Archive for October, 2013

One of the amazing benefits of working as an evaluator with a variety of institutions is the opportunity for personal learning.  Having an art-history background, I find myself learning the most when I’m placed in non-art environments—reading about fault lines and earthquakes at the California Academy of Science, or getting my hands dirty while exploring decomposers at the New York Botanical Garden.  Granted, as an evaluator, my job is to understand how visitors experience these exhibits and programs, but as a museum-loving individual, I can’t help but want to engage with the content myself.

In the past month, some of my RK&A colleagues and I have had the pleasure of evaluating exhibits and programs about a range of topics, including tropical animal and plant life, of which I, as an Ohio native, have great appreciation for and very little personal knowledge.  Recently we conducted a formative evaluation at the Miami Science Museum of the aquarium component planned for the new Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science.  The exhibits (a mix of zero edge tankinteractives and live-animal tanks) were designed specifically to encourage visitors to look closely, discuss their observations, ask questions, and explain what their observations might mean.  As I observed from visitors’ experiences, these sorts of exhibits and behaviors prompted visitors to engage as active participants and informal learners, having fun exploring an exhibit while employing scientific skills (sometimes even unknowingly).

It was a few weeks later on a work trip to Puerto Rico when I first realized how much I had unknowingly absorbed from our recent environmentally-focused work and how often I was using these newly found scientific skills.  My colleague Emily Craig had surprised me with a visit to a local beach between our data collection sessions, and as we walked up and down the beach, I noticed that we were doing the same behaviors we had monitored weeks earlier when conducting the formative evaluation at the Miami Science Sea UrchinMuseum.  We pointed out bright green vegetation and abandoned white shells once home to small creatures adhered to the driftwood.  We looked closely at the patterns of snail shells, which reminded me of patterns from blue and white china.  We tested the suction-based strength of a sea urchin (one of the live animals we had learned about at the Miami Science Museum) when we attempted to carefully move it to safer grounds. Octopus We speculated about the type of rocks that made up the shore based on the way the rocks seemed to cement fossils and sea glass in their cracks.  We observed a baby octopus that had been washed ashore before scooping it up and returning it to sea.  We made claims about the small, squishy spheres we found on the shoreline, hypothesizing that they were eggs and guessing which creatures had laid them.  In short, we were bringing our museum-honed scientific skills and sense of investigative science to the Puerto Rican shoreline.

Emily and Ros at the beachBeing on the shore for that moment gave me an even greater appreciation of the work that museums and cultural institutions do and their importance in our lives.  Though I often visit institutions wearing my evaluator hat, focusing on other people’s experiences rather than my own, the information and knowledge institutions offer still seep into my subconscious interactions with the world—prompting me to wonder just how much we take away from our museum experiences that we may never even recognize.

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Snow Shoes in the CascadesI am no stranger to nature.  I went to summer camp as a kid and I took a wilderness survival class in high school (although, in the interest of full disclosure, I got mono and never took the outdoor final exam).  While living in Seattle, I climbed Mt. Si, and accidentally snow-shoed up a ski run in the Cascade Mountains (the path was accidental, not the snow-shoeing).  I own my own hiking boots, sleeping bag and tent.  They just don’t get much of a workout.  I prefer to leave the outdoor activities to my geologist sister.  Her job takes her to places where the nearest town is 40 miles away.  My job takes me to Miami, Chicago, and Los Angeles.  I like it that way.

Hard HatMy work with RK&A has taken me to science museums, history museums and botanical gardens.  I have collected data on the National Mall in the heat of an Indian summer, and in an active construction site where I, along with the visitors I was interviewing, was required to wear a hard hat while speaking (sometimes yelling) over the noise of table saws. Certainly most of my museum evaluation experiences have been in traditional museum settings; I haven’t had to worry much about “roughing it.”  It is unlikely that I will find myself too far from snacks or indoor plumbing.  But recently, my work took me someplace a little different.

