A Follow-Up to Yesterday

Wow. Did yesterday happen? Yes, Alli, it did, and it was awesome. But now what? What are you going to do next??

I will admit, when I first started this blog in 2013, I didn’t know what I was doing. I was hoping to do something similar to what Emily had over at the UMZM and Field Museum, but I didn’t have the access. I thought, well, maybe I’ll do something similar but with the Waterworks Museum; now I’ve left there, and while I think I did a pretty decent job running their social media, I had dreams for what it could have been if I had infinite time and money and resources. I think I also got bogged down in the process of blogging – what do I talk about? How often do I post? Who is going to care? Will anyone even read this thing? So eventually, I stopped.

Yesterday was amazing, and not only because of Emily’s unofficial official nomination. Yesterday I got to meet Hopi Hoekstra, the Curator of Mammals at the Museum of Comparative Zoology, and it was awesome because we got chatting about how awesome it would be if Hopi could get Emily to come visit Harvard and give a talk to kids and students about getting involved with science. Yesterday was amazing because I got to go to work at the HMNH and spend my day surrounded by fascinating collections pieces whose stories have yet to be told. Yesterday was amazing because I got to spend time with my best friend, seeing one of our favorite bands live.

Now, I feel recharged, refreshed, and filled with a new sense of purpose. Today, I go to work with the reminder that people are curious and want to learn more, and that I have the opportunity to facilitate that learning and help fuel that curiosity, in kids and adults alike. Today I go to work with a storyteller’s eye, seeking the tales (haha, tails/tales, get it) that have yet to be told; hoping to awaken long-dead species to tell their stories to whoever will listen; determined to no longer remain dormant. I am once again an active volcano.

My new goal for this blog will be to post twice a week about something I find fascinating at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, the Harvard Semitic Museum, and the Harvard Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (collectively known as the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture). I don’t have a backstage pass for any of these museums (yet!), so what I’ll be delivering is what I can find through research and asking the right people. It won’t be just natural history focused – there will be history woven in as well, because that is my background and my ultimate passion.

I still need to think of a tag for these special posts, but I will come up with something, don’t you worry. Keep an eye out: things are about to get interesting.

– a 

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A Follow-Up to Yesterday

What’s Your Dream Job?

Yesterday, a friend from high school (and far outside the museum world) asked me what my ultimate museum dream job was once I graduated from my MA program. I’m not going to lie, I was a little pressed to find the answer. What is my dream job? I’ve thought about it loads of times, what I want to do when I graduate, but I’ve also noticed that the answer has changed dramatically over the past two years.

When I first started my MA program, I was convinced that I could only do well in a collections environment, not dealing with the public, meticulously researching old artifacts to discover their provenance and going home at the end of the day confident in the knowledge that I had served my purpose. But now, that really isn’t my goal. I still want to work in collections – where else am I going to be able to do research on old artifacts?? – but I don’t want that information to remain static in the storage room, hidden away in a database, accessible only by those with passwords and knowledge of how to navigate the program. I want to increase the accessibility of my research, and the research of countless other curatorial assistants, associates, and researchers. I want interns to know that the research they do during their semester-long internship goes somewhere beyond the object files. Most importantly, I want the public to know what it is we’re researching, why we’re doing the research, why it’s important to the museum and to the community, etc.

I think half the allure of museums is what isn’t on display in the galleries. People are constantly asking me about collections not on display; pieces they remember seeing 30 years ago, do I think they’ll ever come back out? Those kinds of things. Before, when the internet was not as prolific as it is now, and when museums weren’t on social media, it was understandable for the off-display collections to be a mystery. But now, it isn’t: people want to know. Visitors want to know about conservation techniques; why certain objects have been moved off-display; why collections research is never really complete; what the importance of voucher specimens in a natural history collection are; most importantly, why we collect in the first place. And while it isn’t always feasible to explain all of this to visitors in person (unless you are able to have viewable conservation labs, like the MFA), the far-reaching capability of social media, blogs, and museum websites has given us a tool that some museums have taken full advantage of, and others have ignored. These tools have given us the ability to explain so much more of what we do to visitors who are interested in learning more than what we can deliver in our brick-and-mortar buildings.

Take Emily Graslie’s YouTube series The Brain Scoop. The Field Museum has given her the opportunity to share with the world the inner workings of the museum, giving online visitors a chance to see what kind of research goes on behind the scenes; the stories of some of the specimens that have been in the collection since the early days of the museum; and what really goes on in the exhibits shop. Graslie hosts meet-ups at the museum and around Chicago, encouraging her fans to visit the museum and see the real thing as opposed to only engaging online.

