Elee Kirk

Children, Nature, Museums



November 2018



Elee Kirk: Snapshots of a Life in Museums

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The journal Museum & Society has just published a special issue in memory of Elee. The editors — Elee’s good friends Gudrun Whitehead, Julia Petrov and Helen Saunderson — asked me to write a contribution. I thought for a while about something more academic, but in the end settled for a personal introductory piece. I thought I would share my piece here on Elee’s blog. You can read the full journal at the following link: Museum&Society Vol 16, no. 3 (2018).


There is a tuna skeleton in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. It is beautifully displayed in a wood and glass case. Its jaws gape, and whenever I see it, I am reminded of quite how big tuna are.

But there is something else about the skeleton that is strange and wonderful. Because if you stand in front of it, and if you crouch down (you need to crouch!), when you look into the fish’s mouth, you can see all the way to its tail.

There is something topsy-turvy, something both fascinating and funny, about looking into the mouth of a fish and seeing its tail.

It was Elee Kirk-my long-time partner, collaborator and friend-who first introduced me to the topsy-turvy tuna. Elee did her doctoral research in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. She knew the museum intimately. She worked there with young children aged four and five, giving them cameras, asking them to photograph exhibits. When the children had finished scooting round the museum taking snapshots, Elee interviewed them about the images they had taken. Like many of the best pieces of research, it was deceptively simple. And it was amazingly fruitful. (more…)



July 2018



Snapshots of Museum Experience Now Published.

Written by , Posted in Research

Snapshots of Museum Experience (Routledge, 2018)

I’m delighted to announce that Elee’s “Snapshots of Museum Experience: Understanding Child Visitors Through Photography” has now been published by Routledge. I’ve not yet received the author copies, but I’m looking forward to seeing the book in real life.

Elee’s book is available initially in (prohibitively costly) hardback and ebook formats, so if you want a copy, it might be better to get in touch with your local library.  There will also be a cheaper paperback edition coming out next year. And it is now listed on Google Books, so you can read some of the content over there as well.

Finishing Elee’s book has been something of a labour of love. It has taken a while, but I hope that the book in its final form is something of which she would have been proud.



March 2018



Snapshots of Museum Experience

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Elee had planned to turn her thesis into a book. She got as far as sketching an outline for the final book before she became too ill to continue. Since Elee’s death, I have been working on refashioning and reworking the thesis, and I’m delighted to now be able to announce that Elee’s Snapshots of Museum Experience: Understanding Child Visitors Through Photography is due out from Routledge in 2018. The book combines museum studies and early childhood studies, mapping the experience of child visitors to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History through their photography and through interviews. The whole thing is set against a background of a broadly Deweyan approach to education and to experience.

I took up the task of reworking the book according to a plan that Elee and I together agreed one afternoon in the May of 2016 in our favourite coffee shop, just a few weeks before her death. Elee had always hoped that the book might be a way of disseminating her research to museum educators and to other scholars. The hardback edition—due out some time around August—will be rather pricey, but hopefully there will be paperback and ebook editions as well that cut the cost significantly.

I may continue to occasionally post about Elee’s work here, so do stay posted. And do by all means get in touch if you want to know more about any of her work, or just want to say hello.

Will Buckingham



June 2015



Notice Visitors, Create Joyful Gallery

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A while back, I discovered that Derby Museum and Art Gallery was about to open a new natural history gallery. This was exciting to me for three reasons: firstly, because I ‘collect’ natural history galleries by visiting as many as I can; secondly, because Derby is very easy for me to get to; and thirdly, because the new gallery had the incredible name of ‘Notice Nature Feel Joy’. This I had to see.

Last week, with my sister, Alice, in tow, I managed to get to the new gallery. It’s a lovely space: calm, bright and clutter-free, and full of natural materials (including, of course, the natural history collections). Alice said that it made her feel like she was in a forest.

We were also lucky enough to speak to Andrea Hadley-Johnson, who led the project to put the gallery together. When I asked where the concept came from, she explained that from the outset, the museum didn’t have a particular plan, or even a name for the gallery. All of this came from work carried out with visitors and volunteers to find out what they wanted from such a gallery, what objects they wanted to see, and what nature meant to them.

