Where have you been?

I’ve been to several museums. I’ve worked in museums. I’ve dragged various family members through more turnstiles and admissions lines than they probably signed up for. I’ve read books about them, written papers, participated in impassioned discussions. I have a Masters Degree in Museum Studies. Safe to say, I have a vested interest.

For fun (and yes, this is my idea of fun), I made a museum list. In order for an institution to make the list, I had to have at least one distinct memory of the visit, and be able to recall at least one exhibit, installation, exchange, or object with relative clarity.

For most people, I guess the list would seem pretty long. But for me…sigh. So paltry. So short. So unimpressive. Make no mistake, I am blessed and fortunate to have had opportunities to travel to these cities and experience these sites. But compared to so many of my colleagues, I feel like I got nuthin’. It must be how birders feel when they compare Life Lists: What, you’ve never seen a bronzy jacamar? Psh. Amatuer.

Does it matter? Am I any less qualified to talk about or teach about or think about the museum experience, just because I maybe haven’t had as many of them as other people? I think most people would agree that no, it doesn’t matter. It’s a quality (not quantity) kind of thing. If a museum is “good”, I know it when I see it. If it’s lacking in the visitor experience, I certainly know that, too.

So what makes a memorable experience? I know this is equivalent to asking something like, “What is art?” or “To be or not to be?” There is no one right answer. And while asking an art person “What is art?” tends to really piss them off and make you feel totally ignorant, asking a museum person about what makes an exceptional museum experience can be a real trip.

Enjoying a museum can be about what you feel in your heart or learn in your mind or do with your hands or say to your companions. It can bring you great joy in the moment and fond sentiment years later. It can firmly cement a network of assembled thoughts or shock you with an epiphany. It can convince you of one mindset or open your eyes to a new perspective. Museums can invigorate you to act or exhaust you with emotion. They can comfort you with the familiar and the reassuring or make you squirm with something novel and disturbing.

Regardless of what kind of an experience a museum can (and does) do to you, I would venture to say that it’s impossible for anyone (at least anyone who is not made of stone or dead inside) to go to a museum and not have some kind of reaction. React, for example, to this:

Can you even stand the cuteness? A baby pygmy hippo at the Taronga Zoo.

Selected works by Damien Hirst, one of the most controversial contemporary artists working. He's the guy who puts dead stuff into tanks of formaldehyde and calls it art. Discuss.

Herding sheep at Conner Prairie.

Concentration camp uniforms from the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.

Did any particular image appeal to you or repulse you? Would you specifically seek out any of these experiences? Why? Why do you go to the museums you visit? What draws you in, or conversely, what keeps you out?

I ask you to geek out along with me and create your own museum list. Where have you been? Do you notice any patterns or any type of experience you seem to be drawn to? Why? What do you remember about these places?

And for those of you birding novices who have not, in fact, seen a bronzy jacamar, I give you this:

There Can Be Many Right Answers

Even in Kindergarten, my son has homework. I don’t mind this so much, because their “assignments” usually consist of copying letters and drawing some pictures…nothing too difficult. I mind this because their assignments consist of copying letters and drawing some pictures. Where’s the challenge? Where’s the actual learning?

Maybe I’m biased because my son is already pretty good with writing his letters, and if he goes through one more box of crayons in his attempt to decorate every paper-covered surface in our house, I’m going to go ahead and invest in Crayola stock. My point is, homework is a cakewalk.

I’m not ready to spend grueling hours sitting at the kitchen table talking him through Algebra or quizzing him on spelling words (though we do that now anyway), but I sort of wish homework would present more of an opportunity to actually think.

Enter this worksheet that came home with him the other day:

I have several problems with this. It’s not that he got an answer “wrong”. I am all for letting kids make mistakes and learn from them. I’m just mad that he got this answer wrong. Why, you ask? Seems pretty simple, doesn’t it? Birds and butterflies have wings. Snakes don’t.

