Dioramas – Bring Them to Life!

“What are your feelings about dioramas?”

This was a question posed to me on a behind-the-scenes tour at The Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University before I visited the public space where I found a lot of dioramas.  This set me to contemplating them as I might not have without that question.  Add the exhibition Secrets of the Diorama and my imagination started to work.

When digital is everything, dioramas might seem like just so much dead stuff.  They never change and if they do it is usually decay that causes the change and makes them less lifelike than they originally were.  Once you have seen a diorama, do you really need to see it again?  What good is all this dead stuff anyway?  Well, I have a few ideas….

Unfortunately, dioramas don't last forever. Flaking paint can ruin the illusion that you are standing three feet from a bear.

Unfortunately, dioramas don’t last forever. Flaking paint can ruin the illusion that you are standing three feet from a bear.

The dioramas that I viewed during my visit to The Academy were much like those you find in any older natural history museum.  They are realistic representations of ecosystems created with taxidermy, models, paintings and the occasional soundscape.  They are labeled simply, usually with a description of the largest or most charismatic creature and the ecosystem it inhabits.  There might be a challenge to find other small creatures or a description of an important plant.  All in, the label generally leaves a lot unanswered and as every museum studies student knows, they are probably not read anyway.

But it doesn’t have to be this way!  Technology could help bring dioramas to life.  I’m not thinking of holograms and fancy lighting or turning the taxidermy into “walking with lions and tigers and bears”, but  rather using the technology that nearly every visitor is carrying in their pocket to make visiting dioramas an adventure in learning and fun.  And I was inspired by the Dallas Museum of Art.

The DMA has a list of self-guided “bite-sized” tours that help make art more accessible to those who don’t “know” art and who don’t want to spend all day just browsing the galleries.  These tours are available as PDF’s on the museum’s website and can be downloaded and printed or simply downloaded to a smartphone.  One example is the Park Rangers Tour.  I love how this tour would appeal to a nature lover by taking them to four great artworks depicting nature while simultaneously introducing them to some art that they otherwise probably wouldn’t have bothered to examine.  The tour provides information that supplements the labels you find next to the artworks.  There are suggested activities that relate to the art while you are in the museum and even after you leave.  The museum sneaks in the chance to capture the visitor on social media with a suggestion to take a photo and add a museum hashtag as well as a break from the tour that encourages the visitor to search a gallery with a hint of competition.  What a fun way to spend an hour in an art museum!

Why couldn’t a natural history museum apply this to its dioramas?  Imagine the possibilities…

Over the Rainbow – From a scarlet ibis to a purple larkspur use the colors available in your dioramas to highlight one specimen of each color in the rainbow.  Explain how the color is achieved and what its advantage is to the plant or animal that bears it

Frogger – frogs in the dioramas with detailed species descriptions and frog calls you can listen to on your phone

Locomotion – examples in the dioramas of one animal each that walks, crawls, hops, flies, and swims with activities that get kids to move in those ways

Flight – a visit to various flying creatures in the dioramas with discussion of how they evolved flight, comparisons of their methods of achieving flight and the chance to build a paper airplane

Roots – plants with various root structures with discussion of the advantages of each for their environment and instructions for growing beans at home so that visitors can watch the roots develop

I’m sure that you can think of many more.  There really isn’t any limit to the diversity of bite-sized tours that could be created through the dioramas of a natural history museum.  Add activities that require selfies or tweets with hashtags or create a Snapchat Geofilter or Instagram challenge so that visitors use that phone in their pocket to tell their friends what a great time they are having in the museum.  Offer badges for completing a tour to entice collectors or let visitors accumulate points they can use for discounts in the museum shop.  Add in at least one activity or tour stop outside the dioramas to offer a break and to get visitors moving through the galleries.  The Academy could add an activity in their Outside In  exhibit space where kids (and adults) can get hands on with items that they can only look at in a diorama and a trip to the Secrets of the Diorama exhibit for a chance to sit.  All that is needed is some imagination.  Make the tours fun and sneak in the education.  If a visitor enjoys one tour, it might be an incentive to visit again and again to try others.  Take suggestions for tours or ask visitors to create their own and share them.

These adorable opossums just need a story to bring them to life!

These adorable opossums just need a story to bring them to life!

So, what are my feelings about dioramas?  I love them!  I always have, but I know that for many they seem lifeless and dull.  Can we bring them to life?  Tell their stories?  Give them new meaning?  Make them fun?  I think we can.  How would you do it?

Many thanks to Mr. Paul Callomon, Collection Manager – Malacology, Invertebrate Paleontology and General Invertebrates at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University for a fabulous behind the scenes tour and for asking the question that inspired this post.

The Collector: David Douglas and the Natural History of the Northwest by Jack Nisbet

I am fascinated by natural history collections, so the title of this book caught my eye.  I never would have believed that the story of the namesake of the Douglas fir could be so interesting!  David Douglas was much more than a botanist and his adventures made me long for a time when the country was open for exploration.  Douglas was described as a man of “great activity, undaunted courage, singular abstemiousness and energetic zeal” (Nisbet, 2009) and he definitely lives up to that description in this biography.  He visited the Galapagos a decade before Darwin, explored the Pacific Northwest, and investigated the volcanoes of Hawaii.

Douglas’ story is compelling and the practices of a collector at the time are interesting.  Douglas was usually welcomed and assisted by those he came in contact with, but even in the 1820’s some New York residents were angered at his collecting and accused him of removing the only populations of some rare plants.  One of Douglas’ objectives as he collected was to find new ornamental plants for the gardens of Europe.  This book would be a great place to begin a discussion about the ethics of collecting and how people facilitate the movement of species.

The world of plants is very diverse.  I had to look up some botanical and scientific terms, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but they easily could have been defined in the text.  I was also disappointed in the lack of maps showing Douglas’ travels.  Anyone who has traveled in the area can probably picture the places described and imagine the distances, but my experiences in the Pacific Northwest are limited and I wanted to know where Douglas was on a map as his travels progressed.  Drawings of specimens would also enhance the text of this book.

Anyone with an interest in botany, the Pacific Northwest or exploration will find The Collector worthwhile.  Take the time as you read to look up unfamiliar terms and photos of the plants and animals described in the text.  Make the book an adventure. Travel in the footsteps of an explorer in an unsettled country where anything is possible and discovery happens every day.

Further exploration of David Douglas’ life:

The David Douglas Society

Finding David Douglas

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.


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:


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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