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:

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:

Ruder, D. B. (2012, May-June). The “Water Cooler” Effect. Retrieved Feb 28, 2013, from Harvard Magazine:


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: