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 

A Follow-Up to Yesterday

Thoughts on Photography in Museums

Last month there was a flurry of activity regarding photography, especially photography in museums. I spent a good 12 hours on planes over Christmas vacation and read through a few of the articles discussing the pros and cons of photography, how it can affect our memories, why it should or shouldn’t happen, etc. The articles were interesting and opinions ranged from one end of the spectrum to the other, and made the flight go by a bit quicker.

I wholeheartedly agree with Nina Simon’s 2009 post from her blog Museum 2.0, wherein she expresses that museum photo policies should be as open as possible. Personally, the strongest argument I feel is that when visitors take photos in your museum and then share those photos, you are getting free advertising (as Nina points out in her post). Who wouldn’t want interesting, new, different images of their galleries and exhibit halls posted on social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram? When others see those photos, they might very well be inclined to visit themselves. I’ve had this experience several times; in fact, just yesterday I took a photo of a deinonychus fossil for Fossil Friday and shared it to my Instagram feed. Within an hour, a friend of mine asked what the admission prices were, whether or not there were guided tours, and when the best time to visit was. Sharing photos = free marketing materials. And who doesn’t love free things?

There was one article that I read that I had a visceral reaction to. It’s a good thing the plane was jam-packed (and it was very early), or I would have been yelling at my Kindle. Eric Gibson’s piece in The New Criterion titled “The Overexposed Museum” made me sad and angry at the same time. In his article, Gibson claims that photography needs to be banned from all art museums, or these institutions will fail. He sees visitor photography as a threat to the collections, and to what he calls “the art experience”.  He fears that visitor loyalty will decrease because of photography, and that “creating an environment where the visitor is invited to stop, look, and take something away from the experience is the museum’s first duty to the public – not shops, restaurants, or public engagement programs.” He wraps up by questioning what museums are for, if they fail to ban photography.

My reaction to this was, as I said, visceral. Museums have a responsibility to the public to steward and preserve the art and objects they collect, yes, but they also have a responsibility to engage with the public. As times change and families bring their kids to the museums they grew up with, evolving policies and growing with technology is something that museums must do, or suffer the consequences of becoming out of touch. By evolving and allowing photography in the galleries, museums are engaging with their visitors on a new level. These photos are shared with others and can bring in a broader audience. I don’t agree with Gibson’s comment that allowing photography means a loss of control of the collections; sharing the collection is your primary objective as a museum. I would go so far as to ask, what is a museum for if it isn’t sharing its collection? Plus, if you allow staff to photograph objects behind the scenes to share them on their personal social media sites or on a museum blog, you increase awareness of just how incredible your collection is, which could lead to donations and support from the public. But a loss of control? Come on. Every website that I have ever seen that hosts photos of artwork makes note of where that art can be seen in person, even if that website is some poorly managed Geocities (oh yeah, remember Geocities?) or Tumblr blog.

On the subject of visitor loyalty, I think the exact opposite of Gibson. People aren’t taking photographs in museums so they can go home with a Van Gogh or Monet and never have to visit another museum ever again. They’re taking these photos to have a memory of their visit; yes, for some that means standing in front of every masterpiece and taking a selfie. But who are you to say how someone can interact with a piece of art? Everyone has their own way of interacting with art, and for many, that interaction includes photographing it. I can’t even say how many pictures I have on my phone of the Albert Bierstadt paintings I’ve seen at the Museum of Fine Arts, but I can say that having those pictures on my phone and my computer doesn’t mean I never go back to the Salon to look at them again. In fact, having those pictures reminds me of where they are in the museum, so when I go back, I can quickly find them. When you create a strict photo policy and then have staff roving around reinforcing it every time someone pulls out a phone, you create a hostile environment, whether you intended to or not. I would say that this would be a cause for loss of visitor loyalty more than anything else; if I felt constantly hounded at a museum, I would not visit.

Also, Mr. Gibson, museums in fact are responsible for public engagement. To you, engagement might be as simple as unlocking the doors in the morning, but for many visitors, engagement means providing meaningful, memorable ways of interacting with art, which leads to a better understanding and appreciation of the art, the artist, and the museum. Providing visitor engagement, whether it be a scavenger hunt, Twitter/Instagram hashtag, QR code, etc., ensures that more visitors have some way of appreciating the objects and the art they see around them, instead of just staring at the painting, reading the label, and maybe walking away with something. Without engagement programs and ways of offering visitors new and different methods of interacting with art, you will lose visitors for good.

