March 12, 2007

Inside-Out Natural History

Posted by: Tim Stetter

My name is Tim, and I’m the environmental educator here at the Burke Museum. Here is a question: How can we introduce kids to the wonders of the outdoors while inside a natural history museum? In other words, does appreciation for a stuffed bird or pressed leaf translate into appreciation for the outdoors?

I’d like to share one episode from the museum, and I’d like to hear your responses to it. During one of our public programs, I witnessed an 11- or 12-year old boy discover the pull-out drawers in our biodiversity gallery. These drawers include two species of woodpecker, aquatic mammals like beaver and water-shrew, and several pressed plants, and show adaptations through time. The boy was ecstatic, and raced from one drawer to the next, pulling them open and gazing inside. Then he called out to his father: “Dad! Get over here! They have dead stuff! Cool!”

What do you think happened here? Did the boy gain an appreciation of nature? Or was this just another instance of boys’ fascination with dead things? Thanks for your thoughts. I’ll chime in, too.

Cheers,
Tim

4 comments:

enviroartist said...

Dead stuff rocks! So do things that were never alive, in the sense of leading an independent life, such as horns and exoskeletons. Discovering dead bugs, squashed birds, dragonfly exoskeletons and other formerly live (or parts of) critters lets us examine accessible details of the natural world.

When we discover them on our own, outside, they become temporary treasures, to be touched, peered at through a hand lense, drawn or photographed, or "just" played with. If we take these found objects home with us (even when they should be left in situ) they often become part of our domestic treasury.

As for how much the boy got out of his discoveries, it depends a lot on how much time he spent with the artifacts, how he interacted with them and what his final comments and questions were afterwards.

Did anyone speak with the boy or otherwise followup?

Tim said...

Good thoughts, enviroartist!

I agree that treasures found while rambling in the outdoors are indeed treasures. How many of us have brought home feathers, shells, and rocks - it's the collector instict that also shows itself with stickers, baseball cards, and dolls. Those natural history treasures certainly include dead things.

And, as you point out, those treasures can then serve for more in-depth studies back at home. So outdoor experiences can be relived and expanded upon in the indoors, but what about indoor experiences? Do they have meaning for later outdoor experiences?

The boy in the original story made a discovery that he could not take home or even touch. The woodpeckers and beaver were suprises: it's not often you open a drawer and find dead animals! (Does anyone have a story here?) But more to your point, how long did he spend with those drawers? Three or four minutes. How did he interract with them? He pointed at specimens, showed each one to his dad, but did not read the labels and text that go with the specimens.

But then, he asked his dad a question - I recall it was about the color differences in the woodpeckers. Then together they turned to some of the text that points out why birds are darker on the west side of the mountains and lighter on the east side (Gloger's Rule). Two or three other questions, and then the boy spotted the interactive Bug Wall nearby - and so moved on to other dead things.

Maybe someone could share a moment you had with something dead in a museum. Skulls, dioramas with "real" animals? What was your response? Were you startled, amazed, bored, inspired? What did you learn?

Tim

Your Local Arachnologist said...

When I have young visitors to my collections, there seems to be a sharp dividing line between the slightly older ones who think dead stuff is cool, and the really young (typically preschool age) ones who initially think of all specimens (even those with pins through them) as being alive! So I get a certain amount of experience in introducing kids to the facts of death. Maybe there's an exhibit idea in there somewhere. But on reflection, maybe some of them are using alive as a synonym for real, since they don't yet really get the concept of dead things that were once alive.

Tim said...

Yes - figuring between dead, alive, and real is a dilemna for young children. If I show two birds - one in a life-like pose (perched) and another lying on its back with its wings closed, young children will treat the posed one as if it were alive, or at least more alive. For the birds, eyes seem important in conveying "alive." Cotton doesn't work - marbles that look like eyes does.

So maybe contact with not-alive natural history inside a museum can stretch young people's grasp of life and death. If so, that's a rich experience.

I wonder if the "real" part shows up with today's kids more than in previous generations. How many "unreal" things do they encounter? From artificial sweeteners and colors, plastic flowers, fake jewelry and dyed hair, to images and sounds on television and computers, maybe it's becoming a habit of ours to bite the gold, so to speak.

Tim

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