Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

Author: Eric A. Carstens (page 1 of 2)

What’s With All the Gay Penguins?

Ronnie and Reggie, two Humboldt penguins at ZSL London Zoo.

Over and over again, zoos and aquariums around the world are making headlines for their same-sex penguin couplings. One of the most iconic couples was Roy and Silo, two male chinstrap penguins who began performing mating rituals at the Central Park Zoo in 1998. After successfully incubating a rock and then a dummy egg, zookeepers decided to give the loving couple a real, fertilized egg. Roy and Silo hatched a baby, a female penguin named Tango. Tango then grew up to form a partnership with another female penguin named Tanuzi.

Skipper and Ping, two king penguins at Zoo Berlin.

The list of gay penguin couples goes on and on and spans a wide range of species. Harry and Pepper were a pair of Magellenic penguins at the San Francisco Zoo. Sphen and Magic are a pair of male Gentoo penguins at SEA LIFE Aquarium in Sydney who hatched their first chick in 2018. Electra and Viola, also Gentoo penguins, are raising a chick at the L’Oceanogràfic in Valencia, Spain. At Zoo Berlin, two King penguins named Skipper and Ping have been trying to become fathers, unfortunately with no luck. Ronnie and Reggie are a pair of Humboldt penguins in London. In the Netherlands, a gay African penguin couple recently stole an egg from a lesbian penguin couple. Even in Parks and Rec, Leslie Knope hosts a wedding for two male penguins at the Pawnee Zoo.

The lives of male and female penguins are not as different from each other as we may expect. Regardless of sex, a parent’s responsibilities are similar—both invest equally in raising their chick. Aside from reproductive barriers, there is no reason why same-sex penguin couples cannot be successful parents. Penguins often lay more than one egg, though only one is likely to survive. In captivity, a same-sex penguin couple can adopt any extra eggs (though sometimes they steal eggs instead.) It’s likely that this happens in the wild too—though it’s harder to say. Visibly, male and female penguins really only differ in size, and not by much. That means it’s difficult to tell male and female penguins apart and even more difficult to identify any wild mating pairs as homosexual.

Rocky and Marama at SEA LIFE London.

In late 2019, mothers Rocky and Marama hatched a baby Gentoo penguin at SEA LIFE Aquarium in London. This baby Gentoo made further waves after the aquarium announced that it would not be assigning the chick a gender. The chick is identified with a gender-neutral purple tag rather than the usual gendered name and color coded tag. Beyond that, the penguin’s life will be the same as any other penguin at the Aquarium. Gender means nothing to penguins, so why have we continuously assigned it to them? The General Manager of the aquarium, Graham McGrath comments that the decision to raise a genderless penguin is following an increase in conversations around human gender neutrality. I applaud SEA LIFE London for taking a look at their practices and making changes based on a more nuanced understanding of gender.

The genderless penguin at SEA LIFE London, identified with a purple tag.

Besides, the animal kingdom is constantly subverting our expectations for both gender and sex. Male seahorses famously carry the young while they develop, and are the ones who eventually give birth. Bluehead wrasses all hatch as female. As they mature, some develop into males. These stories should be highlighted more. Most zoos and aquariums stick pretty exclusively to scripts around environmentalism and conservation. While those are incredibly important topics, I would like to see these institutions branch out. For example, a common argument against LGBTQIA+ rights is that “it’s not natural.” Zoos and aquariums have an opportunity to step in and say “actually, that’s not true.”

Revitalizing Historic House Museums – Testimony from Ann Atwood, Tufts Museum Ed Alum

If you’re still figuring out your summer plans, I’d like to recommend taking the Revitalizing Historic House Museums HIST 0289 – A course taught by Ken Turino and Barbara Silberman, which I took last summer. This course takes a deep dive into historic house museums: the challenges facing many of these museums and strategies to address them—including deciding if the most sustainable use of the house is not as a museum. I enjoyed the course and wanted to share some insights into why you should consider taking it.

It uses historic house museums as a lens for thinking about creating welcoming, community-centered organizations.  The course focuses on themes like community engagement, inclusion, creating relevant experiences, and management of organizations for sustainability. These themes transfer across museum types and are essential for the future of museums.

It stretches you to strategically think and plan at the organizational level. We worked through business cases in class where we analyzed documents to develop plans addressing real-world challenges faced by historic house museums (e.g., dwindling revenue, lack of connection with local communities, managing collections, etc.). This built to a final project where we proposed business models for how to use a historic house property.

You don’t need prior experience working in historic house museums. Most of my experience as a museum professional was in informal science education, having only dabbled in working in history contexts. I was able to keep up and learned a lot about historic sites, small museums, and how different aspects of museums operations interact across the organization.