The one point I will agree with Gibson on is that visitors forget that you can’t touch things in museums. I have seen this happen and it bothers me as well. Working at a natural history museum, I have had to remind visitors that just because the taxidermied animals look like they can be touched, they really shouldn’t be. I’ve caught visitors trying to climb onto the full-sized moose we have in one of the galleries, and have been shocked when having to explain just why you can’t do something like that (the answer for this is, “You don’t know what kind of chemicals are sitting on that thing, and we really don’t want you getting sick.”).

Other articles posed reasons for allowing photography that I agree with. ARTnews had an article that discussed the very real issue of guards being too busy yelling at visitors for taking photos, and missing others touching art or stealing. They also state that “as a culture, we increasingly communicate in images” – this has been true since the dawn of art history, when cave drawings were a way of communicating stories to one another. By photographing in museums we show others what we like, how we feel, what we are doing – in other words, we are communicating without using words.

My personal feelings on the matter (other than what was shared above) are simple. Museums should allow photography. I understand the issues that come with intellectual property rights and loan items/exhibitions, and to tackle these problems, I believe museums need to take a proactive approach. If you are a contemporary art museum, include in your contracts with artists the option of allowing photography of their art; if you can, perhaps have a gallery that holds only pieces that can be photographed, and a separate gallery for those that can’t be. Make it clear which galleries can and can’t be photographed, both on your maps and with well-done signage (and yes, a guard/gallery guide or two).  If you’re taking in a loaned exhibition, try to work with the lending institution on photography rights, and if the lender doesn’t want to allow photography, then make that explicitly clear to your visitors. But banning photography all together can be difficult and, again, can end in a loss of visitor loyalty. When you’re constantly hounding people to put away their iPhones because they might be taking a picture, you create an unwelcoming, uncomfortable atmosphere that can turn many visitors off from coming back to your institution (or worse, from visiting any art institution ever again). In my experience, most visitors will ask if photography is allowed. I’m always happy to tell them YES! GO NUTS! (Just don’t bring a tripod/monopod in!) Recently, I visited a historic mansion that has a no-photography policy. Their reason was that the artifacts in the house were sensitive to light and could be damaged by flash. As much as I understand this, the mansion had windows that reached 30 feet high, were overabundant, and allowed in plenty of natural sunlight. This policy was clearly instituted as a way for the mansion to keep total control over what images were produced of the inside of the house. I was pretty bummed that I couldn’t take pictures inside. If you’re concerned about damage from flash photography, the simple thing to do is to ask visitors not to use flash. I do it all the time.

Where was I going with all this? Oh, right. C’mon, museums. Lighten up. Let us take photographs.

Thoughts on Photography in Museums

The California Academy of Sciences

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I got to visit the great state of California for Christmas this year, and was fortunate enough to be staying in the South Bay Area, so on Dec. 26th myself, my boyfriend, his best friend, and his fiancée all made the trip up to the city to go to San Francisco’s great California Academy of Sciences. I was last here in 2012, around 4pm, and only had enough time to check out the Rainforests of the World biodome and catch a show at the Morrison Planetarium. Oh, and go up on the Living Roof. All of which were really cool. but when we were rushing around, the Earthquake! exhibit was still being put together, and I didn’t have enough time to check anything else out.

This time was different.

Being the active Twitter fiend that I am, I announced to the Cal Academy and the world that I would be coming up the day after Christmas with some friends. When I arrived, I got a tweet from the Academy, telling me to look behind an info desk for a little prize. What should have been there was a Claude pencil (Claude is their albino alligator), but some happy child already snagged it. It was still really cool to interact with whoever was in the PR/Social Media office at the Academy, though! So thanks for that!

This is Claude.

