adventures in museum-going

Category Archive: The Big Idea

  1. Day 5: Air & Space!

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    Air and Space is, hands down, my favorite museum on Earth (so far, anyway). So I was really, really excited to visit today, and even more excited to meet Beatrice Mowry, the Chair of Exhibit Design and Technology. As has been the case with most of our guest speakers this week, she was full of interesting insights as to the way NASM gets the exhibits work done.

    I especially liked having her perspective as we walked through the museum. This was a different kind of tour. Unlike when we walked through Damage Control with its curator, Beatrice didn’t interpret objects for us or talk about the galleries from an object-oriented perspective. Instead, she talked about the unique challenges of getting airplanes strung from a glass ceiling and keeping the Plexi surrounding displayed spacecraft clean.

    It was gratifying to hear her talk about the many changes upcoming at the NASM — after a 30-year career in that museum, she seemed genuinely excited about what’s coming up in the next decade or so! After many people commenting on lack of funding, low visitor numbers and other realities of museum work, to hear Beatrice (who also mentioned funding challenges, to be fair) genuinely amped about her work was a nice change of pace!

    Air & Space — more specifically, wanting to work there — is how I found out about this program (digging through the Smithsonian’s website looking for ways to get involved led to a museum studies program listing) and is also one of the reasons I’m in it. So it was especially nice to revisit the museum (between Udvar-Hazy and the Mall facility, this is my fifth visit in three years) and be reminded of what got me started in the first place. In a lot of ways, it helped quell the discouragement I felt yesterday!

  2. Day 2: The rocks, they resonate

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    The last thing I expected from a lecture in this course was a story about cows, but that’s what we got today — a story about Jersey cows at Winterthur. Stephanie was relating a story in which she, somewhat frustrated with what amounted to a field trip to the area, was made to care about it because of the Jersey cows that once resided there. Turns out, her family used to raise cows.

    She told us this story in order to make the point that in order to get visitors to care about your museum or exhibit, you need to give them something that resonates personally. For her, it was Winterthur’s cows. For me, it’s minerals.

    We went to the NMNH‘s new Q?rius space, which opened in December 2013 — not all that long ago, and it shows. It’s bright and shiny and new, and best of all, filled with lovely objects from the museum’s collections. There’s a whole area where you can open drawer after drawer of specimens, and actually touch them. Mind, blown.


    Set loose in the collection, I came across a chalky grey mineral that looked strikingly familiar. My father is a geologist, and his father was before him — and a well-known one (pdf), at that. My grandfather spent a good portion of his life collecting minerals, which my father inherited. It’s now proudly displayed in his living room, backlit on specially-built shelves.

    So for Christmas, I gave Dad a stibnite specimen I’d found at the AGU meeting in San Francisco. That chalky grey specimen in Q?rius? An amazing piece of stibnite, with big crystal formations and a lovely iridescence.

    I can spend time in art museums and appreciate the work, but they’re not my favorites. However, put me in a natural history or science museum and I’m 100% in especially if I can handle the objects.

    So, basically, the rock resonated — and imagine my delight when I found out that my team was considering using a mineral as the primary object for our exhibit!

    We chose this piece of tourmaline:

    Not only does tourmaline hit home for me because it’s a mineral, but also because this particular stone has significance for me — a few years before he died, my grandfather gifted his four granddaughters and his wife each with a lovely, deep-green tourmaline ring. You may notice that our specimen is deep green!


    We put it under the microscope to get a better look at the crystals and the matrix and found that our object has a bunch of tiny little crystals around the larger ones, and also a luminescence when viewed in the proper light — it turns amber-colored.

    Because I knew that tourmaline is used as a gemstone in jewelry, and also that it comes in a ton of different colors (my jeweler side definitely kicked in today as well), I suggested that we visit the gem exhibit in the museum, where we discovered case after case after case of gorgeous mineral specimens, both in their raw and cut forms.


    Would I have had a similarly strong response to Q?rius and this museum without Stephanie’s lecture, and emphasis on resonance? Yes, absolutely — this is the stuff I love. But I don’t think I would have been thinking about it with the same frame of mind. I was keenly aware of how I was reacting to the objects at hand, and I think if we remember that idea of resonance as we work these two weeks that our final project will be much stronger.