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:


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

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:

Foster, N. (2012, Sep 20). What is spongy bone? Retrieved Dec 5, 2012, from Wisegeek:

Shepherd, R. (n.d.). What is a fossil? Retrieved Dec 5, 2012, from Discovering Fossils: Introducing the Paleontology of Great Britain:

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: