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.

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.


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

Beyond the Gift Shop

Other than a lucky internship I had back in 2009, the majority of my museum experience so far has been working in gift shops. Nowadays, whenever I mention that I work in a museum, people’s first instinct is to ask, “what do you do?”

Well, I say, I work in the gift shop.

This is usually the point where most people give me an odd look or say something like, “oh, so you aren’t really IN the museum.” This bothers me in so many ways. What do you mean, I’m not IN the museum? Sure, my job involves working in a retail environment, but that doesn’t mean my position isn’t part of the grand scheme of things within the museum itself. I may work in the gift shop, but you can bet your britches I know as much about the galleries as many of our docents and volunteers.

I consider myself pretty lucky. At HMNH, the gift shop is located within the actual museum – it’s the first thing you see when you come up to the exhibits. We’re usually the first point of contact most museum visitors have in the physical gallery space, which gives us in the shop the unique position of being both shop associates and de facto docents. Ask me anything about the Glass Flowers, the New England Forests, or the Great Mammal Hall – chances are, I’ll have the answer. My job also allows me to connect with visitors in a way that some gift shop employees might never get the chance to, especially if their shop is detached from the exhibit space of the museum. Folks ask me about our other museums, which means I have to know about exhibits not only at HMNH, but also at the Peabody Museum, the Semitic Museum, and CHSI. Even more ask about other museums in Boston, etc. You get the idea.

Basically, I’m a go-to person for any visitor looking for information. And I really like that about my job. It allows me to talk to visitors and hear what they have to say about our galleries and exhibits. I might not feel the same way about the Glass Flowers as most of our visitors do (the usual exclamation upon exiting that exhibit is “those are simply AMAZING!” or something to that affect), but I’ll gladly tell you that Leopold and Ruldolph Blaschka had an amazing gift and incredible patience, that the collection took 50 years to complete and was transported to Cambridge even during World War I, and that yes, in fact, they are all glass. I like talking to kids about what their favorite exhibits were, too. We sell megalodon teeth from the South Carolina coast, and a lot of kids come by and say WHOA! when they see them. So of course I take them out! It opens up dialogue with visitors that otherwise can’t really participate in online surveys of how their visit was. I like being able to tell people that if they go up to the bird balcony and look at our 120-year-old sperm whale, they can see grease STILL seeping out of the bones. STILL! It’s crazy!

What’s more, I work on the weekends – our busiest time at HMNH. Sunday mornings are free from 9-12 for Massachusetts residents, and it’s really cool to see the regulars show up with their kids, who come in practically EVERY Sunday and yet are still completely blown away by some of the animals in the zoological collection. Working the weekends at HMNH is something that not too many staff do, because we’re part of a university with rules on who can work weekends (depending on how your job is classified? I’m honestly not sure, it’s complicated), so my view on just how busy we can be is completely different from what our weekday warriors see. Sure, they might get the school group crowds from 10am-2pm, but on the weekends we get school groups, boy scout troops, tour groups…basically every level of ‘group’ that you can think of. So when we have staff meetings to discuss attendance, I can chime in and say something about what our attendance is like on the weekend; and I can add what our visitors think, because I am fortunate enough to interact with them.

I see my job as something more than just a shop clerk. Yes, I sell you things (the profits of which go directly to the museum!), but I’m also your guide and your interpreter. If you have questions, I have the answers.


Beyond the Gift Shop