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

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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Format Changes

No, this is not the long post I have been gathering research for and slowly writing for the past week. That post, on the effects of touch and learning in museums, should hopefully go up Sunday night. I had to get a few quotes from my sister, and make sure all my research was sound and made sense before I started compiling the post.

ANYWAY! I am thinking about changing up the format for this blog. A lot of what I do, both for work and for school, centers around a hefty amount of research, most of which I take on for my own enjoyment, and sometimes has nothing to do with museum studies, just with the stuff filling the museums I work at. And I really like this kind of research, because it leads to me being happy and learning something new. Plus, I realize I haven’t been very consistent with my posts, which is only harming me. I want this blog to showcase my abilities and be a forum for me to question and interpret the field and (hopefully) engage with other professionals in the comments (seriously guys please comment). So, with that, I think we’re going to do things a little differently.

Something I started doing off and on last month on Instagram was Cetacean Saturday. I’m thinking I might bring that here as well, but only once a month because we only have 5 whales at the natural history museum (though then there are two orcas in the Northwest Labs building…). Also, I do crazy amounts of research for the things I tweet about for the Waterworks Museum, and for the objects I document and accession. These posts won’t be very long, and they’ll more than likely be accompanied by at least one Hipstamatic photo. I realize this format might be better suited for Tumblr, but I a) have no patience for Tumblr these days, and b) cannot be bothered to reactivate another social media account.

So starting tomorrow, I’ll throw up a post for Cetacean Saturday, more than likely featuring a whale I’ve already covered on my Instagram account. We’ll see how that goes. Maybe I’ll push it beyond the skeletons we have at HMNH if people seem to enjoy it.

Yes, I’ll still be posting about current issues and topics in the field, but as many of you probably know, working full time sometimes means that sitting down at your computer to write a lengthy blog post sometimes isn’t the thing you want to do every day. Look for these meatier posts probably once or twice a month. You can expect shorter posts every week starting tomorrow (but don’t worry, your feed will not be flooded with posts).

What say you to that? 🙂

Format Changes

Making Meaning: Kentridge’s “Refusal of Time”

"Refusal of Time" with elephant, William Kentrdige
“Refusal of Time” with elephant, William Kentrdige

I tried to come up with a better title for this blog, but honestly, the one above says it all. Recently in class we’ve been discussing how visitors make meaning, and how we as museum professionals and educators can better facilitate opportunities for visitors to create meaning. The basic concept of Hans-Georg Gadmer’s interpretation of meaning making, where a visitor connects their prior knowledge of an idea with new and evolved ideas presented to them in an exhibit or learning space, has really stuck with me, as well as his notion of bringing people and objects together to have a conversation and, consequently, create meaning. I think, in some way, we have all had this sort of experience (whether or not it was in a museum), where we have knowledge of some fact or notion, and when new information that builds upon and expands that notion is presented to us, we have that moment of, “whoa, no way, I had no idea!”

I had a moment like that during my visit to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston last week.

I went to the ICA last Thursday to see William Kentridge’s “Refusal of Time”. I’m not a huge fan of contemporary art, but from reading about the exhibition online it sounded new and different, something I had not seen before. It helped that it was a gorgeous sunny day out, the first we have really seen in months, and I was desperate to get out of the house. It took me a solid 2 hours just to get to the ICA because I was too busy enjoying the Harbor Walk along Fort Point. But I finally got there, and after securing my #ITweetMuseums pin and making sure I could take pictures in the exhibit (yes, but no video), I made my way up to the 4th floor galleries to check out the exhibit.

It starts out in a small gallery, with a dozen or so of Kentridge’s charcoal and mixed media pieces. My favorite was “Untitled”, a large charcoal sketch of a waterfall in a jungle. What immediately caught my eye were the red lines throughout the otherwise grayscale piece. The lines had two meanings, both of which I found incredibly interesting: they could be either the line of a surveyor’s instrument, or the laser of a gun sight.

