Friday, July 22, 2016

BURECS and the Subtle Art of Museum Education

BURECS and the Subtle Art of Museum Education

by Morgan O'Hanlon

museum room.JPG

An exhibit highlighting New England's forests at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

Skeletons in the Great Mammal Hall in the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

The roof of a large, red-bricked building pokes out front the top of a thick canopy only a few blocks away from famous Harvard Yard. Sunlight filters down through gaps in the leaves, glittering on the distinguished exterior. Students, teachers and other curious individuals file through the enormous front doors. Catherine Pereira, a summer intern here at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, met me outside and led me up into the museum. As this was my first time in the museum, I was immediately filled with awe when I lay my eyes upon the vast collection on display. The collection of stuffed mammals and birds and one room catch my attention with their glistening, glass eyes. In another room, display cases of artfully arranged, jaw-droppingly beautiful, jewel-colored insects. Within each room, every display told a different story. Each room had its own theme--one with skeletons and taxidermy of a vast collection of mammals and birds, another room showcased the incredible biodiversity of islands. Through each room I visited, I would stop to learn more whenever something caught my eye, taking a closer look and reading the description on succinctly written labels. I looked around and noticed other patrons doing the same, taking in information at their own speed.

Word map created by Catherine Pereira as part of her project to

survey patrons about their knowledge of Microbes, the subject

of an upcoming exhibit at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

When I asked Pereira about how museums design their exhibits to create this experience, Pereira, a BURECS student majoring in biology education, explained a few of the projects she’s been working on. Currently, she’s surveying museum patrons in order to help the director of exhibitions create a new exhibit. This, she said, is part of a plan to gauge patron understanding of microbes so the exhibit staff has a better understanding of the public’s knowledge base. “The job of a teacher is to be able to explain concepts in an understandable, yet accurate way,” Pereira said. In the case of the microbes exhibition, Pereira discovered that patrons first think about microbes as small and dangerous causes of disease--a misconception. She said that museums are most effective at teaching when they consider these preconceptions and address them appropriately in the exhibition.

“[Teachers] also have to be able to re-explain concepts in different ways for students who don’t understand it the first time around,” she said. Unlike the classroom, museums are well-equipped to present concepts in many different ways. According to her, people can better learn when museums are designed in a way that allows patrons to be self-guided, thus creating an individualized learning experience. Pereira explained to me that this was the beauty of informal education, “visitors want to learn,” she said, “the job of an exhibit developer is to help visitors get what they want, but not force them to learn about anything they don’t want to learn.”

In order to promote this freeform learning inherent to the museum experience, a lot of thought goes into planning the exhibits so that the information is presented in a manner that doesn’t overwhelm museum visitors. “We want to allow people to make choices about their learning experience,” said Janis Sacco, the Director of Exhibitions for the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. In order to do this, she said, “you want to make sure that your message is apparent in every single thing that you look at… it’s not just about content presentation, it’s also about mood presentation.”

View from the second floor of the Great Mammal Hall in the Harvard
Museum of Natural History. The skeleton of a whale hangs from
the ceiling over the remains of giraffes, bears, and other mammals.
Throughout the museum, this philosophy is evident. In an exhibit showcasing the biodiversity of New England's forests, I picked up a handout titled “Look, Listen, Touch,” which explained the features of the room to engage the senses of visitors through the use of audio from the woodlands, three dimensional artifacts and interactive digital kiosks. The aim is to draw a visitor in by making them feel as if they’re actually out in the wilderness while subtly presenting them with further information about their experience.

Sacco’s ultimate goal is to inspire museum visitors to discuss what they learn in the exhibits, which the museum considers to be the highest level of engagement. “When we engage in conversation, we learn the most,” she said, “if we’ve gotten them to that point, that’s the pinnacle of what they can get out of the museum experience."

When it comes to science education in the classroom, Pereira thinks that teachers could help their students by utilizing some of the methods used by exhibit developers. “Working here has given me a whole new perspective on how to teach,” she said, “if I could get students in a science classroom to feel not like they’re learning, but just to feel like they’re having fun talking about or climate, plants, or whatever the unit is at the time, that would be the ultimate goal.”

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