Just Another Day at the Office

Working in the museum’s permanent collections I focus on artifacts and specimens – after all, that’s my job.  But it’s not just the artifacts and specimens that tell a story around here.  It’s the people too.  Behind all the exhibits and public areas are many folks hard at work to make science and this museum relevant and memorable to you.

Lately, thanks to a recent staff luncheon given by the HMNS Guild and some quick conversations in the halls, I’ve been able to get caught up with my colleagues to find out what they doing behind the scenes.

In my own home department of Collections, Dr. Dirk Van Tuerenhout recently gave a lecture on the Birth of Christianity exhibit in the IMAX. (You can read blog posts by Dirk here.)

Dr. Dan Brooks just co-authored an article on the birds of the Pongos Basin in the Peruvian Andes, published in the Wilson Journal of Ornithology. (You can read blog posts by Dan here.)  Several HMNS specimens were cited in the article, which is very cool.  (Plus, I learned what a pongo is.  Look it up for yourself and impress your friends and neighbors.)

The anthropology section in collections storage has been organized and practically transformed by Beth.  She has ensured that all those wondrous artifacts are properly labeled, stored, and easily located.  You have no idea how much work this entailed!  Imagine having all of your stuff from attic to basement labeled and neatly put away – with a color-coded key map.  Truly, my cold registrar’s heart is warmed and I get a little misty-eyed just thinking about it.

Anytime you get an in-house phone call that begins with, “I hate to bother you but” you know that intro is going to end with “do you know where David Temple is?”.  And I do know for certain that he’s been up in Seymour working on the museum’s ongoing dino dig with Dr. Bakker (read his posts here).  I doubled-checked with his wife Nicole.

When I climb upstairs to run some mail through the meter I notice it’s pretty calm in the Admin offices.  I think they’ve all finally rested up from last week’s very successful fundraising gala.  Poking my head into Kat’s office for a quick chat I found out that the education department is immersed in HMNS overnights, teachers’ workshops, and getting prepared for a full summer of a multitude of classes.  Don’t forget to register your kids pronto, those classes fill up fast.

Next, I quickly check on lunch plans with Tammy, manager of the museum’s mineral and fossil shop, who’s busy with all sorts of new specimens and arranging them in the cases.  She also provided her expertise at the gala’s mineral and fossil auction.  Passing by the museum’s visitor services desk I stop briefly to see if I have any mail.  It’s been a really busy day, probably due to the start of spring break, and Martha’s expression says it all.

There are some odds-and-ends photographs I need to drop off to the Volunteer Office, an always-upbeat place.  They’re happy to have found good homes for all the beardies but were so bereft without them, they bought one at the gala.  He’s been aptly named Ka-ching.

Lynn tells me the volunteers are eagerly studying up on the coming exhibits of The Nature of Diamonds and Terra Cotta Warriors: Guardians of China’s First Emperor. Karen’s in the midst of interviewing Ecoteen applicants and Araceli’s booking birthday parties.  Sybil was surrounded by volunteers so I’ll catch up with her later.

I actually don’t need anything from the exhibits guys, I’m just curious to see what they’re working on.  Today they are preparing one of our exhibit halls for the upcoming Terra Cotta Warriors exhibit. Mike and Glen are repairing some walls and ceiling tiles.  Soon they’ll be full bore into construction and layout.  Preston and Lex pour over exhibit floor plans.

The last colleague I touch base with is Christine, our live animal program manager.  She’s been out to a school with our Wildlife on Wheels program, sounds like the first-graders were adorable.  Next she demonstrates the Blue-footed Booby bird dance.  We both crack up.   I head back to the relative quiet of Collections knowing that even though I only spoke to a small portion of the staff, and not at any great length, this museum, along with its artifacts and specimens, is in excellent hands.

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Are You Making a Connection?

So, why are you here? What part of yourself did you bring today? What experience do you want to have? These are the questions I wish I could ask every one of you as you come through the museum’s doors. Then according to your answers I’d play matchmaker, pointing out an exhibit hall, hooking you up with just the right specimen or artifact so you could make a connection.

In today’s increasingly digitized world we are overwhelmed with visual images, most of which we ignore. You come to the museum and we’ve got…uh…more stuff for you to look at. Yet, you’re here. You could have stayed home twitching through a hundred television channels or trawling online for something, anything, about science. But you dealt with traffic and parking to experience something real, so what will you connect with and why?

Everyone coming to the museum brings their own individual history, likes and dislikes and those things obviously factor into the objects they find appealing. Suppose you love all things purple and you really like minerals, it’s no big revelation that one of your favorite specimens at HMNS might be the amethyst geode in the mineral hall. At this point, mentally Rolodex the specimens and artifacts you’ve come to love at HMNS. What do you never tire looking at, what do you always re-visit? Fossils? Shells? Taxidermied wildlife? A Native American pot? You can probably easily state the reasons why, too. Old stuff’s cool, shells are pretty, animals fascinate me, etc., etc. But let’s dig a little deeper.

Model: giraffe
Creative Commons License photo credit: jrsnchzhrs

Think of an object at the museum that caught your attention for no particular reason, it sorta surprised you. It might have been nothing special until you read the label, learned something new, and suddenly you saw that object differently. Or across the gallery something grabbed your eye and you absolutely had to know what that thing was. Aha! A connection’s been made, you’re not completely sure why, but you enjoy it and now it’s a favorite thing to see and share with others when you visit the museum.

Let me assure you, that very real connection between you and your special item can’t be downloaded or digitized. To illustrate I’ll share one of my favorites – but I have to cheat a little. This specimen’s not on exhibit but is part of the vertebrate zoology collection. A few years back a giraffe died of old age at the Houston Zoo and the skull was sent over to Dr. Brooks, our Curator of Vertebrate Zoology. The giraffe was Hi-Lo, whom I remember fondly from my childhood zoo visits (that’s my personal history connection) so I was pleased his skull came into our collections. Then I observed that the horns, those knobby things on a giraffe’s head, are actually bone. Somehow I thought they’d be some sort of spongy cartilage. Who knew? But I gained new insight. Last, for no reason I can defend, I truly love the slender elongated sculptural beauty of the skull. It’s just cool. Yeah, I can google an image of a giraffe’s skull on any computer but it’ll never delight me the way that Hi-Lo’s does.

Ok, a connection’s been made. Where will it take you? Does it inspire enough to pursue further knowledge or is the experience of the connection enough in itself? As a child, the late great Stephen Jay Gould so loved the dinosaur skeletons at the American Museum of Natural History that he became a renowned paleontologist. Me? I enjoy looking at the giraffe’s skull over and over again but am content to remain a registrar. And here’s some more musings regarding our connections with objects. Why do we take photos of our favorite things in museums? Why do we take photos of ourselves with them? Why do we buy replicas of them in the museum gift shop?

Pharaoh hats
Creative Commons License photo credit: Zepfanman.com

Whew, lots of questions in this blog! Now it’s your turn, let’s make this a discussion. Which objects do you think best represent the museum; are there iconic objects that connect with every visitor? Communicate with us; tell us what your favorite HMNS artifacts and specimens are and why. Because, if I could, the last question I’d ask when you go out the museum’s doors would be: Did you make a connection?

Donna Meadows
Associate Registrar, Acquisitions