For a while, this is what I thought I wanted to do – become what Graslie had achieved, just at another museum. And to a degree, I still would like to do that. I would love to be the face of a museum, sharing the amazing secrets and mysteries of the collection with folks who are genuinely interested. But I don’t want to be another Emily Graslie. I want people to know me for me. Graslie has increased the accessibility of the Field Museum, and that is what I would like to be able to do for whatever museum I end up working for. But not just through the online community. I want to help with education, bringing school groups through the storage areas and to labs to show them what kind of work goes on at museums. I want to engage with community groups to help understand their needs and what else the museum can do to foster a relationship within the community we serve. Sure, Chief Curiosity Correspondent is an amazing job title, but I want something like, Collections Accessibility Coordinator. I want to go to schools, to community centers, and be able to communicate with these constituents and bring them the museum when they can’t come in. I want people to be able to appreciate and understand the importance of museums and cultural heritage institutions, even if they have never been to one.

In a nutshell, I want to increase access to collections through increased transparency and technology. I want to share everything that is amazing about the institution I work at with the world. So…does anyone have a job like that?

What’s Your Dream Job?

An Update That Never Posted.

Hey! So, it looks like I had this draft saved from the beginning of March that I literally never hit “publish” on, that covered quite a lot, so I’m going to attempt to condense it here:

1) I participated in my first-ever conference AND unconference, History Camp. It was put together by Lee Wright of the History List and it was a great time. It brought professional and amateur historians, museologists, educators, archaeologists, and other people who were interested in history, together for a day full of fascinating talks and panels. It was run in much the same way THATCamp is run (BarCamp style); for the sake of gathering a lot of interest beforehand, many of the sessions were scheduled ahead of time, and included talks by Mass Historical Society, Liz Covart, J.L. Bell, Eric Bauer, and Lee Wright. I gave a talk on objects as sources of history with my fellow emerging museum professional (who might now be heading into the education field) Adriene Katz; I discussed the method of provenance research and how any object can be a source of history as long as you dig, and then used Carl Akeley’s Fighting African Elephants from the Field Museum as an example for how this research is done on a biological museum specimen. Adriene gave a great talk about a tour she developed while working at the Shelburne Museum that focused on the Prentice and Stencil Houses as sources of history. If you want to see our presentations, click HERE and HERE!

2) I don’t think it’s 100% official yet, but I’m pretty sure I’m going to be volunteering with the HMNH education department this July for Summer Science Camps! I’m so excited!! I already chose the sessions I’m going to help in (of course, they include dinosaurs and geology), and it seems like everyone in the department is really excited to have me on board and have me be as eager as I am to get some ed-experience. I’m hoping I’ll be able to take some of what I’m learning from my “Understanding the Visitor Experience” class this semester and use it this summer. Speaking of, that class is proving to be harder than I initially expected it to be. Trying to wrap my head around goals and objectives – I don’t know how you guys do it. Though, I did just read quite a few articles on meaning-making and constructivism, and I have a whole other blog post I’m planning based on my most recent museum experience for that (stay tuned!).

3) As many of you are probably aware by now, I’ve taken over the social media for the Waterworks Museum. This is so incredibly hard, guys. I had no idea just how difficult managing a social media account other than my own would be, but man, it’s difficult. Constantly thinking of new and interesting subject matter to post can be super easy sometimes, and stupidly hard other days. Plus, I have no idea how effective I’m really being, since I’m not sure how to read all of the analytics from HootSuite. Luckily, the museum has offered to pay for me to take a social media management class this summer, so eventually I’ll learn how to deal with all of the numbers, and hopefully be able to run the pages better! If you guys don’t mind, check out the Waterworks Twitter feed @MetroWaterworks and tell me how I’m doing, ok? It would mean a lot to me. Also, if any of you manage social media networks and have tips, either email me or post them in the comments, because I am more than happy to get help where I can. (Big shout out to Erin Blasco of the Smithsonian for already answering so many of my questions!)

4) I’m giving my first tour at the April vacation open house at the Waterworks Museum later this month! I’m super nervous and excited at the same time, because I’m planning this tour on my own. It’s going to be an architecture tour, and not just of our building, but of two other buildings on the museum “campus” (and if visitors have questions about more buildings on the campus I’ll answer them too!). We have so many unique styles of architecture that we rarely ever talk about, and I just think it’ll be a great new addition to what we usually offer on family days. Plus, I’m hoping it will be nice out, and people will want to be outside. I’ve never planned a tour before, but I’m thinking about comparing our buildings to buildings that people might be used to seeing in downtown Boston (like Trinity Church and the Boston Public Library) so they can build on their prior knowledge (yeahhhh constructivism!). It’s going to be hard work, but I want this to be a dynamite tour.

