they are constructed nonetheless.  Questions about construction (How was it made?) can lead visitors to look more closely at specimens to see beyond the obvious.  Was the specimen constructed by geological or biological methods?  Is it stable in room-temperature conditions without special treatment?  What stage of development does it represent?  What limbs and sense organs, if any, does it possess?

Function – A specimen may not have a function (What was it made for?) in the way a manufactured object does, but it was once part of a system in which it performed a function.  Was the specimen predator, prey, or both?  Did the specimen play a part in the building or destruction of a landmass?  Did the specimen provide a service to other members of its environment or did it require the services of others?

Design – Design of natural objects may not be intentional, but evolution or physical and chemical processes contribute to their design.  Questions of design (Is it well designed?) in nature might trend toward survivability.  Does the specimen’s design suit its environment and lifestyle?  Do its colors assist it in hiding or attracting food or mates?  Design may also reflect chemical or physical properties.  What is the specimen composed of?  Is it colorful?  Is the design pleasing to you?  Is it pleasing to others?

Value – People tend to associate man-made objects with a monetary value.  However, value (What is it worth?) can also be expressed in sentiment or degree of contribution to a society.  The value of natural history specimens can sometimes be estimated or even precisely determined in monetary terms.  But often the value of these specimens lies in their research potential or their ability to transmit ideas.  What is a specimen worth to a scientist, a student, or the person who discovered it?  Think about the value of the group the specimen represents.   What contributions do the animals represented by this specimen make that benefit the planet or people?  Why are the animals or minerals represented by this specimen important to you?

Incorporating questions such as these in exhibits and programs will enhance the learning from natural history specimens.  However, eliciting such questions from visitors requires even more thought.  Durbin et. al. offer advice on developing skills that are necessary when working with objects.  The skills described include looking, describing, recording, questioning, classifying, relating form to function, formulating and testing hypotheses, and constructing knowledge from fragments of a specimen.  The lesson ideas given in the text for developing these skills can be directly translated to natural history specimens and could become a part of a museum exhibit or program.  Not only do these activities provide impetus for visitors to look more closely at objects, they develop observation, deduction, language, and recording skills in the participants.

The final section of Learning From Objects offers instruction on the selection of objects that might be best for teaching and issues related to their use.  Neither rarity nor perfection is necessary to elicit questions.  Original specimens are preferred, but in the case of fragile, perishable, dangerous, or rare specimens, the use of replicas is appropriate.  Conservation of specimens should be a part of the lesson and visitors might be asked to consider why a given specimen is worth conserving even if the cost of conservation is relatively high.  Discussion of conservation methods and costs are encouraged.  Specimens from a variety of disciplines can help visitors understand what they mean to themselves and others.  One visitor’s fear of snakes could be assuaged by another’s appreciation of them.   Selecting a series of specimens to demonstrate a chronology can develop sorting and classification skills and demonstrate continuity, change, and progress.  These topics can be directly related to taxonomy, evolution, ontogeny, and plate tectonics among other natural history themes.

Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide can be adapted to benefit natural history museum exhibits and programs.  I advise anyone who is creating a specimen-centered program or exhibit to read it and make use of the ideas it incorporates.

Works Cited

Durbin, G., Morris, S., & Wilkinson, S. (1996). Learning From Objects: A Teacher’s Guide. (M. Corbishley, Ed.) English Heritage.

My foray into fossils

I volunteer in the collection at the Fair Park Campus of The Perot Museum of Nature and Science where I work primarily with specimens stored in alcohol, otherwise known as fluid storage.  This week another volunteer was labeling and boxing fossil specimens.  From a distance these specimens look pretty boring, just a bunch of odd-shaped, grey rocks.  But when I sat down to eat my lunch at the table where she was working and saw the fossils up close, my interest was piqued.