Andrea explained that her background is not in natural history curating, but in shop design. Her concern was therefore to really understand how people move around gallery spaces, and to make the most of their own behaviour and interests. The process of working with visitors showed that what they valued about these galleries was the chance to stop and appreciate the interesting animals, minerals and fossils from the museum’s collections.

Thinking back now to my visit, and looking at my photographs, a couple of things really stand out for me about this gallery:

First, the layout is brilliant. The central cases are very cleverly set at quite a low height. This isn’t, as I first assumed, for access reasons, but instead to encourage people to stop and bend down to look at the objects, rather than simply glancing at things as they walk past. However, as is often the case, access and wider benefit go hand in hand — almost all of the cases are at easy eye height for even the smallest children, who I have seen struggling to see into cases in many other museums. (In fact, as this picture shows, some of the cases were so low that only small children and the most determined/flexible of adults would see them!).  The layout, and other features such as bookshelves and chairs, help visitors to really settle into spending time in this gallery, this fulfilling the first part of the gallery title — to ‘Notice Nature’.

Secondly, the gallery is neither didactic nor depressing. Many natural history museums have tried to work out how to get people to learn and care more about nature, with the long-term hope that this will encourage people to be more conservation-minded. There are a couple of problems with the galleries that arise from this concern. The first is that people tend not to learn many new facts from museums, but instead reinforce what they already know, which begs the question of whether its worthwhile putting the equivalent of a textbook on the walls. The second problem is that by preaching on themes such as environmental damage or extinction, museums risk making people feel depressed and disengaged from nature. Instead, this gallery focuses on nurturing people’s positive emotional responses to nature, thus fulfilling the second promise of the title — Feel Joy!

In fact, what this gallery does best is to trust visitors to get on with making their own connections with nature. Almost everyone will have at least some knowledge of nature, and for those who really want to find out more, information is available in booklets on the cases. For everyone else, the main job is to be wowed by the variety, form, feel and beauty of the objects, and to enjoy doing so. By nurturing people’s positive connections with nature, it may well be that a gallery such as this actually does more to foster a conservation ethic than galleries that make visitors feel hopeless about the future of the natural world.

The museum’s valuing of personal connections was, I think, epitomised for me by one of the last things I spotted as I looked around the gallery — a child’s picture of a beetle, displayed in amongst the case of beetle specimens. This is the sign of a museum that really notices and appreciates its visitors, just as it wants visitors to notice and appreciate the collections.



April 2015



Finding the Familiar in the Unfamiliar, Or, Reece in Space

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Last weekend I visited Leicester’s National Space Centre with my seven year old nephew, Reece. As a researcher, I have an annoying tendency of carrying out experiments on my poor nephews. I decided a little while ago that I’d like to start visiting museums with families that I know, and, just as I did during my doctoral research, giving the children cameras to record their visits. The main difference from my PhD research would be that this time I would actually get to join in with the visit. So this was my first attempt at this new project. It was also Reece’s first visit to the Space Centre.

In spite of being related to me, Reece’s family don’t visit many museums, preferring more energetic and outdoor activities. Over the past few years I’ve taken my nephews to an animatronic dinosaur exhibition, to Thinktank, the Birmingham Science Museum, and to the Transport Museum in Coventry. Reece also told me that they’ve been to the Sea Life Centre. This is probably more museum visiting than many children manage, but still not enough to make these comfortable and familiar places to be. It also became clear that Reece doesn’t have a strong personal interest in space as a topic, so the actual theme of this centre didn’t give him any hooks upon which to hang his understanding of where he was and what was supposed to happen there. What all of this meant that the really interesting thing about our visit to the Space Centre was the number of ways in which Reece connected this unfamiliar, over-stimulating, and confusing place to things that were familiar and comprehensible to him. (more…)



February 2015



On How Museums Got Under My Skin

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Gosh, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. Last year was a busy one, to say the least: I spent the first half of the year finishing off my thesis, and then almost immediately began working full time. There’s also been a big and slightly disconcerting change in my life — for the first time in 14 years, I am neither studying, nor working in, museums. I’ve also had very little time to visit museums, so at the moment I’m feeling a bit like there’s a gaping, museum-shaped hole in my life. It’s made me wonder why museums are so important to me.

