The next few weeks we will be posting reflections from students who attended the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Conference, held in St. Louis, Missouri, May 6-10. This first post comes from Erica Colwell, a current M.A. candidate in the Museum Education program. To see more of Erica’s work on the blog, click here.
At a session titled “New Ways to talk About Nature” at this year’s American Alliance of Museums Annual Conference in St. Louis, educators from several natural history museums presented projects and exhibitions their respective museums had recently undertaken to reach new audiences, build lasting community partnerships, and to more successfully interpret not only the specimens within their museums, but also the natural world outside their museums. The talks of two of the most compelling speakers, Karen Wise and Beth Redmond-Jones, are summarized below.
Karen Wise, former Vice President of Education and Exhibits at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, explained that for too long, natural history museums have remained “dead zoos”— static, stodgy places with bones and specimens that are cut off from nature, despite purporting to educate visitors about the living world around them. Wise stated that many children from urban Los Angeles may not have many opportunities to explore nature, or may not realize what around them constitutes nature. In an effort to better support this audience, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County underwent a major renovation several years ago in order to update its exhibits, programs, and to become an indoor/outdoor museum. The outdoor part of the museum now hosts a habitat garden with plants and animals native to Southern California, and the researchers and scientists that work at the museum often conduct their research at outdoor sites on the museum’s grounds where visitors can see the scientists at work, and perhaps even take part in an active research project. “Citizen Science,” a phrase used to describe getting community members involved with scientific research, is an important tool according to Wise. She wants the Museums’ visitors to feel that they are scientists themselves, and that they know enough to be able to contribute to the important work that goes on at the museum. The Museum’s website has a page dedicated to citizen science opportunities, and states that “In order to understand our city better, the Museum has begun a long-term biodiversity study of urban habitats and surrounding natural areas. Our goal is to not only increase our knowledge of local wildlife, but also to involve our local community in this study. From lizards to ladybugs, we need your help in each of our community science projects — the Museum can’t do it alone! “
Beth Redmond-Jones, the Senior Director of Public Programs at the San Diego Natural History Museum, spoke about an exhibition her museum’s library opened in order to attract visitors who don’t typically consider themselves “science people.” The San Diego Natural History Museum has an exceptional library full of nature-related rare books, manuscripts, maps, and more. Called Extraordinary Ideas, the exhibition featured, according to the Museum’s website, “Rare books, art, photographs, and historical documents from the Research Library’s 56,000-volume collection that pay homage to the past, present, and future of citizen science” including treasures like “An extremely rare copy of the gigantic Double Elephant Folio of John James Audubon’s Birds of America. The folio, one of only a few copies in existence, depicts life-size renditions of a wide variety of North America’s birds.” This exhibition’s goal was to share some of the library’s most interesting and scientifically valuable collection items with the public, and in doing so, attract visitors that are interested in books, illustrations, art, and history instead of just biology. Redmond-Jones called this exhibition interdisciplinary, because though it still revolved around nature, the theme of the exhibition was closely linked to the humanities.