I spent four days in Manati, Puerto Rico working with the Conservation Trust and its Citizen Science project.  The activities in the Citizen Science project are led by university scientists and often don’t take place indoors.  Just getting to some of the activity sites was an adventure – skirting the edge of rivers or hiking 20 minutes into the forest.  The only snacks were the ones we brought with us, and bathrooms?  Forget it!  To further complicate things, the programs were conducted in Spanish, so I could only observe the action, relying on the kindness of the participants, scientists and our bilingual data collectors to provide context for what was going on.  To say that before I arrived I was nervous about what would happen would be an understatement.

As it turns out, I thoroughly enjoyed myself.  I understood more than I thought I would and I didn’t feel uncomfortable or out of place.  I learned new Costline of Puerto Ricothings about the ocean and the rivers.  I learned what bats look like up close.  I experienced more of Puerto Rico than I would have on a typical vacation, traveling to parts of the island that were far away from the tourist destinations of San Juan.  And truthfully, I saw more of Puerto Rico than I have of Chicago or Miami since I was outside, exploring the area, rather than in a museum all day.  And as I watched participants try new activities and learn new things, I was reminded that informal education can happen anywhere, even without climate control and labels!  Informal education can happen as long as there are people who want to share their knowledge with others.

I still love the evaluation work I do in museums, and I don’t see myself leaving the museum field for another kind of field (although the idea of dedicating myself to the study of the coast seemed particularly attractive after spending a warm and sunny morning on the beach—for work.).  I love hearing people speak passionately about their experiences, and getting excited about things they see or read in traditional museum spaces.

But if you find that you need to evaluate a project that is off the beaten path (or at the beach!), give RK&A a call.  I know there is at least one Research Associate ready for an adventure.

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Space Shuttle DiscoveryOn April 17, 2012, the Space Shuttle Discovery was delivered to Dulles International Airport on the back of a specially designed Boeing 747.  I know many people in the DC area saw it that day as it flew past the Washington Monument and other national landmarks; I saw it from the balcony of my apartment, conveniently located in a Dulles flight path.  It was incredible to see and I was nerdishly excited.  I don’t have a love of space flight or aeronautical history, but rather, I love the fanfare with which very large artifacts are delivered to museums.

So many museum objects are small.  They can be delivered to loading docks or front desks.  Often times, at least in my experience, artifacts arrive at museums with no fanfare at all.  Yes, museums might celebrate the acquisition of a famous painting or an exciting addition to their collection, but do people come out and see these things delivered?  Not usually.  They wait until the artifacts are placed on display, with proper lighting, interpretation, and context.

But when there is an artifact that can’t be snuck in the back door, people become excited about the journey, hoping to sneak a peek of the object before it is installed, if only to be able to say, “I saw it when…”  In a way, they become part of the story and add personal meaning to the artifact.  I haven’t been to the Udvar-Hazy Center to see the Space Shuttle Discovery since its delivery, but something tells me the excitement I felt last April will be re-ignited when I see the Space Shuttle in its new home.  I know how it got there.  I saw it when…

The Space Shuttle Endeavor rolled through the streets of Los Angeles in what was called “The Mother of all Parades” about a year ago (check out one of many stories here and be sure to look at the pictures!), but that wasn’t the first time a museum artifact had disrupted traffic and excited the people of Los Angeles.  About 6 months before the Endeavor arrived at the California Science Center, the 340-ton granite boulder that is at the center of Michael Heizer’s “Levitated Mass” trekked from Riverside to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, traveling 105 miles in 11 nights (check out an LA Times overview of the move here).  There is a rumor that the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., Big Lemon Postcardwas built around the Southern 1401 locomotive currently on display in the American on the Move exhibition at the Museum (this rumor is not true).  I wasn’t around in 1961 when the 199-ton train was acquired by and delivered to the Museum, but I like to believe that 11-day trip from Navy Yard to the new Museum was something to marvel at (read about it here).

As much as I would love to see more artifacts delivered on the back of an extensively modified Boeing 747 or a flatbed truck or a specially-designed transporter, obviously this kind of delivery isn’t practical for most artifacts.  But maybe museums can find other ways to harness this excitement about new acquisitions, regardless of size.  Even the smallest artifacts deserve a chance to make someone say, “I saw it when…”

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