Several years ago, my parents moved house. In the process, they discovered one of my old primary school exercise books, dating from when I was around 10 years old. In a style that was typical of the ’80s, one of the pieces of work I had undertaken was entitled ‘What I will be doing in the year 2000’. Unfortunately, for a museum person, I am spectacularly un-nostalgic, and seem to lack the urge to hoard, so I no longer have the book. But as far as I remember, my prediction was something along the lines of: ‘In the year 2000 I will be working in a museum. I will live in a flat and have a cat and a car.’

What is strange about this is that I actually have very few significant memories of museums from my childhood.
I know that as a family we visited museums. I vaguely remember a collection of chimney pots somewhere; like all children from the West Midlands, I remember ‘legging’ through a tunnel on a canal boat at the Black Country Living Museum; I remember being impressed by the slice of giant redwood at the NHM; and I remember my little sister rushing ahead to push buttons and pull levers (in which museum I can’t recall, although it was probably more than one), while I lagged behind to read all the labels. But I don’t have a ‘Wow!’ moment, or even a strong sense of one particular museum that was important to me.

As I grew older, I seem to have stopped thinking about museums. I remember in my early teens deciding that I would probably be a teacher. At some point I considered pharmacy and geology. As an idealistic sixteen-year-old, I decided to become an environmentalist. But somehow, none of that happened, and as an undergraduate, museums re-surfaced. I did a Masters Degree in Science Communication, and got a job in a science museum. It was 2001. My childhood prediction was just one year out (the cat came later, and there’s still no sign of the car).

So how is it that, in spite of a lack of powerful museum-based memories, museums seem to have been so important to me? Without a wow factor, how did they get under my skin? I wonder if it is because memorability is not necessarily the same as meaningfulness. I may not have had that ‘Wow!’ moment that many museums feel they need to induce in their young visitors, but in spite of this, I connected easily to museums, to their spaces, and their objects, and their atmospheres. They became part of me, and they felt like home.

I occasionally saw this happen during my doctoral research with four and five year old children at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Of course, many of them were wowed by parts of the museum (as is only right and proper, when you come face-to-face with a T. rex), and some, it must be said, were bored by it. But a few children found parts of themselves there: scorpions, minerals, dinosaurs, sharks. Here were the things the children loved, and so the museum made sense to them, and they connected easily, often quietly, and maybe even deeply, to it.

I don’t want to suggest that museums shouldn’t aim to wow their visitors, and that they shouldn’t aim to present visitors with novel ideas. But I do think it’s worth reflecting on the actual experience of how museums become meaningful to people. What or who is it that makes people of all ages feel that a museum is the right sort of place for them? What does it look and feel like for someone to connect to a museum? And what will grow out of these connections?

As for me, well, of course I regret losing that exercise book: I now feel I should have had it framed. But what I really don’t want to lose is museums themselves. Maybe it’s about time I got visiting again.



February 2013



The Armchair Museum Visitor

Written by , Posted in Natural history, Social media, Taxidermy

No, I haven’t been visiting museums of armchairs. In fact, for the past couple of months, for unavoidable health reasons, I haven’t visited any museums at all, which is sad. But today, thanks to my Tumblr-mad little sister, I have totally immersed myself in a rather wonderful museum, which I plan to keep visiting at regular intervals over the next few museum-restricted months. The museum isn’t even local. It’s the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum at the University of Montana, USA.