So, my initial response was from an evolutionary biology point of view…snakes and birds are way more closely related than arthropods, so right off the bat, he was on to something (whether he knew it or not). How can you say something with an exoskeleton and six legs is more closely related to one of two organisms that evolved from a common reptilian ancestor? What malarkey are they teaching kids these days?

What bothers me more is that when my son explained his reasoning to me, he said that he’d circled the bird and the snake because they both have tails. Of course, he hadn’t argued this point with his teacher, but it got me thinking (something that most of the kids probably didn’t have to do much of in order to answer the question).

In my previous work position, I spent a great deal of time using and instructing others in a teaching method called Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS). This method is built on the premise of having a discussion wherein participants talk about what they see and are asked to provide visual evidence for their comments. They look at a work of art, think about what’s going on, and then validate and support their answer by explaining what in that image they see that is making them think in that particular way.

So, in my mind, the “wings” answer on the worksheet is a no-brainer.  Yay.  You circled two things that fly (and one of them even has the word “fly” in the name”. A gimme if I ever saw one.) The “tails” answer, however…that required a little more thought. I’m not making a big deal of it just because I’m proud that my son took a different route to finding similarities, or that his answer was (in my opinion) way more creative. I’m making a big deal of it because he was rewarded for his answer…by having it marked incorrect.

I am not about to go into a rant against our current educational system.  That could be an entirely separate blog altogether.  What irks me is that it seems like our children, more and more, are subject to a spoon-fed education, and they’re not being asked to really think.  Regurgitate, yes. But thinking?  Only if they come up with the one right answer.

We are fortunate to live in a really good school district, yet it frustrates me and makes me nervous that that distinction is based on standardized test scores, and not on the depth of thinking or the cultivation of creativity amongst its students.  Kids need to be taught to think, not to memorize.  They need to be open to multiple interpretations and to be willing to see things from other perspectives.  Apparently, their teachers need to be learn the same thing.

Maybe I’m reading waaaay too much into this. I know, deep down, what basic skills and identification this silly worksheet was trying to accomplish with the kids. Still…it’s never too early to encourage critical thinking, and rather than X an answer out and take away points (especially from a five-year-old!), why not spend a moment and follow up with that child?  Seriously.  His teacher knows he’s a smart kid, and knows that he’s into animals (just like his mother).  Ask him about the reasoning behind his answer, and see if maybe, just maybe, there might be more than one right answer…

Details Left Off My Resume

I secured an internship (and then part-time employment) my senior year at a science museum close to campus, and was that ever a learning experience. I was still very young, and though I had held other jobs during college (at a vet clinic, not surprisingly, and in the Library on campus) this was my first real museum job (read: lots to learn). The significance of this will be very evident shortly.

The museum, located in the middle of downtown Raleigh, was in the middle of building and opening a new space right next door to its previous building. During this transition, I worked with some fine people who would eventually oversee one part of the museum’s living collection. Until the new facility was complete, however, that collection lived with us.

Our “office” was a converted men’s restroom tucked into a corner of the old building. Lining the narrow hallway into the office proper were 50 gallon aquariums and six-foot-tall mesh cages that housed snakes, turtles, geckos (who were good at escaping) and other reptiles. In the “open” area, our residents included more snakes, a green iguana (his cage was suspended from the ceiling so as to make use of vertical space), at least ten tanks of various frog species, some hummingbirds, and a free-ranging golden orb weaver spider, into whose web my supervisor would toss crickets. As it hung suspended over his desk. I did not like having to use that desk.

On occasion, one of my responsibilities was to feed the animals…all the animals, including the snakes. While I didn’t have much of an issue with this (I had come to accept the Circle of Life a long time ago), it wasn’t my favorite thing to do. Snakes were carefully fed mice dangling from the ends of long metal tongs, and this was fine with me. Hummingbird feeders were filled with RO water, fruit flies were carefully deposited into frog tanks, mata-mata turtles vacuumed small fish out of the water, mealworms were distributed across the board, and everyone was happy.

