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

Physeter macrocephalus (sperm whale)

Physeter macrocephalus (sperm whale)

We’re starting off Cetacean Saturday with my all-time favorite: the sperm whale. I became fascinated by these creatures when I read “In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex” by Nathaniel Philbrick, which details the destruction of a whale ship from Nantucket by an enraged sperm whale (later inspiring Herman Melville’s infamous Moby Dick).

Sperm whales are astounding creatures of the sea. Their skull makes up 1/3 of their entire body, with much of their brain case filled with spermacetti, an oily fluid once mistaken by whalers for sperm (hence the name); scientists today are still unsure of this fluid’s purpose. These whales can dive to extreme depths (1000 meters) and can hold their breath for up to 90 minutes (say whaaaat?). They’re also bigger than the average school bus.

Sperm whales are listed as “vunerable” on the IUCN’s Red List, due to overhunting. However, their conservation is better than most other cetacean species, as hunting of these animals has completely stopped and they are a protected species around the globe. The biggest threat to these creatures is being caught in fishing nets, and colliding with ships (on top of humanity’s ever-increasing disturbance of the oceans via noise pollution, oil spills, and trash).

I think one of my favorite pop culture references to the sperm whale comes from John Hodgman’s Netflix special RAGNAROK. He starts discussing the sperm whale, and describes it as the only whale that actually LOOKS like a whale. It’s so true! Any kid can draw a sperm whale. You see a sperm whale outline on a plate or a piece of scrimshaw and immediately say, “oh, that’s a whale.” I can’t do his description justice, so I would recommend you go check it out.

This specimen in the photo is hanging at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. While I will go in today to find the specimen number, it should be known that there are 16 sperm whale specimens (not counting the dwarf and pygmy sperm whales) that can be found in the Museum of Comparative Zoology’s database. But hopefully I can find the record for this beauty today or tomorrow!

Sources:
Sperm Whales – National Geographic.” National Geographic. National Geographic Society, 2014. Web. 14 May 2014.

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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.

#MuseumTech: Theta360 and Museum Galleries

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The first time I heard about the Ricoh Theta, I got very excited. A 360-degree camera? How awesome would that be!?

It’s pretty awesome, guys.

I was lucky enough to get my hands on one for two weeks, and I am already imagining the possibilities that this little guy could bring to museum education, public programming, gallery interpretation, and social media integration.

The Ricoh Theta is a 5″ high camera with two fish-eye lenses, which allows it to capture a 360-degree image. You can either take a picture by pushing the shutter button on the camera body, or use an app to take a hands-free image (from a tripod or placing Theta on a flat surface). The app is currently available on iOS and Android platforms, and allows you to look at your photos as soon as you’ve taken them (the camera has WiFi that your device connects to, instead of connecting via Bluetooth). It’s a really neat little device!

Anyway, how can this be connected to museums? Well, here, let me show you.

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This is screenshot of my 360-degree photo of the Great Mammal Hall at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. How flippin’ sweet is it?! I can already see the potential for an iPad app, just from this screenshot alone. Or even better, the potential for a visual tour of the museum galleries, possibly to be placed on the website, or only accessible for educational purposes in the case of a school being too far away for a physical visit to the museum. Having the ability to swing around and look at every aspect of the gallery, with the potential to add information in a touch-screen manner (forgive me guys, I’m not an integrated media specialist and I definitely have no idea how to create an app). For example, if you tapped on the skeleton of the North Atlantic Right Whale (the one directly above, with the black baleen), an info panel would pop up, to tell you more about the specimen. It could include anything, from the collection records from the MCZ, to biological information about the species, and go one step further and discuss modern conservation efforts for protecting right whales in New England. It could have neat little behind-the-scenes facts; for example, the baleen on our right whale isn’t real baleen, it’s actually horse hair (the baleen was harvested when the whale was killed 100 years ago). Wouldn’t that be great?

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Here’s another screenshot, this time of the Mineral Hall at HMNH (please forgive my goofy hand and intense attempt at trying to be invisible in a 360-degree shot). Again, I’m seeing so many possibilities for extending the museum beyond the confines of the building and into the digital realm. I almost want this shot to act in the same way Google maps does when you use Street View: you can move forwards and backwards, and side to side along the streets, and zoom in to what interests you. I think an application like that for people who otherwise can’t visit the museum would be a huge help to education. People could virtually “walk” through the Mineral Hall, and zoom close enough to each case that they could see each specimen, and then click on a specimen to learn more about it. The same could be done in the Great Mammal Hall.

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Just one more, and then I’m done, I swear. This final screenshot was taken today, from the floor of the Great Engines Hall at the Waterworks Museum. The view is straight up, in the arch of where the original building ends and the addition begins. Behind the chairs, you can see the Allis engine towering 3 stories high; and upside down you can see the Worthington. If the lighting were better in this shot, you could zoom in to get a better look at the structural details of the building as well. And, once again, I’m envisioning virtual walk-throughs of the museum, allowing for greater access from around the world.