The reason that I, and thousands of other people around the world, have been able to visit this museum, is thanks to the tireless enthusiasm and astonishing hard work of it’s full-time volunteer curatorial assistant, Emily Graslie, and her rather wonderful Youtube channel The Brain Scoop, complete with accompanying Tumblr blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed (in case you’re wondering, a brain scoop is a sort of little spoon, used in taxidermy for… um… scooping brains). Honestly, I have been able to spend as much time exploring this museum and finding out about its collections, taxidermy preparation, and random natural history facts as I would if I visited the physical museum. Which is not to say that I wouldn’t have loved to visit the museum itself, (or in fact any museum) but just to say that there’s a huge amount of material in there, and that it’s totally enthralling. I’ve seen inside their cold room of pelts, admired their tank of dermestid beetles, looked in countless drawers of skulls and skeletons, and been with them in their truck to collect a frozen wolf carcass.

What Emily and her fellow volunteers have manage to do is a near-perfect job of engagement through social media. As far as I can tell, they’ve managed this because they both take the job very seriously, whilst having a massive amount of fun doing it, and also by, really, REALLY caring about the museum, it’s collections, research, and natural history in general. As is demonstrated by their thousands of loyal followers, their enthusiasm is totally infectious. This is not least because they diligently respond to huge numbers of questions, comments, and photos, drawing more and more people into the conversation.

What makes this even more amazing is that the Philip L. Wright Museum is actually just a few storage rooms, hidden away on the second floor of the University of Montana. It’s so desperately short of money that the spirit collection (i.e. the jars of pickled animals) has lived for seven years in cardboard boxes on the floor of a dusty room across the campus. The museum has 1.5 members of staff, and only the part-time curator is paid. But volunteer Emily is so passionate about the museum that huge numbers of online followers now send messages asking what they can do to help the place raise money, and sending design ideas for merchandise. She also does a fantastic job of drumming up enthusiasm for natural history museums more generally, featuring her own and other people’s photos of them on the Tumblr blog.

There’s a lot of talk at the moment in museums about social media and online participation (see, for example, the work of Nina Simon). But plenty of museums, whilst trying to show willing, really do quite a half-arsed job. I suspect the Philip L. Wright Museum has struck gold with Brain Scoop for a few reasons. First, because it’s fronted by an intelligent, enthusiastic and attractive young presenter. Second, because it plugs into the current trend for geek culture, where learning about weird subjects like taxidermy is considered cool (which, as we all know, it is). Thirdly, because they really get the language of the internet (memes, gifs, lols and suchlike). Fourthly, because everything is well designed and produced, and looks great. And fifthly, because they never stop responding to their followers.

So Emily’s Youtube videos and blog appeal not only to converted museum geeks like me, but to all sorts of people who have stumbled across, loved, and shared them throughout the world of social media. Now normally it’s me who hauls my family members to museums. But this time, because of the social media phenomenon that is The Brain Scoop, my little sister was able to repay me the favour. And I’m delighted that she did.



October 2012



Seeing Voices in the Museum

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions, Taxidermy, Text panels

Human beings are incredibly social animals. This manifests itself in a whole host of ways—from our desire to share ideas and conversation, to our tendency to see agency and intention in inanimate objects (‘my computer hates me’), to our ability to form relationships with everything from people, to cats, to cars. If museums are clever, they can make use of this inherent sociability to create some really compelling exhibitions.

This was revealed to me particularly on a recent visit to Manchester Museum, where I was delighted to have a good chunk of time in which to explore the new Living Worlds gallery, which reopened last year. I had been wanting to go ever since seeing the old gallery in 2010 and hearing that the redesign was going to be carried out in association with a fashion design company (catwalk show producers Villa Eugenie). I’d heard good things about the new gallery since it opened, and had been looking for an excuse to travel up to Manchester and see it for myself. (more…)



September 2012



Evolution galleries: Humans and other animals

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I’ve been interested in human evolution ever since spending time learning about it during my Human Sciences degree in the late nineties, so whenever I’m in a museum with a human evolution gallery, my antennae start quivering. I’ve visited a couple in the USA over the past few years — one in the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and, last year, in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. I just love the idea of looking back at our ancestors, and also of being reminded that over the past few million years other species of humans and hominids have existed, often in parallel with each other.