I learned this before reading the introductory text to the multimedia show, “Refusal of Time”. What I learned was that the show was done in response to the British imperialism and domination of South Africa (Kentridge’s home country) and other African nations, and to the notion that because Britain had the Royal Observatory and the Prime Meridian, that Britain controlled time. It took the idea of Einstein’s declaration that time is relative, and expanded upon this to destroy the notion that Britain could control time, and therefore shook the foundation of its imperialistic dominance. This intro text spoke of a plot to destroy the Royal Observatory in 1894, something I had never before heard about. With all of this information in mind, I settled in to watch the 30 minute long, five-screened multimedia show.

To describe what I saw would a) take forever, and b) ruin the experience for anyone thinking about seeing the show. Let me tell you: you should go. Kentridge plays with the visual and auditory to create an entirely immersive experience. You don’t want to leave mid-way through, because you are completely enthralled with the action on each screen. The elephant in the room (sort of literally; Kentridge created a breathing machine to represent the machines that pumped air into clocks in Paris so each would be exact and precise) wasn’t as loud as I thought it would be; in fact, I didn’t hear it at all. Kentridge collaborated with Peter Galison, a professor of the History of Science at Harvard, on the project, and together they created an experience that outlines the changes in how we view space and time. There was live-action, sculpture, sketches, and Kentridge himself walking on chairs in the show. At one point, Kentridge describes the event horizon of a black hole, and compares it to Charon ferrying souls across the River Styx (just go see the show I can’t explain this to you). Megaphones placed throughout the gallery project conflicting sounds and voices (so be careful where you sit). Kentridge narrates throughout, taking us on this mad journey to bring down the Royal Observatory and take back time.

So, how did I make meaning from this?

I majored in history in undergrad. I have always found history to be amazing, especially history that often goes overlooked. Guys, I had never heard of the 1894 plot to destroy the Royal Observatory. I want to know more about this. All I have found so far is this one article from the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, where even they admit there is little known beyond manuscript notes and contemporary newspaper articles. I walked away from that exhibit desperate to know more, and I still feel that way. I was almost overwhelmed by sensory overload during the show, but I could not look away because I had to know. At one point, a hand flips through an atlas, listing cities and towns in Africa that revolted against British oppression during the early 20th century. I walked away wishing I had paid more attention during my History of South Africa class. I walked away feeling like I had learned something new, from art that I generally don’t go out of my way to see (contemporary art). I walked away with new appreciation for how contemporary art can take the most amazing backroads to bring you to your final destination.

I guess to explain meaning making would be a futile effort; we can’t define meaning making beyond a vague inclination, because meaning making is different for every individual, based on experiences and prior knowledge. For me, my experience has been to absorb history, to learn more, to seek out the information I don’t have so I can share it with others. Perhaps it would be fair to say that I don’t always view art as art, but as a vehicle for communicating history. To me, history is central to the human condition; without it, what are we? How do we learn if we can’t learn from the past? How can we reach forward if we don’t know what brought us to the present? These are the questions that drive me, that push me to be a better researcher, that make me look at the world a little differently than others.

I’ve just deleted a paragraph several times because I don’t want to continue to speculate and sound redundant. Everyone has their own method of meaning making. Let’s just leave it at that. But to become better museum professionals, to create a welcoming environment for our visitors, we must create an engaging, accessible, universally designed space for the greatest amount of enjoyment possible. We must create an atmosphere of energy and excitement, and work with multiple learning styles. If we can do this, we can help more visitors have meaning-making moments. And that’s really the point, isn’t it?

 

 

 

Making Meaning: Kentridge’s “Refusal of Time”

An Update That Never Posted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Update That Never Posted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

🙂

 

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

#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

#MuseumShowoff Boston!

ImageHey guys! Sorry for not updating as frequently, but I’ve had a lot going on and minimal time to conceive of blog posts!