Distal portion of a tibia, cross section

Distal portion of a tibia, cross section

Distal portion of a tibia, lateral view

Distal portion of a tibia, lateral view

I noticed this ‘distal portion of a tibia’ (the farthest end from the knee of the larger and stronger of the two bones in the leg below the knee), which has a somewhat lovely core of whitish crystal.  Why is this so?  It looks to me as if the marrow was replaced with something different from the rest of the fossil, but I freely admit that I know very little about fossils, so I went to the museum’s expert, vertebrate paleontologist and fossil preparator Dr. Ron Tykoski.  The first surprise he revealed to me is that not all fossils are rock!  According to Dr. Ron, anything that is physical evidence of life greater than 10,000 years old is considered a fossil.  [Some definitions use ‘from a period of time prior to recorded human history’ (Shepherd)].  So those mummified mammoths that occasionally pop up are considered fossils right along with the rock-solid trilobites that you can find in a museum store.  In any case, the reason we discussed this fact is that this particular fossil is in an incomplete state of permineralization, a type of fossilization in which water from the ground, lakes, or oceans seeps into the pores of organic tissue and forms a crystal cast with deposited minerals (Babcock).  Because water will take the path of least resistance and go where the most space is, the mineral deposits will generally start where there is more space in the bone.  And wouldn’t you know, according to Wisegeek.com:

Spongy bone is lighter, softer, and weaker than compact or cortical bone, the other type of calcium tissue, but it has a greater surface area and is much more vascular, or supplied with blood vessels. Spongy bone is found on the inside of some bones, and it is surrounded by the stronger, more protective compact bone. (Foster, 2012)

So, the center of the bone, being spongy and with more surface area (more spaces in it) would likely be the first to permineralize and this specimen demonstrates it perfectly!  Dr. Ron was able to find three or four other examples of this in the various trays around the fossil prep lab, so it seems to be a common occurrence.  But here is what I found to be really cool.  The parts of this fossil that have not undergone permineralization are in effect just old bones!  I am talking really old bones from the Cretaceous, which spans the time from about 145 to 66 million years ago (the specimen in the photo is in the range of 70 to 69 million years in age).  You can feel the difference between one of these specimens and a completely permineralized fossil by their weight; the first is lighter because it still has all of the open spaces found in living bone while the second has been filled with minerals and is much heavier.

What does all this mean?  It means that not all fossils are solid rock and that sometimes what you think is just an old bone, might actually be a fossil.  Fascinating!

Works Cited

Babcock, L. E. (n.d.). Permineralization. Retrieved Dec 5, 2012, from Access Science by McGraw Hill: http://www.accessscience.com/abstract.aspx?id=803250&referURL=http%3a%2f%2fwww.accessscience.com%2fcontent.aspx%3fsearchStr%3dpermineralization%26id%3d803250

Foster, N. (2012, Sep 20). What is spongy bone? Retrieved Dec 5, 2012, from Wisegeek: http://www.wisegeek.com/what-is-spongy-bone.htm

Shepherd, R. (n.d.). What is a fossil? Retrieved Dec 5, 2012, from Discovering Fossils: Introducing the Paleontology of Great Britain: http://www.discoveringfossils.co.uk/whatisafossil.htm

When a good thing goes missing

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Just over a year ago, the Field Museum opened the Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth.  Not long after it opened, I visited the museum and toured this new permanent exhibition.  While the hall is filled with the latest tech bells and whistles, it is the use of the collection objects and a wonderful behind-the-scenes video that made the whole place lovely to me.  Demonstrations of how a collection can provide clues to changing ecosystems or lead to the discovery of new species are just the thing I look for in an exhibition in a natural history museum.  Specimens are displayed as they appear in storage and visitors learn how they came to be in the museum and why they are important.  If you want to know more about this exhibition, you can visit a description of it on the museum’s website at http://fieldmuseum.org/about/abbott-hall-conservation-restoring-earth.  You can also view the behind-the-scenes video at http://vimeo.com/35709557 and visit the museum’s online version of the exhibition at http://restoringearth.fieldmuseum.org/index.html. One of the ways the museum highlights the collection within this exhibition is by allowing visitors to create their own mini collection of digital objects inspired by the artifacts, specimens, and photos in Restoring Earth.  I did this on my first visit and the best part about the mini collection creator is that my collection is still there, on the museum website!  Just go to the Mini Collection Gallery at http://restoringearth.fieldmuseum.org/index.html and search for Teresa Mayfield or pick any of the thousands of collections that other visitors have created.  The best part is, when you select an object from a collection, you get a detailed description of the object and links to related museum pages to explore it further.  I would love to see this concept expand to other natural history museums and to see the Field expand it outside this single exhibition and to actual digital assets rather than ‘representations’ (icons).  Wouldn’t it be great if I could create a mini collection from all of the objects on display anywhere in the museum or even better from digital copies all of the objects in the collection?  OK, that is probably a bit ambitious, but a girl can dream.