Out of everything that we saw at the Academy, hands down my favorite exhibitions was Earthquake: Life on a Dynamic Planet. It was so incredibly cool, and it combined the real-life experiences of most Californians with the science behind earthquakes and plate tectonics. Within the exhibition “space” (it’s located in the open atrium) are several exhibits, including a walk-through Earth structure, San Francisco Shakes (the Shake House that allows visitors to experience the 1906 and the 1989 earthquakes, an updated version of the Cal Academy’s past exhibits), and a game called Connect the Continents. After visitors exit the Shake House, they can explore the emergency preparedness exhibit, which details how you can be better prepared for an earthquake in the future.

Get Prepared!

For someone who lives in Massachusetts, this exhibit was incredibly interesting and taught me a lot. We don’t have earthquake preparedness classes in primary and secondary school in MA, and I would have no idea what to do in the event of an earthquake (that’s not entirely true: I know not to go outside). The Shake House was a great simulation; due to safety, the hydraulics only shake the house back and forth, there is no up and down movement. But it was still pretty intense! The 1989 quake only lasted for 15 seconds, so we first experienced the full length of that quake; the 1906 quake lasted a terrifying 90 seconds, but the Shake House simulation only lasted for 30 – it was still an intense example of just how scary experiencing an earthquake of that magnitude must be. When you exit the Shake House, you walk out into the ‘Get Prepared!’ section, which has examples of foods to keep stocked in an emergency box, a first aid kit, and a crank radio that plays the emergency broadcast signal at an alarmingly high volume. What I thought was cool was the “Quake Talk” wall panel, where visitors could leave notes about their experiences with earthquakes around the world. I love that the exhibit combines both the history of San Francisco with the geologic and tectonic forces that create earthquakes, and brings you into the larger science of plate tectonics and the geologic history of our planet. It’s an all-encompassing exhibition that goes above and beyond expectations. It’s also incredibly relevant to the everyday culture of the San Francisco Bay Area and California, and yet is universally understandable in the greater context of how our planet works. The Academy included some excellent examples of evolutionary diversity due to the movement of plates; while you stand in line for the Shake House you walk around a display of an ostrich, and emu, a kiwi, and a few other flightless bird species that all evolved and diversified on different continents after the plates began to shift.

The Academy also had a temporary exhibit called ‘Tis the Season for Science’, which runs until January 5th. Much of the focus was on reindeer during the winter; stations included antler growth, reindeer fur, the science behind how reindeer run, and what it’s like to see as a reindeer. There was also a snowman theatre, which we didn’t go in, but inside was a video on reindeer and was geared towards kids. There were also some presentations throughout the day while we were there, but we were too engrossed with all of the exhibits to sit and watch. The best part of this temporary exhibit, though, was the LIVE REINDEER! The Academy has two, Willow (female) and Yukon (male) in a paddock outside the museum (no, not on the living roof). There was only one docent available at the paddock to talk to visitors, but there were also several panels dispelling well-known myths about reindeer and answering some fundamental questions. My favorite was the panel explaining that caribou and reindeer are the same!

Reindeer and caribou are the same species, Rangifer tarandus.

It was cool seeing both a male and female reindeer, too. Willow, the female, was much smaller in size, was a darker brown, and her antlers were smaller. Yukon was much bigger, and the typical light brown/white/grey that we’re used to seeing on reindeer. His antlers were shedding in preparation for them to fall off entirely – because male reindeer don’t have antlers in the winter (Santa’s reindeer are therefore all girls)! Having the outdoor paddock was also a great reason to step outside the museum building for a few minutes and catch some air. There were tons of kids outside, running around and checking out the reindeer, and I’m sure their parents were relieved at having somewhere for them to just be kids.

Of course, we saw the Rainforests biodome and the Steinhart Aquarium, which were both just as cool as they were the last time I saw them. But I really have to hand it to the Cal Academy, the Earthquake exhibition is the greatest science exhibit I have seen in a while. It’s seamless combination of geology, tectonic activity, history, and evolutionary biology worked so incredibly well, and this exhibit should be a model to all other science and natural history museums that are trying to think of new and different ways to connect their exhibits together. It’s a museum that I strongly recommend everyone check out!

Cal Academy on the Web:
Instagram: calacademy
Twitter: @calacademy
Facebook: California Academy of Sciences
Also on: Flickr, YouTube (includes 3 live streams from the Steinhart Aquarium!)
Check out the Cal Academy’s Online Community page for blog content and links!

The California Academy of Sciences

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.


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