Accessing Natural History Collections: #TBT

ootb 3Last week I spent the day at the University of Canberra talking all things natural history collections at the event Out of the Box, sharing strategies 4 accessing natural history collections. Heard some great speakers and the lightning talks were full of ideas and information.

I spoke about visitors and collections – something I have written on before:

And my thesis, Understanding museum learning from the visitor’s perspective, delved into this topic in more detail.

My talk focussed on how museums often neglect thinking about the audience when displaying natural history (and other!) collections in a physical space. The first slide was based on a blog post about the Children’s Room in the Smithsonian in 1901 and how the then Secretary, Samuel P. Langley, recognised that although young children love animals (alive and dead), he felt that museums fail to cater for their interests both in content delivery and display modes. His views can be found on this blog post – Advocating for our youngest visitors.

The second slide reported on a study undertaken at the Australian Museum for their Treasures of the Collections exhibition, where a number of focus groups were held to unpack visitors views about and responses to the museum’s vast collections, both natural history and anthropological. Participants were given sets of images to view, real objects to touch and explore, then asked for their feedback on how best to exhibit these. The study found the following.

Visitors displayed little interest in:

  • discussions of the scientific significance of specimens
  • specimens stuffed, in bottle or otherwise preserved
  • the ‘everyday’, particularly out of their natural environment
  • things ‘done to death’, especially in anthropology
  • things that the layperson finds largely indistinguishable from one another

The appeal of an object lies in the unique and unexpected objects to be found across all of the collections:

  • things about which we know little or nothing
  • the weird and wonderful
  • quirky species and behaviour
  • the confronting
  • extinct icons
  • the humorous
  • and, anthropologically, unusual customs and belief systems

They also responded very well to the idea of using scientists throughout the exhibition to bring an otherwise ‘dull’ topic to life through their enthusiasm and passion for their subject (and their slightly quirky ways!).

Some examples of objects that resonated (see the above image) showed:

  • The last ever native Eastern quoll to be found in Sydney was accidentally run over by someone in the posh suburbs of Vaucluse – while participants initially through this was amusing, they soon felt extreme sadness that this could happen in suburbia
  • A marsupial mole (type-specimen) that was subject to a theft scandal
  • Stalk eyed flies – three showcases with thousands of these tiny, tiny critters pinned up carefully – visitors’ response “who the **** does that?”
  • Goliath tarantula –big, scary and something they’d never seen before (or will again)
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“Tom and Jess”

The final slide showed the following tape-recoded conversation between two visitors in front of a display case, ”Tom” (T) and “Jess” (J), which demonstrated how visitors respond to objects in very individual ways – asking questions, ruminating on why the object is displayed in a particular way, and making connections between objects and their personal lives:

  • J. Don’t you think it’s the stuff that is scary and dangerous and deadly that is more interesting to look at? Like snakes. So, while I don’t like birds I think snakes are really gross, but I like to look at them.
  • T. Um. I don’t mind looking at birds. They’re just weird.
  • J. These are so gross.
  • T. And why do they have them in water as well?
  • J. I don’t think it’s water.
  • T. Well, some kind of liquid.
  • J. [reads text] “Desert Death Adder”
  • T. Remember the snake whisky in Thailand? How they used to have all the snakes in big, like, Chupa-Chup containers?
  • J. [reads text again] “Death adder” … They don’t look as long as I would’ve thought. Is it because they are curled up? Or is it because … they are just a bit … stumpy?
  • T. Well, there’s lots of different types I would say.
  • J. I wish it said where in Australia they found it. Like, it just says “Australia”.
  • Tweets and notes from Day One of the conference (as I skived off from Day 2 …) can be found on this Storify.

    Overall, was great to re-connect with those thinking about natural history collections, and I’ll be keen to hear how these conversations are progressing.

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