Below are links to the 360-degree images on my Theta360 account. You’ll be able to manipulate the images the same way you could if you had the app! I recommend zooming out a little in the viewer first.
Great Mammal Hall: https://theta360.com/s/9PK
Mineral Hall: https://theta360.com/s/9PS
Great Engines Hall: https://theta360.com/s/9PZ

What do you guys think? How would you use these images if the possibilities were endless?

#MuseumTech: Theta360 and Museum Galleries

#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!

Aquariums, Astronauts, Scarves, and Star Wars (Chats with Members)

Last night was our annual Members Holiday Night at HMNH, where we invite members to the museum for tours of one of the departments, refreshments, shopping, and a night of having the museum just to themselves. I really love working these events. Our members are great; a little zany, but then again, it is a natural history museum. The night started off pretty slow, as most of them signed up for the 5.30 tour of the entomology department, but once that tour came back, it seemed there was a nonstop flow of people in and out of the gift shop, all sharing stories about how fascinating the tour was and how lucky they felt to be able to go on it, and the general consensus was this: they all love the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Well, I love them for that, too.

One of my favorite members, Julie (her last name will be kept secret), and her husband are always fun to talk to. They always buy something when they come to the shop, and they always make a point to mention how much they love the museum and how they wish they visited more often. Julie and I had a great conversation last night that started out with her talking about the tour, and she mentioned the enthusiasm shown by the entomologists and how great it was to see how much they loved their jobs. We talked about how that should be something visitors should be able to see more of in the galleries; wouldn’t it be great to have the scientists out on the gallery floors, talking about what they’re working on? Or better still, as Julie and I discussed, explaining just why we collect all these millions of insects? We both said that it might be a good way to explain just why natural history museums exist, and why the zoological side of HMNH is called the Museum of Comparative Zoology – we need 40 specimens of the same luna moth so we can compare them and look at evolutionary changes and mutations in the species! And that reasoning, of course, is the same for all the specimens the scientists in the MCZ collect. Without this range of biodiversity within our museums, we would never make new discoveries (y’all have heard of this fascinating little guy called the olinguito, right?!). The conversation moved on to how great the new geological timeline (installed in the Earth & Planetary Sciences gallery) is, and how Julie is always on the lookout for a ruler/yardstick with the timeline printed right on it, so she has an easy frame of reference. “But wouldn’t it be even better as a scarf?” she said, and I immediately agreed and took to Twitter in hopes that someone out there might have already printed one (alas, nothing yet). I would wear that scarf, and so would Julie and probably countless other geology nerds, so someone crafty needs to get on that!

Another one of our members is on the board at the aquarium, which I did not know before last night. The last time I saw him, he gave me the shell of a Haitian tree snail from one of his previous visits to the island. How cool is that? He said he gives them to everyone because of how pretty they are, but I still treasure mine, and will probably always remember the day that one member gave me a snail shell. Anyway, he’s on the board at the aquarium, so we chatted about how awesome the new(ish) shark and ray touch tank is. I mentioned (more like exclaimed with unironic enthusiasm) just how great the new interactive features at the top of the Giant Ocean Tank are (they really are quite cool, check one out on my Twitter feed). I also learned that he’s the associate director of the Environmental Management program at my school (man I’m really giving away his name now, so, uh, don’t go looking him up or anything, ok?), which is pretty cool! He was chatting with another member, so I didn’t want to interrupt, but I couldn’t help overhear him telling her about a program being hosted next week that has two ISS astronauts coming as part of the panel. What a great pre-Christmas treat for my boyfriend (he loves astronauts…a lot)!

Meanwhile, one of the members had brought some of her kids to the event. I mean, who wouldn’t? It’s not every day that you get to go behind the scenes of a natural history museum whose collection houses over 21 million specimens; not even I get to do that, and I work there! Anyway, one of her girls was wearing a Darth Vader tee-shirt, which made me very happy, and I said that to her. Well, I said, “I am diggin’ the Darth Vader tee-shirt. Good choice.” When she came back from her tour of the entomology department, I asked what her favorite Star Wars movie was, and she answered, “Umm…probably Empire.” My jaw hit the floor, guys. She couldn’t have been older than 12 or 13. It was a heart-warming moment in my small little nerd world. “Yes!” I exclaimed, “I was worried for a second you were going to say something like Attack of the Clones.” When I said this, she gave me the look I only reserve for those who think the prequel movies are on par with the original trilogy (they are not), and I laughed and gave her a high-five. When she left, I called, “May the Force be with you!” to her from behind the register, and she smiled, waved, and yelled, “You too!” as she was walking towards the stairs. It was an amazingly geeky moment at the end of a very very long day.

Members like this are what make me happy to work in a field where there are people so fully dedicated to giving their money (and sometimes their time) to making sure a place like the Harvard Museum of Natural History stays open and can continue to educate the public on the research being done behind the scenes. They are as curious and investigative as our younger visitors; they too seek knowledge from entomologists and biologists on what makes the world the way it is, and where we might be going in it. They come to our lectures, they shop in our gift shop, and they sing the praises of our little museum. And for that, I cannot thank them enough.

So thanks, members of HMNH. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Aquariums, Astronauts, Scarves, and Star Wars (Chats with Members)

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