If you’re interested in helping reinvent museums as welcoming, inclusive, community-centered organizations, please check this course out.

Ann Attwood (2020)

Happy Belated National Fossil Day!

October 14, 2020 was National Fossil Day in the United States. Organized by the National Parks Service, National Fossil Day is a celebration of paleontology and the importance of preserving fossils for future generations. The National Parks Service hosted a bunch of events and resources, including talks and demonstrationsQ&A’s with paleontologists, manipulatable models of fossils, and announced the winners of its annual art contest.

The official artwork of National Fossil Day 2020.

The National Parks Service also partnered with many educational organizations, including museums, to celebrate National Fossil Day. While physical gatherings were out of the question, many natural history museums around the country offered virtual webinars and activities. Fortunately for us, many of the National Fossil Day festivities are still available online for our enjoyment.

Looking locally, the Harvard Museum of Natural History hosted a series of four free webinars with Harvard paleontologists. Visitors had a chance to get to know the researchers and learn a little bit more about the life of a fossil hunter. The talks covered the process of preparing fossils for study, caring for collections, studying ancient organisms, hunting for specimens, and interpreting fossils. Participants and students had the opportunity to engage with polls and even ask questions despite the digital format. For anyone interested, the Harvard Museum of Natural History’s NFD presentations are available here

Nationally, many museums offered similar webinars and talks, as well as other activities. The Michigan State University Museum hosted a poetry session with Jay Artemis Hull, a Michigan-based poet who draws inspiration from fossils, rocks, and nature. The Texas Memorial Museum shared fossils from their collection, along with a story time for younger viewers, and a tutorial for creating a fossil with common kitchen staples. 

The Museum of Science, Boston took a different approach by raising funds for museum operations with Cliff the Triceratops, one of only four nearly complete triceratops skeletons in the world. Visitor gifts will be matched and donors of $50 or more receive a pair of limited edition Cliff socks. They are super close to reaching their goal of $10,000!

Cliff the Triceratops at the Museum of Science in Boston.

While many museums still remain closed, and those that are open are limited in their operations, virtual events like National Fossil Day allow museums to keep in touch with their communities. The Harvard Museum of Natural History talks brought fossil loving adults, like myself, together with families and classrooms over a shared interest in natural history. Though I still miss the ability to go look at fossils myself, virtual National Fossil Day helped me feel connected and engaged, if not even more eager to go visit museums.

Becoming (friends with) Jane: How Technology Can Create a More Intimate Experience

Last winter break, I was visiting my family in Virginia when my mom suggested we go see Becoming Jane, a traveling exhibition organized by the Jane Goodall Institute at the National Geographic Museum in Washington D.C. She had visited previously with her sister, and knowing my penchant for animals, figured that I would enjoy it. I was familiar with Jane Goodall and her work with chimpanzees, but I was eager to learn the details. What I did not expect was how immersive the exhibit would be and the impression it would leave on me.

Jane Goodall and David Greybeard.

We were first introduced to Jane through a fairly typical beginning-of-gallery-video which gives some brief context about her life and the makeup of the exhibit itself. At the end of the video, however, a chimpanzee swings from a branch and jumps out of the screen, inviting you into the exhibit and into Jane’s life.

After learning about her childhood and path to Tanzania to study chimpanzees with anthropologist, Louis Leakey, we entered a re-creation of her tent. It was just big enough to house her and her mother (who had to accompany her because it was unthinkable to allow a young English woman to travel alone) and outlined their early life in the bush, the set-up of their camp, and fights against malaria. Altogether, the tent put the visitor in Jane’s shoes and offered a peek into her experience. It felt, in a sense, like we had been transported to the Gombe National Park to live with Jane and study the chimps ourselves.

Holographic image of Jane Goodall telling stories to visitors.

On the other side of the tent, we were invited to sit around a camp-fire where a holographic image of Jane was waiting to share stories about the chimpanzees. She reminisced on her first friend in the community, a chimp she affectionately calls David Greybeard, and how she first gained trust with him. By doing so, she created a sense of camaraderie with the audience. I felt much more connected to Jane listening to her holographic avatar than I would have watching TV screen or reading a block of text. It felt personal and helped established even more of a sense of trust towards her and her work.

The crown jewel of the exhibit followed: a virtual reality re-creation of her first close encounter with David Greybeard. We shuffled into a room wearing 3D glasses, surrounded by a virtual jungle. The experience carried us to a clearing where David and another chimpanzee sat grooming each other. Despite some slight double vision and a climate controlled space, the experience was so immersive that it felt like we were actually sitting in the jungle earning their trust. I briefly considered moving to the Gombe to dedicate my life to primatology before remembering that even most suburbs are too rural for me. Regardless, the VR experience helped forge a connection with the chimpanzees that would carry throughout the rest of the exhibit and the weeks following.

