Touch and Learning In Science Museums

My sister and niece, observing fossils from behind glass.
My sister & niece, observing Plateosaurus from behind glass.

Recently, my sister and 2.5 year-old niece came to visit me at the natural history museum I work at. It was the first time they had come to visit this museum, but I know that my sister has taken my niece to the Acton Discovery Museums at least twice, so she has had some experiences within museum settings. What happened on their visit only reaffirmed my feelings towards the serious need for change at my home museum, and I got to experience first hand the frustrations of bringing a child to visit a science museum with minimal interactivity in its exhibit space.

Before I go any further, I just want to explicitly state that the views expressed in this post (and in all my blog posts past, present, and future) are the views and opinions of myself only, and do not reflect in any way the opinions of either of my employer museums. I think I’ve put that disclaimer in my “About” page as well, but I just want to reiterate it here. This blog is my way of understanding my field, expressing concerns and delights, and interacting with other professionals online; it does not seek to criticize beyond reason. So, moving on…

My sister and niece spent about an hour in the museum with me, primarily in the zoological galleries. We checked out the evolution gallery, the arthropods room (where my niece kept yelling “yuck!” and “gross!” at everything in jars, and my sister was completely obsessed with the tarantula), and went into the photography gallery, where my niece listed the animals in the room. We moved on to the fossil exhibits, but it was already becoming obvious that my niece was starting to lose interest. She was running, gently hitting the glass, and her constant question of “what’s that?” was starting to become less frequent. We got to the dinosaur gallery, and I was really hoping she would be blown away by Kronosaurus queenslandicus, our huge fossilized pliosaur; but alas, she was more interested in climbing on the benches and jumping in front of the window. She became momentarily interested in Plateosaurus, but only because my sister tried to engage her with the fossil by asking my niece to compare her feet (hands, head, etc.) with those of the dinosaur behind the glass.

This continued as we moved through the galleries, checking out the taxidermied animals in Africa and the New England Forests. My sister seemed pretty interested in how it was possible to preserve animal hides and fur for so long, and thought it was sad that the chest of our lion cub is literally bursting open; but these aren’t questions a toddler asks. She had some fun in the New England Forests, because she could touch things and we could pick her up to look in to the fallen logs and find different bugs and birds (more on that in a second). The Great Mammal Hall was engaging enough because my niece knew so many of the animals in the room, and ran around trying to find the ones she knew so she could tell us their names. But she was running, and jumping, and yelling, and being generally hyper, like kids are wont to do. Her reactions to the big cats in the Asia gallery were funny (each of the cats has a snarl on its face, which didn’t scare my niece, but every time she saw one she said, “He’s going to get us!”), and she seemed mildly interested in looking at shells through a magnifying glass in Mollusks.

But if there was one unifying thing about their exhibit, though, it was this: in every gallery, around every corner, my niece would say, “I want to touch!”

If you haven’t been to the natural history museum I work at, I will be quite honest with you: there is nothing for you to touch, unless a volunteer is out on the floor with one of the discovery carts.

I felt bad. As an employee, it’s frustrating to see visitors’ expectations dashed as they quickly realize that there are limited opportunities to actively learn and engage within our museum. I also felt bad because I had to watch my sister deal with my niece and her building energy level; at one point she even had to take my niece into a corner to remind her that they weren’t outside, and that the museum wasn’t a place for running and yelling. I asked my sister a few days later what her thoughts on the visit were, and she said that she wished there had been “interactive areas for younger kids, and more touchable things.” The comment she made that stood out to me (especially considering the quote you’ll see in two paragraphs), was that “going somewhere to be lectured at isn’t fun”, and “who wants to go to a glass museum where you can’t touch anything? What kid wants to do that?”

Their visit, combined with a National Science Foundation article I read yesterday on active learning in undergraduate STEM classes, inspired me to do some more research and write this blog post. Now, I’m not an educator by any stretch of the imagination, but as someone who grew up visiting places like the Museum of Science, the Boston Children’s Museum, and the Acton Discovery Museums, I can say that hands-on science learning is important to developing young minds and allowing them to discover how to interact with the natural world around them. Kids need a place to engage with science in an environment that isn’t dictated by grades and tests; that they aren’t going to do something wrong and get disciplined by a teacher. Because science is just crazy awesome, and who wants to get yelled at for thinking differently about dissecting a sheep’s eye in a way different from what the instructions tell you to do? (I may be speaking from personal experience…)

My main argument/proposal is that kids (and adults!) learn more and take away more from science museum experiences when they can actively participate in what they are learning, instead of being lectured to by a label on a wall or a video screen. Scott Freeman, a University of Washington biology lecturer (who authored the study the NSF article is about), said it better than I could: “We’ve got to stop killing performance and interest in science by lecturing and instead help [students] think like scientists” (“Press Release”). Replace “students” with “visitors”, and this is the essence of what I feel needs to change at my natural history museum. We spend much of our time in the galleries essentially lecturing our visitors – the text might not even be that long, but the vocabulary isn’t necessarily accessible. Instead of explaining everything, there are ways to allow visitors to experience the facts and information we want them to walk away with. “Want to know the difference between igneous, metamorphic, and sedimentary rocks? Here, touch them! See how they feel and look! Get up close and really look at them!” would be an example of something we could do.