I had planned on writing a post about making meaning in museums and my own personal meaning-making experience from earlier this week, but I wanted to post this update as well. Anyway, that’s all for now!

An Update That Never Posted.

Am I Doing This Right? (Fear and Worrying in My Career Path)

ImageI know I’m not the only student in a museum studies degree program who finds herself occasionally worrying: “am I doing this right?” I as myself this question about once a month, to be completely honest. In these moments of overwhelming fear, buried under piles of notes from class and work (both paid and unpaid), looking for a moment of peace in this chaotic world I’ve created for myself, I find myself wondering if I’m going about this whole career path the right way. I start to ask: am I volunteering enough? Am I honing my skillset the right way? Am I staying relevant in this growing, expanding, dynamic ecosystem of museums that I’ve decided to enter? What else could I be doing? How much less free time am I willing to have to get the skills I need? How competitive am I? Why do I feel so insignificant?

These are the moments when I have to truly take a step back and look at everything that I’m doing. I’ve taken every opportunity I can get, to the point of exhaustion. I’m constantly looking for ways to learn new skills, and prove that they’re relevant to the museum world. I went from being semi-engaged, to eating/sleeping/breathing museums. I might as well walk around with a tattoo on my forehead that says “ask me about my museum”.

But there are things that I think about doing, that others in my position have taken up, that I wonder if it’s important for me to pursue. Many of us EMPs appear to be starting YouTube series about museums. I’ve seriously thought about doing this a few times, and I just can’t. Guys, I can’t do it. Not only do I hate seeing myself on camera (note the lack of #museumselfies on my Instagram), but I find myself so overly engaged on Twitter and interacting with real people at events like Drinking About Museums that I think making another series to add to the miasma is just unnecessary. Am I wrong? Maybe. But I’m too involved with other projects to consider it at this point.

I’m worried about my thesis, mostly because I haven’t done any research on it. I decided not to take a summer class, not only to give myself some time away from being in a classroom, but also to volunteer at HMNH as an assistant for Summer Science Weeks (which hopefully HR will approve!). I have no idea whether or not I will enjoy museum education, but this opportunity has been presented and you can sure as hell bet I’m going to take it. This is the only way I can find out if I want to be an educator. Wait, what was I talking about? Oh, right, my thesis. I have ideas; I think I have a really great idea, actually. And I’m looking forward to sitting down and doing the research prior to going to my program advisor and saying, “This is my idea, this is the research I’ve already done that supports my idea, this is where I want to do my internship.” It’s just getting to the point of having enough time to sit down and comb through the last few years of TrendsWatch or looking at ASTC statistics. On top of that, I still haven’t cracked open the book on the history of the institution I would ideally like to do my internship at.

On top of all this worrying, I occasionally suffer from self-doubt. Ed Rodley, bless you sir, thinks I would be perfect for running a Boston edition of Invasioni Digitali, a grassroots effort sparked in Italy to “mob” cultural heritage and historic sites and share these visits via social media, therefore creating conversation about preservation, heritage, etc. I love the idea. I think it’s a perfect idea, in fact. But am I really the best person for the job? Maybe I just don’t want to brag about myself; maybe for all my confidence and enthusiasm, I really don’t like being the person that says, “Oh, I KNOW I’m the best person for the job.” I’d rather say, “Really? You think so?” And then prove it with actions. So I guess I’m issuing a call with this post as well: if you’re interested in invading some museums and cultural sites with me at some point this summer, holla at me. Ed is going to MW2014 in April and meeting up with them, so he’ll bring me back a better idea of how it works. But even just writing this paragraph, I’ve got some ideas….

My last concern is my resume. Guys, how the hell do I write something like THE WORLD IS AWESOME AND I WANT TO LEARN MORE on my resume? I can’t! I hate writing resumes and I hate writing cover letters. I don’t know how to convey my enthusiasm for what I do in three paragraphs. I want people to see my cover letter and resume and think “wow, this girl has a spark, let’s interview her”, so I can get into that interview and blow them away. I’m stupidly enthusiastic about my work; you should see me at the Waterworks Museum. I’m about to draft an email to the MWRA about visiting the Deer Island Treatment Facility (where Boston’s wastewater is treated!) so I can live-tweet my visit for the Waterworks Museum, and also learn more. Are there any water departments that need a historian on staff? I think I might fit the bill perfectly after my stint at the Waterworks is over. Yesterday I almost went over to talk to some MWRA employees while they were fixing the emergency backup pumps. How ridiculous is that? Anyway back to my point. How do I write all of this? How to I say, “enthusiastic about the world”?