But this post was inspired by a more recent visit to Restoring Earth.

I revisited Restoring Earth over the Thanksgiving break with my family and I was excited to show them the great use of the collection and the video, which includes cameos of people they actually know.  I also wanted them to make their own mini collections, but that was not to be.  The fairly large space dedicated to this activity was an empty room with a single spotlight in the middle and a blank white wall.  No explanation of what was supposed to be there or why it was gone; just an odd, empty space that was visited by untold numbers of holiday visitors.  What a shame!  A few searches by date on the mini collection website show that at some point on November 14, 2012 (barely one year after the exhibition opened) the exhibit stopped functioning.  The set-up for this activity in the Field is probably more high-tech than necessary, allowing visitors to select collection items using their body as in an Xbox 360 game.  A mobile application or website with touchpads in the gallery would accomplish the same goal.  Do we really need video games to make our collections interesting?  When the video games break down, do we plan a back-up so that we don’t have to leave an exhibit empty?  Why not allow web visitors to create a collection instead of only browsing those created by physical visitors?  Would the collection be better served by digitizing specimens and using the digital copies rather than creating ‘digital representation’ icons?  It’s funny how my first visit to this exhibit just seemed like fun to me, but finding it missing made me wonder about what it actually does and if it could be expanded or done more effectively.  I hope that the mini collection creator is restored to Restoring Earth, but I also would like to see these types of exhibit use actual specimen representations and be designed for as wide an audience as possible so that the museum collection is seen and understood by more people than ever before.

Museology and Advocacy

Karl P. Schmidt is an important figure in the history of the Field Museum and its herpetological collection. Schmidt can be an advocate for this collection even though he is no longer living through his museum stories.

I have come across the term ‘museology’ a few times recently in various contexts, but it has me thinking about how we develop our future advocates and spread the word about what it is we do with a natural history museum collection. Most of the references I have heard to museology are in the context of exhibition. How do we get visitors to understand what the museum does from the standpoint of exhibits and programs so that they will feel comfortable using them. What about natural history collection museology? How do we convey to the public what is happening behind the scenes, why it is important, how they can participate in it, and why it deserves appropriate funding. After all, don’t most natural history museums operate under an assumption that what is on exhibit reflects what is stored in the basement and the knowledge gleaned from it?

Because the majority of natural history collections are in storage being studied by ‘top men’ (I couldn’t resist the Indiana Jones reference), they are a mystery or a non-entity to a great majority of the populace. Recent forays into visible storage and digitization are ways for a museum to demonstrate the size and depth of its collection, but does it make people care about that collection any more than if it were a mystery? As I have dipped a toe into museum education, one thing that pops out is that people like people, the things people make, and stories about people. Given this proclivity, I think that we need to get creative with our collections and connect them to people. The most basic and simple way to do this is to have the people in our collections who love them for whatever reason demonstrate that reason to museum visitors, administrators, trustees, and the public in general. A collection manager might take a few of their favorite specimens out on a cart and just talk with visitors about them or a curator might present his latest research and the specimens he used in it to school groups, at an evening forum, or to the board of trustees (how many of your board members ever visit the collection and speak with the staff?). Sure you say, but who has time for that? If we don’t make time, then the other work we do with our collections will suffer the consequences as funding dries up and trustees fail to see the need for all this dusty stuff in some off-site warehouse that no one ever looks at.

I propose that as Museum Advocacy Day approaches, collection people from curators to collection assistants should create programs and spend that day advocating for their collections right inside their own institution. Take a selection of specimens out into the public space of the museum and talk with visitors about what you do on a daily basis and why the collection is meaningful and should be appropriately cared for. Send letters to trustees with a favorite specimen story and thank them for considering the collection as they carry out their trustee duties. Invite an educator to come to the collection and see a specimen that you think could be a spark for an education program. Propose an exhibit, even if it is just one small case about recent research in the collection. Have those who spent time using your collection in the past year send letters to the administration thanking them for maintaining a collection and knowledgeable staff, (Why not self-promote?), that helped them complete their research. And by all means, write your representatives at all levels of government and let them know why your collection is important to the community. On February 25 and 26, be an advocate for your collection or one that you love because if those who love natural history collections don’t show it, how can we expect others to even like them?

AAM Museum Advocacy Day website: http://www.aam-us.org/advocacy/museums-advocacy-day