A great example of a static exhibit becoming more accessible (because that’s really the heart of the matter here isn’t it?) is the New England Habitats exhibit at the Museum of Science. This old-school diorama exhibit has been revamped with sensory stations. Visitors can now listen to the sounds of Vermont’s Green Mountains, smell the scents of Crane’s Beach, and feel the difference between the pelt of a moose and a beaver. All of these additions only enhance the visitor experience. Do they require more care as they take a literal beating every day from thousands of visitors touching them? Absolutely. But the visitor takes something away from the experience, especially if the family engaging with the diorama has never been to the Green Mountains. Maybe the experience they had in that exhibit will encourage them to go, and have a full-on meaning making experience. Sure, there are exhibit labels at each diorama, but now that there are participatory objects for the visitors to engage with, the labels aren’t lecturing, they are adding to the experience.

In constructing this post, I did some digging on the internet for other museums and institutions that are proponents of active play and engagement for kids. Through the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC) I found an article by Judy Diamond from the mid-90s (a little old, but the argument is still relevant) that looked at the intersection of playing and learning in exhibits, and how this kind of engagement can create significance for visitors (young and old). She did a study in 1987 with the Explainers at the Exploratorium, and discovered this: “When a child invents a new way of using an exhibit, at least two important things occur. One, the child constructs personal meaning from an exhibit, and two, the child acquires the ability to approach a task by inventing an original solution” (Diamond). Isn’t one of the goals of museums to facilitate meaning-making? If personal meaning for a child involves playing and touching exhibit objects, then should we, as museum professionals, push for greater access in this area?

I also looked at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, PA. First of all, now I desperately want to go, and I don’t even have kids. But more to the point, the entire museum is dedicated to the idea of “purposeful play”, where every exhibit is constructed to allow children to learn at their own pace through “the power of play”. What I noticed when browsing their exhibits page was that each exhibit space offers kids an opportunity to explore an aspect of adult life: engineering (“City Capers”), physical science (“Flight Fantasy”), handy life skills like repairing your car (“Roadside Attractions”), natural sciences (“River Adventures”), and history (“Centennial Exploration”). In these spaces you can pretend to be a doctor, a jungle explorer, a pilot, a mechanic…the list goes on. This kind of play allows kids to be exposed to a variety of subjects that might pique their interest, starting a chain reaction that can snare their fascination in history or natural sciences early. (Coming from my own experience, my early exposure to history museums set me on a path of passionate appreciation of history, so much so that I graduated with a BA in it).

I started working in my natural history museum when I was 22. Before then, I had limited exposure to science during my college career, and I only realized how much I actually enjoyed physical and natural sciences when I took a physical geology class my senior year. It’s been 3 years since I started working at this museum, and I am now fascinated by everything we have in it. I think natural history is an amazing subject that desperately needs a renaissance, not only because it’s incredibly interesting but because it will help so many people understand why fisheries collapse and pollinators die off (in other words, it helps make the natural world make sense). However, I’m an adult, and I have the power to look up information as soon as I need to know it, and I can absorb most of the exhibit labels with minimal difficulties. A child my niece’s age (and basically any kid younger than a 9th grader, I think) cannot possibly be expected to learn much of anything from the wall labels, even with their parents with them. A child needs physical tools to facilitate learning: “Young children learn best through their senses and physical interactions with the world around them” (“Value of Play”). In my mind, this could be as simple as what was done at the Museum of Science: create synthetic pelts for kids to touch. Put out antlers and horns and bones. Have more child-friendly interactive spaces. Have a solid schedule for gallery guides to be out with carts to help kids.

I could honestly go on and on about this subject, even though I’m not an educator in the slightest. My goal with this post was to vocalize my concerns and seek advice for how to make suggestions to those who have the power to make changes. Every weekend I see hundreds of families at my museum, and I want to know how they think we could serve them better.

Maybe the best way to create change is to start by asking them.


Sources:

“Press Release: Enough with the lecturing.” National Science Foundation: News. NSF, 12 May 2014. Web. 13 May 2014. <http://www.nsf.gov/news/news_summ.jsp?cntn_id=131403&org=NSF&from=news&gt;.

Diamond, Judy. “Playing and Learning.” ASTC – Resource Center – Education – Learning: Theory and Practice – Playing and Learning. Association of Science and Technology Centers, n.d. Web. 26 May 2014.

“Value of Play.” Please Touch Museum. Please Touch Museum, n.d. Web. 26 May 2014.

Touch and Learning In Science Museums

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!

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