So, this bathroom had a window. North Carolina nights can get a little chilly in the fall, and it was on one of these lovely evenings that I forgot to close the window as I left. The next day, upon my arrival, something smelled bad. Very bad. Like, snake vomit bad. And that’s exactly what it was. Apparently, after eating, if a snake’s body temperature is not maintained at a certain (high) temperature, it regurgitates its food. This makes supervisors mad. It also makes it hard to breathe in a small office with only one window…a window that lets cold air in but did not let stinky air out.

After my official internship ended (at the end of the semester, and not as a result of the snake barf incident) I was hired on as an instructor in the Education department. This meant I taught weekend classes, did outreach programs, and showed up at birthday parties with live animals.

Animal handling protocols vary in rigidity from one institution to another, and the rules and regulations (at least at the time) were pretty laid-back. While I was confident in my animal handling abilities, there was not a whole lot of training that preceded programs in front of the public, and I can recall with great clarity taking a deep breath, reaching into a tank full of a young American alligator, and thinking, “Please don’t bite me please don’t bit me please don’t let me grab your mouth…” At least that went well. Something else that would have been helpful? Bullfrog wrangling lessons.

You know how sometimes in movies, something at a children’s birthday party goes horribly wrong and all of a sudden you see fifteen ten-year-olds and their parents screeching and running around in paper hats? Did you know that actually happens in real life? Chaos ensues when a museum staff person, there to help you celebrate the big 0-7 with Timmy the Birthday Boy, somehow allows a large bullfrog to slither out of her hands, take two hops towards a shrieking throng of children, and then take off down the hallway. This really happened. To me. I do not make this up.

I did, however, yell, “Oh, shit!” as I scrambled after the fleeing frog and plopped him back in his cooler. It was sort of a moot point after that to try and teach them something, anything, educational about the remaining animals. The party had reached the pinnacle of excitement as the introduction to the frog became a little too audience participatory.

A hit at birthday parties.

You want a museum experience? You want authenticity? You want memories? I got your memories right here. Ribbit.

The Road Starts Out Winding (much like this post).

As a child, I wanted to be a vet. Specifically, I wanted to be a zoo veterinarian, and even more specifically, I wanted to work at the San Diego Zoo. In third grade, on the advice of my parents, I wrote to Joan Embery. I had no idea who she was, but I’m sure Mom and Dad had seen her on The Tonight Show.

At any rate, imagine the thrill of receiving a (mimeographed) letter back from her, encouraging my dreams yet cautioning me of the long road of hard work that lie ahead for anyone wishing to accomplish my goals.

In the meantime, I continued to spend countless hours outside, poking through tide pools at the beach or getting dirty and mucking around in the woods. I know we went to museums (growing up in the DC area, how can you not?) and I remember trips to parks and historic sites with my family. It was just what we did.

In high school I got my first job at a large vet clinic in Northern Virginia. I started out cleaning the kennels and assisting the techs and doctors with their patients, and eventually moved through the ranks. I took x-rays, cleaned stinky doggie teeth, worked at the front desk, assisted in surgery, staffed the pharmacy, and became a part of this large, dedicated family. To this day I thank them for instilling in me a work ethic that focused on compassion, responsibility, and customer service.

The experiences one has as a pet owner are not always happy, and often our human clients would be upset, worried, or grieving when we interacted with them. It was our job not only to provide comfort and care to the animals, but to provide a reassuring and comforting experience to their owners. I think this is where the idea of experience first began to solidify itself in my mind.

It wasn’t just bringing in a cat to get its annual vaccines; it was seeing the cleanliness of the waiting room (and having separate waiting areas for cats, dogs, and “other”). It was not having to wait in the exam room for the vet to arrive or the assistant (me) to prepare for the exam. It was frequent and comprehensive communication between the doctor and the owner. It was the explanations of procedures or tests being done. It was the tenderness and care with which we handled the animals, whether in the presence of owners or out of sight in the treatment area. It was the compassion and sympathy we extended and the sadness we shared when someone lost a pet–a family member.