Let’s get right to it: Museum Showoff. Sitting through a 2 hour class before having to watch five other people showoff before me was possibly the most nervewracking thing ever. George Hein came in to talk about constructivist learning, and we did this really cool group activity where we had to choose a thing to teach someone, and figure out how we could teach that thing using the four main methods of learning and teaching. It was actually pretty hard, but I think our group also chose a difficult concept to teach (the earth goes around the sun). The activity took my mind off my nerves, but only for ten or fifteen minutes. By 6:45, I hate to admit, I was constantly looking at the clock, and feeling very anxious to get out of the classroom and over to Hong Kong. Not too many classmates came, but the ones that did, I really appreciate you coming! It was also great to be reunited with some folks I met at the Story Collider back in September (Becky gave a talk on what it was like being an art history major; and it was Claire’s first time at a DAM/MSO BOS event). I saw a lot of familiar faces, and I’m pretty stoked that my face was familiar to them as well!

The showoffs that I saw were great. (I’m bummed I missed Jeff Steward’s talk about the Harvard Art Museums!) Diana gave a great talk about the HMNH Hack from last month, with some lessons learned from the hack. Emily Oswald’s discussion of the different ways the old Charlesview apartments on North Harvard St could be utilized as pop-up museum space/historic space was incredible, and I totally want to see if that plan can work at all, because that corner is in desperate need of some artistic therapy. Meg Winikates shared what it’s like to have the “From Here to Ear” exhibit at the Peabody Essex Museum, a space not traditionally designed for live animal exhibitions. The video she showed and the way she described the exhibit made me really want to hop on the next commuter rail and go see it (and hopefully sometime next month, I will!). Susan Timberlake’s talk about museum badging for the Center for the Future of Museums was really cool, and I am definitely going to learn more about badging now! Becky’s talk definitely hit home for me; as a history major, I was constantly asked what I wanted to do when I graduated, and most people assumed that the answer to that question was teaching.

I went dead last, and I’m not going to lie about how nervous I was. I was shaking when I plugged my USB into the computer. I had a plan for this talk: I was going to introduce the Waterworks Museum, and basically give everyone a virtual tour of the museum, with a handy PowerPoint and everything. And then, the day before the showoff, I realized what an utterly stupid idea that was. I didn’t want to give people a virtual tour, that would give them absolutely no reason to visit (unless the tour piqued their interest, which I’m sure it would have), and I would have been boring and droned on for 9 minutes citing facts about the building, dates of construction, and basically sounding like a history textbook on legs. I didn’t want that. I wanted people to know what I know, and feel how I feel when I walk in to the Waterworks Museum. (to use an awful analogy, the Waterworks Museum is to me what the Millennium Falcon is to Han Solo) I used photos I took from my time there and put them in to a movie that I had playing on the TV behind me the whole time I was talking. No music, just photos; of the building, of the collection, of the engines, of little things I found that fascinate me. I talked about what I do, and why I’m scared, and why I’m proud. I shamelessly plugged our February Vacation Open House. I wanted my presentation to be a call to arms; to rally people to not only visit the Waterworks Museum, but to take an interest in small historic museums and houses that sometimes get ignored, especially when their cultural competition is a place like the MFA or the Museum of Science.

I’d say I was successful.

The next day, walking up an icy sidewalk to the Waterworks Museum, I was bombarded by tweets from Ed Rodley, about the InvasioniDigita initiative that has started in Italy. It’s an incredible #musesocial initiative, where “mobs” of people “invade” cultural institutions and share their experiences via social media. Instead of solo visits to museums, you have groups of people, starting conversations about art and culture and society, and it looks like an amazing experience. And now they want me to participate in their second edition in April! Hopefully I’ll be able to rally the troops at the next Drinking About Museums: Boston, and in class on Wednesday after I attempt to explain the concept to my classmates.

I know I’ve said this in previous posts, but it needs to be said again: I love the museum community here in Boston. Wednesday night made me feel like I really can do this; that the field I’ve chosen is actually limitless as long as you have passion and determination. I have to thank Ed (again) for making me feel welcome in this community, but I also have to thank everyone else who came up to me after my showoff to say hello. Diana, I totally want to collaborate with you on anything and everything; your vision and creativity blow me away. Emily, I want to help you get Charlesview a makeover. Claire Hopkins just started her museum studies degree, and has a fantastic YouTube channel called Brilliant Botany that I suggest everyone check out (she wrote her undergrad thesis on MAPLE SUGARING, how awesome is that??). Dan Yaeger and Heather Riggs from NEMA, it was so awesome seeing you both there, and thank you so so much for letting me come to the office once a month to volunteer. To the entire museum community: you rock.