I’m used to seeing these galleries, or even the single human evolution cases in some museums, presenting the various human species on their own, or maybe alongside a few other primates. The museums nip off a single twig of the evolutionary tree, usually starting with modern humans evolving from something like an australopithecus, and maybe hinting that these evolved from an earlier primate species. (more…)



September 2012



Lost in Science

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Yesterday I was in London for a meeting, and managed to carve out a couple of hours to visit the Science Museum. Given that I spent eight years of my life working in science museums, and that I now research museums, it was a shock to realise that it’s probably been over half a decade since I’ve visited the UK’s largest and most famous museum of science.

In spite of the fact that I inevitably get lost there, my first mistake was failing to pick up a map as I came in.

I really wanted to visit the new climate science gallery, Atmosphere, which I’d heard lots about, and also to check out the hands-on Launchpad gallery, which I was pretty sure had moved again since I last visited. Coming into the museum, I turned right and walked in a long straight line, through the massive industrial and transport exhibitions, and into the dark, neon-filled Wellcome Wing. There was some sort of event, and large numbers of trendy looking men in shirts and ties were milling around. I am hopelessly easy to disorientate (turn me through ninety degrees and I’m lost), but eventually discovered a lift, with signs suggesting I would find Atmosphere if I went up to floor 2.

The Science Museum seems to contain an inordinate number of industrial-looking corridors, which don’t quite feel like places visitors should be, as if you’ve wrongly managed to get behind the scenes and into the staff areas. I stepped from the lift into one such corridor and gingerly made my way to the Atmosphere gallery. It was, again, dark, with appropriately atmospheric deep blue lighting from an incredible swirling ceiling, and amazing slowly-moving projections on the floor. I didn’t have much time, and needed to take it in quickly, so I tried out a few of the computer interactives, looked at some of the artefacts, then left to try to find Launchpad. I followed an industrial looking, behind-the-scenes feeling staircase back down to the ground floor, elbowed my way through the trendy tie-wearers, and headed for the basement, where I thought Launchpad had been last time I visited.

Instead I found myself in Web Lab Beta – an interactive gallery produced in association with Google Chrome. The middle of the space was filled with strange instruments, making weird pinging, bonging sounds. In other places, robot arms drew faces in sandpits, and people looked through periscopes at goodness knows what. A cordoned off area declared itself to be the Control Room, with fat yellow cables connecting to the internet. At this point all the technology and trendily designed dark spaces filled with bright lights started to overwhelm me. I located the nearest museum employed human being, and asked where I could find Launchpad.

Inevitably, this involved another long corridor, although at least this one had lots of things along it to reassure me that I wasn’t in the staff quarters. I made it up to the museums’ other third floor (see why I get confused?), along another corridor (or maybe my mind is now just adding corridors…) and found myself with three choices: Launchpad; Health Matters; and, (thank the Lord!) the Eighteenth Century Science gallery, with its King George III collection of scientific instruments. And, although I thought I had been searching for the hands-on Launchpad gallery, I realised that what I actually wanted was to hang out for a while with some calm, beautiful, gently-lit orreries.

I’m so glad the Science Museum still has the George III gallery. It’s easy to be wowed by the high-concept design of galleries like Atmosphere and Web Lab. They are fantastically well done, and based on some of the best visitor research carried out by museums in this country. And the industrial and transport galleries, with their columns of cars up the wall, and giant, swooping aeroplanes hanging from the ceiling, can’t fail to impress. But these galleries, filled with lights, sounds, giant objects and crowds of people, combined with the perpetual feeling of being lost or soon-to-be-lost, give me a kind of sensory overload that just makes me want to run away. But a small, calm room, in which absolutely every beautifully made object is behind glass, and in which there is no touching, interacting or even listening, was the perfect antidote. Science engagement isn’t just about doing hands-on stuff, or being wowed, or having your senses filled, or using technology. It’s also about having the time to calmly observe, let your mind wander, and notice tiny details or appreciate simple ideas that aren’t shouting, but are quietly waiting to be discovered.

After 15 minutes in there, control was regained, normal service resumed, and I was sufficiently revived to hurtle round another five galleries in the 40 minutes before my meeting. And I didn’t get lost at all.