While there are great differences between working in a vet clinic and working in a museum, some of the basic tenants of museum experiences still apply. Our work was to preserve and care for something (in this case, a living companion animal). We provided information and guidance about the animal, did our best to create an environment in which both animal and owner would be comfortable when visiting us, and tried to help owners learn how to better care for their pets. We wanted them to leave our building have had the most positive experience as possible, from the time they checked in at the front desk to the time they walked out the door. We also wanted them to trust us enough to bring their pet back. Does it sound at least a little bit like a museum visit?

I may be stretching, I know. My point is that I started out my work thinking about the care and experience of others. People and puppies alike both had to have their needs met—and those needs were diverse. I think of museums in the same light, to a degree. Visitors come in with incredibly diverse needs and past histories, and museums need to create a positive interaction for all of them. Impossible? Yes, probably. But certainly a noble goal.

Now sit. Stay. This won’t hurt a bit.

Robot Cat thinks you should visit museums.


Well, Here I Am.

There’s always pressure when introducing yourself to the blogosphere. I’m completely unsure of who will read these entries and thoughts, whether it be friends who click on a link out of obligation, or bored folks who stumble upon the blog out of coincidence.

So, the pressure is on. I pledge to be as witty as possible without being phony. I pledge to be honest about my experiences and opinions, yet I will try to be tactful when professionalism is required. Names may be changed to protect the innocent (or the guilty, see previous reference to professionalism) but if I feel I have something to share that may be of use or entertainment value to my readers (all six of you, Mom and Dad included), I’ll share it. If you know me, you know I rarely hold back. And if I do hold back, I still say what I’m thinking, only it’s thinly disguised with a layer of passive-aggressiveness.

Since I’ve already spent the first two paragraphs proselytizing, I probably out to skip the manifesto on Why Museums Are Important. I’ll even spare you the details of my career evolution (for now). But never fear: all (well, most) will be revealed in time.

I’ve worked in museums for 13 years, which, by museum standards, isn’t very long. AAM (the American Association of Museums) thinks I am out of the Emerging Museum Professional (EMP) stage and am now mid-career, but most days I don’t feel like it. Some days I put thought and effort into my relationship with museums, digging deep into the philosophy of informal education and really agonizing over trying to intelligently voice my thoughts and positions on museums. I try to think and speak and act like someone who is mid-career and ought to know something about museums.

Other days, I just want to dig my hands into the sand table at The Children’s Museum, or enjoy rubbing the slimy, wet nose of a calf in the Encounters Barn at Conner Prairie. On those days, I just want to enjoy being a museum visitor, rather than a museum thinker and analyst. Sometimes I just want to enjoy the experience.

And this is where I will end my inaugural post: asking you about your own museum experiences. What do you remember, either from your own childhood or visiting with your own children? What museums encounters stick in your mind? Why are they important to you? Discuss.

To get you started, here are some of my own museum memories:

-Visiting the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and always searching out the same paintings:

What 2nd grader isn’t totally fascinated by a dude getting eaten by a shark?

On a more pensive note, looking at four paintings and contemplating one’s Voyage of Life.

-Pressing our faces against the glass that encased the giant squid at the National Museum of Natural History.

-Always looking for the sign with the seal stomach full of coins posted in front of their exhibit at the National Zoo. To this day, I still don’t like throwing pennies into fountains, lest a seal might come out of nowhere, eat my wish, and end up in Necropsy.

-Standing in the rain with my mom on my first day of work, about four feet away from an Amur tiger as he stretched up and strummed the harp wires (the only thing separating us) with his paws.

-Playing in Penetrable by Jesus Rafael Soto at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin, TX. Sadly, the installation is no longer there, but we had a joyful time winding through the tubes on our visit.

-Walking into a dark room with a friend at the Indianapolis Museum of Art and having one of the most visceral and thrilling responses to a work of art, Acton, that I have ever had to anything in a museum. Ever. I still get goosebumps every time I go in there, even years later.