Museum Studies at Tufts University

Exploring ideas and engaging in conversation

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

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.

A Reflection on Lee Mingwei’s ‘Sonic Blossom’

Museums in the Boston area have started reopening this past week. I am very eager to get back out there to visit my old haunts and find new exhibits to explore. I have not had the opportunity to visit one yet, so instead I wanted to take this week’s blog post to reflect on a past museum experience. Last fall, I went to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum to analyze a tour for ‘Teaching and Learning in Museums.’ Also last fall, Lee Mingwei’s Sonic Blossom was visiting the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum as part of their special exhibition In the Company of Artists.

Lee Mingwei

Lee Mingwei is a Taiwanese-American artist known for his intimate participatory experiences. While Lee cared for his mother after her surgery, they listened to Franz Schubert’s Lieder. “These songs came as an unexpected gift to us, one that soothed us both and clearly helped with her healing.” Lee Mingwei’s goal with Sonic Blossom is to spread the gift of healing and transformation with Lieder. Professional opera singers were to move through art galleries, offer participants the gift of song, lead them to a chair, and serenade them. This is where I come in.

I had just finished my tour, learning about Isabella Stewart Gardner’s eccentric life and art collection, and found myself wandering the first floor galleries when a woman in an ornate robe slowly approached me. She asked: “May I give you a gift of song?” At this point I had no idea what Sonic Blossom was, so I agreed. I assumed that I would join a group of people for a special presentation on Gardner’s collection of instruments. Perhaps she was collecting an audience for a small demonstration. I was wrong.

The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum courtyard.

The singer lead me to a single chair in the courtyard and began singing to me, and only me, with very intense eye contact. At the Gardner, the courtyard is the center of the whole museum, a lush garden surrounded by cloisters, and visible throughout the museum. When the music started, all visitors seemed to turn and stare, heads popping out of archways like little prairie dogs. This was not what I signed up for. My eyes flitted back and forth, occasionally making contact with the singer to let her know that I appreciated her talent while managing the awkwardness of the very public and very intimate performance. My heart was pounding, my face was flushing, and I had no idea what to do with my hands. After four minutes (or an hour, who’s to say?), the performance ended. I sheepishly thanked the singer and sunk back into the shadows of the galleries.

I wish I had known what I was getting into when I agreed to receive “a gift of song,” but knowing myself, I would have declined. I’m grateful for Sonic Blossom for pushing me out of my comfort zone. Throughout the rest of my visit, I paid special attention to the later performances, both appreciating their beauty and feeling immense relief that I was no longer the one in the chair. Now that nine months have passed, I can reflect more on the magic of Sonic Blossom. I was very lucky to experience a beautiful opera performance in a palatial courtyard. Was I healed or transformed? It’s hard to say, but it is certainly something that I will not forget anytime soon.

How Science Museums Can Talk About Race.

As people across the country fight back against police brutality and systemic racism, cultural institutions need to leverage their platform as trusted sources of information to educate the public about racism in the United States. Discussions about race are typically limited to art and history museums, while science museums tend to focus on the environment, health, and conservation. Science museums are not exempt, however, as racism intersects with both environmental science and health science. Moving forward, it’s critical that science museums start addressing systemic racism in order to better serve both their missions and their communities.

RACE: Are We So Different? debuted in 2007 and has visited over 40 institutions.

The American Anthropological Association and the Science Museum of Minnesota worked together to develop an exhibit entitled RACE: Are We So Different?  in 2007 to explore race and racism in the United States. The exhibit combines history, science, and lived experiences to challenge how we think about race. The exhibit has since travelled around the country to various science museums, with its most recent stop at the Durham Museum in Omaha, NE. A traveling exhibit that addresses race is great, but science museums have a responsibility to do more.

Many science museums focus on topics about the environment and sustainability, but from my experience, rarely talk about environmental racism. Environmental racism is the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color. For example, Black and Latinx Americans are more likely to live in areas with high air pollution leading to an array of health problems. Overall, people of color are on the front lines of the climate crisis and have fewer resources to deal with the consequences. In the U.S., the white upper middle class will be the last to feel the catastrophic effects of climate change. These are the same demographics that tend to visit museums. To both better serve communities of color and accurately deliver conservation messaging, science museums have a duty to address environmental racism head on through educational programming and activism.

Ending our reliance on fossil fuels is the key to reversing climate change and a fundamental part of environmental messaging. Non-renewable energy is also tightly linked with colonialism and the destruction of indigenous land and culture. In 2016, the Dakota Access Pipeline was rerouted to pass directly upstream from the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation without understanding the environmental impacts. Only this year did the D.C. district court order a proper environmental review. The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is still fighting to shut down the DAPL. To divorce climate change and sustainability from human rights is a disservice to the indigenous communities that have led the environmental movement from the beginning.

From earthjustice.org

Health sciences and medicine also have a deeply racist history. Ethics and consent have evolved over time, but have taken advantage of people of color in particular. Jon Quier experimented with smallpox inoculation on enslaved peoples in Jamaica. The Tuskegee Study of Untreated Syphilis in the Negro Male deliberately misled black men into believing they were receiving treatment in order to study the progression of the disease. In 1951, Henrietta Lacks’ immortal cancer cells were taken without her or her family’s knowledge or consent. These HeLa Cells have been instrumental in understanding polio, HIV, HPV, and thousands of other diseases, but have sparked questions about informed consent and collecting patient cells. Museums are uniquely equipped to present these questions and facilitate discussions on bioethical standards. It’s important to acknowledge and confront how racism has and continues to shape medical advancements worldwide.

Whale People: Protectors of the Sea at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

As educational institutions, most science museums are already addressing both the current environmental crisis and human health. As cultural institutions, they need to include whole narratives if they are going to properly serve their communities. The Natural History Museum is a traveling pop-up museum that “makes a point to include and highlight the socio-political forces that shape nature.” Past exhibits include Whale People: Protectors of the Sea which addresses orca conservation, pollution, and industrialization of the Pacific Northwest in collaboration with the Lummi Nation. Mining the HMNS tackles the Houston Museum of Natural Sciences’ relationships with the fossil fuel industry by investigating exhibits in HMNS and highlighting the stories of communities along the Houston Ship Canal.

All science museums need to take The Natural History Museum’s lead and project marginalized voices. To remain apolitical is to continue whitewashing both environmental and health sciences and to silence BIPOC communities. Science museums need to uplift activists of color by giving them a platform to speak. Science museums need to diversify their boards, staff, and leadership to dismantle the white narratives that are pervasive throughout. And science museums need to adapt their missions to address the social and political factors that influence both nature, health, and scientific discovery.

« Older posts

Spam prevention powered by Akismet