#MuseumSelfie Day and Drinking About Museums: Boston!

Yesterday was a great day. It seems like #MuseumSelfie day was a hit around the world, with hundreds of thousands of people, from employees to visitors, posting pictures of themselves in a museum setting on Twitter. Looking at the photos was great! I liked that some people posted multiple selfies from various museum trips they had taken throughout the years, documenting themselves on a journey through the cultural centers of the country and the world. Bravo to everyone who participated, including the museums that retweeted photos and encouraged their staff to actively participate! Woo hoo!

And then there was Drinking About Museums at Hong Kong in Harvard Square. Have I mentioned how much I love the museum community in Boston? Because I love it dearly. Thanks, Ed, for making me feel welcome, and joking around with me. It was great talking to so many museum pros. I loved that there were some students from the wintersession HACK the HMNH class, too! They did a great job promoting the class and inviting everyone there last night to their party tomorrow night, where their participatory, interactive, and inventive exhibits will be on display for one evening of EXPLORITAS! I’m really stoked I got to talk to Diana, one of the facilitators of the event. It was interesting to hear her perspective on the HMNH, and it was nice to hear some of my own views agreed with. I can’t wait to be at the event tomorrow (I’m actually working it in the gift shop) – it will be really cool to see what these students have come up with.

I’ve signed up for my first-ever Museums Showoff as well, which I’m super nervous about, but also super excited. 9 minutes to talk about whatever I want to talk about, as long as it is relevant to museums? Sounds great to me. I’m planning on talking about the Waterworks Museum (as everyone now knows), so if anyone has any questions about it (things you’d like to know, questions you’d like answered), please let me know and I’ll definitely try to address it. I have the feeling not many people know what the Waterworks Museum is, so it’s definitely going to be an introductory 9 minute talk about it. But super jazzy and fresh. Or something.

Short update, but just wanted to share my enthusiasm and say how psyched I am for this year! Hooray 2014!

#MuseumSelfie Day and Drinking About Museums: Boston!

Thoughts on Photography in Museums

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts on Photography in Museums

Happy 2014!

ImageHappy new year, everyone!

2014 has been kind of ridiculous so far, and it’s only been two weeks. So far, I’ve barely seen the inside of my apartment, had the floors torn up, and visited Newport, Rhode Island, with my mom. Newport was pretty neat; we went to the Breakers, which was gorgeous and over the top and I can’t even image what it’s like to have that kind of wealth. I’m just glad all of those houses were donated to the Preservation Society of Newport. We might not necessarily appreciate the over abundance of wealth and extravagance of the early 20th century, but the architecture and the artistic sensibilities of interior decorators is certainly something I can appreciate in spades. I wish it hadn’t been so cold out, because I would have loved to walk the grounds of not only the Breakers, but the Elms and Marble House. But with -10 degree wind chills, outside was definitely not where I wanted to be!

This year looks to be as challenging and interesting as 2013. So far, I have planned to:
– Volunteer at the New England Museums Association (NEMA) as often as I can manage.
Finally visit some museums in New York City other than AMNH, and hopefully meet up with Shaelyn and Mark Schlemmer and any other museum professionals that want to get together (impromptu Drinking About Museums, perhaps?)
– Participate in my first-ever Museums Showoff!
– Keep applying for jobs, even though my chances of getting them are slim (practice makes perfect, right?)
– Photograph all the objects at the Waterworks Museum I keep meaning to photograph.
– Go to Europe! (more on that in a minute)
– Rock my two spring semester classes (Visitor Experience, and Museums & the Law).

Did I mention that I’m going on a trip to Europe this summer? I am! The trip is based around the history and geography of World War I France and Belgium, and includes a myriad of museum trips and battlefield site visits. I’m hoping to focus my thesis on World War I, memory, and museums, so this trip will be a perfect opportunity to do some independent research. Plus, I’ve now written three major papers based on World War I, so the opportunity to visit some of the places I’ve spent so long researching is well-deserved.

I hope you all have equally as exciting plans for 2014! Are there museums you plan to visit? Exhibitions you can’t wait to see? Personally, I’m thrilled that the National Maritime Museum’s exhibition ‘Turner & the Sea’ will be making a stop at the Peabody Essex Museum in May. I cannot wait for that exhibition! I adore JMW Turner. I also need to get out to Worcester to check out the Worcester Art Museum. They’re putting some of the Higgins Armory collection on display starting in March, and seeing that collection in a new setting will be a treat! Plus, I’ve never been to WAM, so it will be nice to be in a new museum setting.


Happy 2014!

The California Academy of Sciences

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

This time was different.

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

This is Claude.

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

Get Prepared!

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

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

Reindeer and caribou are the same species, Rangifer tarandus.

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

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

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

The California Academy of Sciences

A Quick Update & A Question

Hello hello!

