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

Book Review: Fragments of the World: Uses of Museum Collections by Suzanne Keene

$46.95 on Amazon ($35.21 for Kindle edition)

This book came to me at just the right time.  The need to address the cost of maintaining a collection against its usefulness to the institution and society in general has been much in my thoughts and this book helped me to see that I am not the only one thinking about it.  Ms. Keene covers all of the bases: What good is this stuff?  Who does it belong to?  How well should it be cared for?  Who cares about it and why?  Who should pay for its care?  Who gets to use it?  Should we add to it, keep it in stasis, or dispose of it?

Backed by real-world examples from collections in multiple disciplines and locations, Ms. Keene attempts to defend the need for collections as providing cultural keys and mirrors.  She reflects upon the usefulness of objects in education and research, but more than that the ways in which objects can provide a creative spark, something I would like to see more museums advertise and own.  She also touches upon the responsibility of institutions to care for their collections as well as to make them accessible and relevant in order that others will see them as important and worth funding.  She takes a viewpoint that might be seen as heretical by museums when she separates collections from their institutions in asserting that “collections are all too easily confused with museums, but they are far more durable and valuable than the museum that happens to house them, perhaps temporarily”.  But it wouldn’t be a good read if there wasn’t a bit of controversy!

I recommend this book to anyone who manages or curates a collection, but even more to anyone who exhibits, educates or administers a museum either as staff or trustee.  Those who work with the collection are usually already aware of its value and usefulness, but those who manage the institution may be far removed from the potential it holds and this book might inspire them to visit the shelves and cabinets that hold the treasures of their institution and lead them to seek ways to bring it safely into the light.