These are the questions and concerns that plague me. But I’m sure they haunt my peers just as much. I’m sure all of you established museum professionals that glance at this post will understand my fears. If you have advice, tips, suggestions, etc., I’d love to hear it. Comment below or email me. Get coffee with me. Visit me at work. Something.

🙂

 

Am I Doing This Right? (Fear and Worrying in My Career Path)

#HacktheMuseum at HMNH!

ImageFriday night I had the pleasure of working in the gift shop during the first-ever #HacktheMuseum at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The event was the culmination of a week-long Wintersession course offered by HMNH’s Education department to Harvard students from all disciplines, and showcased the work produced by nine students. Their task? To reinterpret the galleries of the HMNH in new and different ways. They created the Exploritas Club, and invited Harvard College students (and other museum-centric folks) to come check out their experiments, give them feedback, and investigate the museum under the guise of the hackers. Their creations were amazing reinterpretations of an otherwise static natural history museum and they were incredibly well thought out and executed for only having a week to prepare.

There were seven experiments set up in the HMNH: Dream Life of the Great Mammal Hall; Specimens Speak; Mount a Specimen; Picture Yourself…; Sense and Sensibility; the Death Lounge; and At Camp. I’ll give you a quick run-down of each:

Dream Life of the Great Mammal Hall: The lights in the mammal hall were completely turned off for this hack, and stories from various expeditions were placed throughout the exhibit space. One of these stories was the Feast of the Sea Cow, a dining table set up underneath the suspended skeleton of the now-extinct Stellar’s sea cow. I missed the expedition stories (and therefore probably the point of the hack), and thought that the dimmed lights were supposed to be a sensory experience designed to view the mammals in a different light, as the reflections and shadows of the people milling around played into the concept of a dream world where the taxidermied animals sleep.

Specimens Speak: This was a great hack. Pre-cut speech bubbles were placed in a bowl on a table in the Africa and South America galleries, and visitors were invited to give voices to the lifeless specimens of these halls. What resulted from the hack was a mix of clever humor and serious thought into the minds of these animals. My participation in this hack was to have the mako shark in the Fishes gallery remind humans, “Fish are friends, not food!”

Mount a Specimen: Set up in the Arthropods gallery, Mount a Specimen taught visitors how to properly mount insect specimens on mounting foam. Visitors were also taught how to collect specimens from the field. After mounting your specimen, you were given a specimen card to write the proper taxon, your name, and the collection for proper display in the museum. I personally didn’t participate in this experiment, but the concept is definitely worth trying out in the museum during regular hours. Teaching kids, parents, and educators how to properly mount insect specimens would be such a hit! Plus, the kids could then go home with their own insect specimen.

Picture Yourself: A 109-year-old mountain lion, a snowy owl, a baby black bear, a puffin, and a few other specimens were pulled from the Education collection for this experiment. A green screen was draped behind the mountain lion specimen, and visitors could take photographs with it and the other taxidermied animals (making sure not to actually touch them). The photos were uploaded to a flickr account this week, and some had a neat background added thanks to the green screen. This hack removed the glass barriers that usually appear in natural history museums and allowed visitors to get up close and personal with the specimens. Here’s my photo:
ImageSense and Sensibility: Set up in probably the most unapproachable exhibit in HMNH, this hack created a mobile scavenger hunt to engage visitors checking out the Glass Flowers. The scavenger hunt (which used a web-based mobile site instead of an app, allowing for different smartphone platforms to participate) utilized your senses to actively engage visitors. There were three questions for each sense (taste, touch, smell) and the mobile app led you through the gallery. A table set up outside the gallery had matching samples for you to taste, touch, and smell, and then you went back into the gallery to find the answer to the question on the app. Everyone that I saw participating seemed to have a really great time with the hack, and I think anything that gets visitors to actively participate with the Glass Flowers is a slam dunk.