VR experience with David Greybeard.

The next room had many interactive stations, like augmented reality binoculars to learn more about their observed behavior and tool use. There was a communication station where visitors could practice pant-hooting with the chimpanzees, something I was too embarrassed to try. Through a mixture of interactives, objects, and good ol’ fashioned text, the gallery highlighted the lives of chimps and interrogated our understandings of the concept of humanity. The exhibit ends by discussing the threats to chimps and a call to action for visitors to small changes to their lifestyles that can positively impact the environment.

Before Becoming Jane, I was an animal lover. I appreciated chimpanzees, but took no particular interest in them. Throughout the course of the exhibit, my fascination grew so much that I bought one of her books in the gift shop to learn more. I felt a connection with Jane, like she was an old family friend telling me stories. It can be difficult to create bonds between visitors and subjects, but Becoming Jane used immersive technology to tell engaging stories more successfully than I have ever seen.

Reflections on Reopening from Nick Pioppi, Senior Educator at the New England Aquarium

The New England Aquarium, along with many of Boston’s other cultural institutions, reopened on July 16th with pandemic-specific precautions. The Aquarium now has a one way path throughout the building, reduced capacity, additional sanitation stations, and requires visitors to wear masks. Now that the Aquarium has been open for almost a month, I checked in with Nick Pioppi, Supervisor and Senior Educator at the New England Aquarium, about the process of reopening.

Nick Pioppi conducting a virtual visit to the New England Aquarium.

How have things been at the Aquarium since reopening?

“Things have been very good. We feel very confident that we have established a safe, fun, and engaging experience for visitors. That doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some things that we’ve worked on or refined in terms of our process. We always come up with ways to become more efficient or make the process run a little bit more smoothly so we’ve definitely tweaked things as we’ve gone along.”

When the aquarium was closed, what were some strategies you used to reach your audience?

“We took a look at what we offered virtually and came up with some strategies to create new virtual content that was fun and engaging and kept people feeling connected to the aquarium, but also continued to foster and promote our mission. I think that was really important because we wanted people to understand that there were a lot of things that were still going on, like animal care and research efforts. We wanted to work hard to put those out front and use those as a way of connecting with visitors.”

With reopening, what are some challenges you’ve found with running educational programming?

A California sea lion reminds visitors to social distance.

“We are not leading any of our normal presentations on microphone. We are trying to avoid elements of an experience that might cause people to crowd and have difficulty maintaining physical distance from each other. Any sort of educational content or interpretation is happening on a one-on-one basis. We have staff that are stationed throughout the building with the primary goal of providing a logistically smooth and safe experience for visitors, but we’re slowly starting to integrate points of interpretation.”

“We’ve really had to just be a little bit more selective about that and focus more on safety and logistics and making sure the one way path is being followed. We’ve even had to close down elements of the aquarium, like the touch tanks or one particular exhibit called “The Science of Sharks” that is very interactive, just out of an abundance of caution.”

Speaking to the animals, how are they adjusting to having visitors again?

“For the most part, we are not noticing significant differences in behavior of the animals. Most of their daily routines were still going on during the closure. They were still getting fed regularly and the life support systems that keep them comfortable were being maintained. If they aren’t particularly reactive to our presence outside of their tank, then things are the same for them. There are a few exhibits that we’re noticing some subtle differences. To prepare the penguins, a week ahead of time we placed speakers around the exhibit and played crowd noise to get them accustomed to visitors again.”

Do you have any advice for museum educators during the pandemic?

“From my own experience, now is the time where it’s important to remember a lot of the basics of education, such as the customer service element and providing a nice alternate experience for visitors than what they’re having any given day. But this is also a time where innovation and trying new things out can be really beneficial. Trying to think of new ways to connect to people.”

“I think for institutions, it’s probably really scary to innovate and experiment because you’re worried about losing what little you have right now. But I think now is just a good a time as any to be innovative and stand out. Provide something that other museums and institutions aren’t necessarily providing.”

The New England Aquarium highlighted the work of the aquarists and researchers during the closure.

Are there any final thoughts you’d like to share?

“I think the community of educators is so important right now. I think it’s important right now to think about ways to connect. Connect with teachers that are struggling with virtual learning in the fall. Connect with people who may have been laid off from an institution because of budget cuts. Connect with people who might be educators but are doing a type of interpretation that’s really different from you. We can all learn from each other and support each other.”

Thank you so much, Nick, for meeting with me to chat about the Aquarium’s reopening. Follow the New England Aquarium’s Facebook and Instagram accounts for tons virtual content and updates. Also, the Aquarium is still fighting for COVID-19 relief funding, so use this link to contact your representative about providing crucial funding for both animal care and operating costs.

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