Please forgive me for lacking in any posts recently. I’ve been busy with Christmas shopping and finishing papers (another semester down, yay!), and work has been a blur with folks coming in to do Christmas shopping in the museum store (thank you for supporting your museum, shoppers!). So, basically, I haven’t had much time to think, let alone write a blog post!

I do want to weigh in on the photography in museums debate, but I feel like that is really deserving of an entire blog post of itself. For now, I’ll say this: I like taking pictures in museums. I really do. I like having neat filters (I have Hipstamatic Oggl on my phone and oh my goodness do I love it), I like having memories of places I love on my phone and on the cloud to go back to, and I like being able to share with my friends and family something interesting that I did. That being said, I’m also pretty tame with my photography when it comes to museum spaces. I don’t like getting too close to art, mostly because I’m paranoid the alarm will go off, but also because I’ve had experiences in the past where as soon as I step too close to a piece, I see museum guards out of my periphery and immediately become uncomfortable. I also don’t take pictures just to have pictures. I don’t walk from one masterpiece to the next, taking a photograph and disregarding the actual art, so I can set it up on a slideshow at home to show all of my friends. No, that’s not me. But when the light is pouring in to the new Art of the Americas wing at the MFA at just the right angle and hits one of the sculptures in the Salon Gallery with a perfect glow? Yeah, that I’ll take a picture of. Sometimes I am photographing in a museum as a reference, or as part of an assignment; that’s when I’m only photographing labels, though, which I don’t do very often.

Anyway, I have a six hour flight to California ahead of me on Monday (whooooo!), which is where I plan on reading most of the articles that have surfaced over the past two weeks regarding photography in museums and memory (if you haven’t read Ed Rodley’s post about it yet, you probably should), so when I have done that, hopefully you’ll see a more fleshed out post about the subject.

I do have a question for folks, though. How do you feel about Christmas trees in museums? Here in Boston, the MFA put up quite a tree in the rotunda, and all the photos I’ve seen of it have it splendidly framed with Sargent’s murals. I know other art museums are also putting up trees as well. And last night it made me think: why are we putting Christmas trees up in our secular spaces? I swear, I’m not trying to be a Scrooge; I love Christmas. But I also have to advocate for those that don’t celebrate the holiday. Are we being culturally rude to them by putting Christmas trees up in our museums? What do you think?

And with that question out of the way, I bid everyone a good weekend. Hope you all have a happy holiday, whatever you celebrate, and a festive New Year!

A Quick Update & A Question

Unpaid Internships: Are They Ethical?

This is a quick post, but a worthy one nonetheless.

Last week, I read a great post on Nina Simon’s blog Museum 2.0, by guest writer Michelle Fisher. The post, titled A Shared Ethic for Museum Internships, focused on the ethics of unpaid internships in the museum field, and what effect this phenomenon is having on the field.

My personal feelings* on the issue, just to get them out there, are this: unpaid internships are unethical and devalue the work of the intern, and thus devalue the intern themselves. When you look at the amount of work an unpaid intern must do, for no pay, and sometimes as a requirement for graduation (meaning you just paid upwards of $2000 to work for no money at all…which makes NO sense), it seems borderline illegal. On the flip side of that, sometimes looking at just how little work an unpaid intern is asked to do (I once applied for an unpaid internship where the majority of my 8-10 hour workweek consisted of database entry, photocopying, and occasionally working with the collections manager…um, what?) begs the question of how much the intern will actually take away from the experience, and will it help them in the field? It’s upsetting and discouraging to see that so many interns are being asked to take on a wide range of work for nothing in return, except the possibility of a recommendation letter which may be boiler-plate and your supervisor might not even remember you in the end.

Anyway, this week, Michelle wrote a fantastic follow-up post on CacOphony, the communications blog of Baruch College City University of New York. In it, she asks if it is ethical for professors and other educators to write recommendations for unpaid internships, or to circulate information about them at all. Michelle comes from Glasgow, where it is illegal for internships to be required for credit towards graduation, especially when the internships are unpaid, so her shock at the proliferation of the unpaid internship in return for college credit (when, again, you just paid upwards of $2000 to not be paid) is quite understandable. But it’s also shocking and discouraging to those who were born and raised in the US.

The point of this post is to encourage more dialogue on the subject. Read Michelle’s two articles, which I’ve linked in the post above. Michelle, myself, Nina Simon…all of us out there who question the ethics of the unpaid internship all want to know what you think. Have you ever worked as an unpaid intern? Do you have an internship requirement as part of your graduate or undergraduate program? Share your thoughts with us!


*Disclaimer: I accepted a paid internship at the Peabody Essex Museum back in the summer of 2009. It was a full-time, Monday through Friday internship, that was funded by a grant that I believe has since expired. This internship had a full workload and I was splitting time between two departments, and it led to a year of volunteering within the same department after the internship had been completed. I have yet to work as an unpaid intern, although I have applied for many unpaid internships, and I am required to complete a 200 hour internship in order to graduate from my MA program.

Unpaid Internships: Are They Ethical?

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