The Death Lounge: This experiment was definitely the most artsy of all the hacks, and no surprise, because one of the students was from the Graduate School of Design. The dinosaur hall (formally: Romer Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology) was darkened and Christmas lights were set up along the top of the cases; combined with the ambient light from the Kronosaurus queenslandicus case, it created quite a creepy atmosphere. But it didn’t stop there. Specimens were pulled from the Education department and lined the tops of the cases as well, illuminated by the small Christmas lights, and old-school jazz was played from a table offering snacks and warm cider. Pelts were laid out on the floor, along with bones from assorted animals, and skeletal structures set up to look at. It was definitely a lounge of death; nothing in there except the visitors was alive! It gave the exhibit hall new life and I would definitely like to see something like this hack brought back again for another student event.

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At Camp: A lumberjack camp was set up in the corner of HMNH’s temporary exhibit Thoreau’s Maine Woods. The camp appeared as if Henry himself had just left for a moment, perhaps to collect specimens or firewood for the evening. Baked beans and blueberries were slowly simmering in a crockpot, and the scent was incredible. The experiment brought ambient, sensory engagement to a photography exhibit and reminded me of camping in the woods (as I’m sure it was supposed to).

All in all, I think Hack the Museum at HMNH was very successful, and I’m hoping the class will be offered again, perhaps as a summer session to allow for even broader interpretations of the museum. It would have been nice if someone had tried to tackle the mineral hall, but with only a week to complete the project, I can understand how that might have been too daunting a task. I applaud the efforts of all the students involved, and hope the education department at HMNH develops this program further. Perhaps we could even ask the public to Hack the HMNH!

#HacktheMuseum at HMNH!

Megalodon Teeth

Sorry it’s been so long, guys. I’ve been swamped with schoolwork, and will probably be for the next few weeks (research paper due next Monday, then a collections plan due two weeks after that). But after December 18th I’ll have more free time, so yippie!

Anyway, the point of my brief post. Megalodon teeth.

We sell a few of these bad boys in the gift shop at HMNH. They’re pretty expensive, so they don’t move too quickly, but we get a lot of fossil collectors in that always take an interest in them.

One of the biggest criticisms I hear from visitors about our museum is our lack of tactile exhibits. Everything we have is behind glass, untouchable. And what we do have for visitors to touch is stored on carts that only the volunteers can take out, and if there are no volunteers around, there are no skulls or bones or fossils or other objects for kids to handle (but this is really a story for another time).

Now, as I said in a previous post, the gift shop is dead center of the museum. You can’t enter or exit the exhibits without coming by. So, naturally, a lot of kids that walk by tend to stop and check out what we have.

I can’t tell you how awesome it is when kids stop to check out the megalodon teeth.

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This is one of those teeth. And the kids that stop by are usually mind-boggled. At first they usually ask if the teeth are real, and then how much they cost. And that’s usually when I pull one of the teeth out and let kids handle it (only if there are one or two of them, if it’s a whole group it gets a little risky). I love how interested these kids are! They’re usually taken aback by the size of the tooth (the one pictured is the size of my hand), but they always comment on how heavy it is, or that you can still see some of the serrations on the edge. They ask where it was found (coast of South Carolina) and if it’s really a real tooth or not (it is!). Sometimes they ask if c. megalodon was a real shark, and I say that yes, they existed in prehistoric oceans, and I would not want to come across one today. And then they say thank you and walk away.

But I hope they’re walking away happy, because I’m always happy to show these teeth to kids (adults, too, but c’mon, kids are awesome when they’re interested in science). My goal is to learn a little bit more about c. megalodon, so I can explain the teeth in a more scientific way than just saying AREN’T THESE AWESOME!? Maybe Brian Switek over at NatGeo’s Phenomena blogs will have some good information that I can then impart upon these kids as they come through the shop.

I used to think I was only interested in working with collections. It would mean not working directly with the public, not having to constantly answer questions – all of the things I’ve done for years in retail. But my job at HMNH has taught me that answering questions about these exhibits that I love and find genuinely interesting is actually FUN! And I always end up learning something, whether it be from a visitor, or if I go home and look something up because I didn’t have the answer for them that day. Now, I might be rethinking my whole collections management career. Could I be a public programs presenter? Maybe! I’m certainly comfortable talking to visitors about everything in the exhibit halls. Perhaps I should take some time at the Waterworks Museum to give some tours or answer more questions in the exhibit spaces and work on my public speaking there.

Thanks, kids, for reminding me of why I love museums as much as I do. I used to be in your shoes, the wide-eyed wonderer, fascinated by what was in front of me. Thank you for sharing that wonder with me, and letting me share mine.

Megalodon Teeth