I should probably go do homework now…

#MuseumShowoff Boston!

February Update

Holy wow, this month is shaping up to be a busy one.

Classes have started and already been affected due to the weather. Museums & the Law is pretty interesting, though I wish it were in a classroom setting instead of online; I think I would feel better about asking questions if I didn’t have to deal with using my computer’s microphone. The material we’re reading is super heavy, but really quite incredible.

Lynn Baum is teaching Learning in Museums: Understanding the Visitor Experience, and so far it’s shaping up to be an awesome class. There’s a lot of in-class group work, which makes sense, and we have a project that we’re working on during the semester that we hand in as a final report. I’m writing mine on HMNH. I’m stoked. It’ll be a good creative outlet for all of the ideas I’ve had floating around in my head about how to make that place a better museum.

I think I’ve completely switched gears on what I want to do for my thesis. I’m not going to spell it out for you here, but it has nothing to do with World War I anymore (which means I’m not going to Europe this summer). I’ve found a great summer class to wrap up my classes that I think will fit what I’m thinking about really well, and Lynn’s class and the project I’ll be working on for her are definitely going to help build a foundation. I’ve also started (slowly) reading a history of the California Academy of Sciences…so that should give you another clue.

I’ve started taking on more responsibilities at the Waterworks Museum. I’m now the only person that runs the museum’s Facebook and Twitter feeds, and it is so much harder than I thought it would be. HootSuite is pretty easy to use, but I just need to figure out a good plan for the weekends when its harder for me to come up with stuff to post on the fly. It’s pretty clear that people have noticed the increase in our activity; recently we’ve gotten some messages on Facebook, so clearly they feel like there’s an actual person running it (which was my goal all along!). I wrote down some ideas for themes for each day, just so I can have stuff to plan for the week, but still. Guys. It’s really hard. I didn’t think it would be this hard. To all of the people that run the social media feeds of museums I love, I salute you (like, a thousand times).

Next Wednesday is Museum Showoff: Boston and I’m super nervous. Super excited, but super nervous. What if nobody likes what I have to say? What if I screw up? What if everyone is knee-deep in scorpion bowls?! These are the silly fears I deal with. I’m planning on talking about the Waterworks Museum, and when I first signed up I had planned to just do an intro to the museum since I assume not many people will know what the hell it is. But now I’m thinking, well, I’m going to be up there putting myself out there for 9 minutes, I might as well talk about what I do there. So while I am going to introduce the museum and talk about it for a few minutes, I’m also going to talk about what I do. Which is a lot. Collections, social media, research, sit on two committees, work the front desk…ridiculous. Which reminds me, I need to make sure I can take photos on our Open House day (Feb 20th, come by!) so I can post them. Darn you, photo releases.

I’ve also been working on my presentation for the first-ever HistoryCamp, happening in Cambridge on March 8th. Lee Wright put it together, and discussions and panels have slowly started to add up for the full-day conference. Apparently now we have over 100 people attending?! Should be fun. Adriene Katz and I are giving a presentation on objects as sources of history, and we’re both hoping that we’ll have a good chunk of history teachers from primary and secondary schools in the audience. We both realized that neither of us had ever used an object as a primary source until we got to our museum positions, so it will definitely be interesting to see how we can teach this to other people! I’ve got a few slides done, and hopefully I’ll be sending my presentation along to Adriene at the end of the weekend for her to look over. I’m also on a panel to discuss employment with a history degree! If you’re interested in coming, registration is free (unless you want to help offset the costs of everything being free by paying $25) and open until the day of the conference, just go here: historycamp.eventbright.com.

Well, I should start getting things together to go to work. Until next time!

February Update

#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!