Elee Kirk

Children, Nature, Museums

Thursday

9

August 2012

0

COMMENTS

Shelves of Zebras

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions, Taxidermy

This lovely display of zebras can be found at the Natural History Museum’s outpost at Tring. It’s a delightful museum, built around the collections of Walter Rothschild, a classic British eccentric aristocrat. There are pictures of Rothschild riding around on giant tortoises, with a lettuce leaf held out on a stick to encourage them to walk, and another of him in a carriage pulled by zebras (I don’t know if any of the ones in the picture pulled his carriage…).

Rothschild decided aged seven that he would run a zoological museum. This makes me feel a certain affinity towards him, as I too had childhood yearnings towards museums, as proven by a school exercise book from around 1989, in which I declared that by the year 2000 I would be working in a museum (I was out by 1 year — it was 2001 when I got my first museum job).

But back to the zebras… What I love about this display is the way that it strikes a balance between ordinariness and weirdness. In almost any natural history museum that you care to visit, you will find specimens displayed like this, on glass shelves at various heights in a class cabinet. But what is odd about this one is a) the animals are all quite large, and b) they are all the same type of animal. Plus, the taxidermy is so beautifully done that they have a certain nonchalant quality, as if they just happen to be hanging around in a museum display case.

I noticed during my research in the Oxford University Museum of Natural History that young children often notice or imagine relationships between taxidermied animals. Displays like the one above are great for this — you don’t need anything as obvious as a diorama to imagine something going on between the animals. Even a technique as simple as facing some animals towards each other and some away creates a strangely compelling social scene.

But what’s also lovely about this display is that it somehow has the feel of a work of art, but without the affectation of art. It is essentially a comparative study of zebra species, and yet within this display we also have aesthetic appeal, surprise, narrative and wit. Or am I just getting overexcited by some shelves of zebras?

(This post builds on a post that originally appeared on my now-defunct Tumblr blog Stuffed Stuff)

Sunday

22

July 2012

2

COMMENTS

Welcome to the gallery of the real

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions, Taxidermy, Visitors

Some time last year I was in a natural history gallery with a Natural History Museum educator from the USA. I asked her, “What question do children most commonly ask in your museum?”, already anticipating that the answer would be, “Is it real?”. I was right, of course, with children’s favoured question number two, on both sides of the pond, being, “Did you kill it?”.

The world over, young children seem to be totally baffled by taxidermy. A couple of months ago I visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History with my two nephews, aged seven and four. They spent most of the visit trying to get their heads around the relationship between ‘real’, ‘alive’ and ‘dead’. “But when are we going to see the real ones?”, they kept asking. And they weren’t convinced by my patient, rational response that these were real, they were just the skins of dead animals that someone had stuffed to make them look alive. To the boys, ‘real’ meant ‘alive’ (more…)

Saturday

14

July 2012

8

COMMENTS

Small town museums, or museums of small towns?

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions, Museum history

Today we escaped the hustle and bustle of big city (ok, Leicester) life, and headed down to the pretty little town of Market Harborough, in search of charity bookshops, cake and the wonders of its local museum. Harborough Museum was full of visitors having a great time – kids (ok, and some grown-ups) dressing up and exploring baskets of toys, and lots of people reading finding out about local life and the history of the town. But it did make me wonder: why do small town museums focus almost universally on their local area? (more…)

Friday

6

July 2012

3

COMMENTS

Biophobophilia, or, why children (sort of) love big, pointy teeth

Written by , Posted in Research

During the course of my research at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon. This may not come as a surprise to those of you with children, or who actually remember being a child, but it seems that children really love animals with scary teeth. In this particular museum, the favourites seem to be a large stuffed crocodile, and a model T. rex head.

My PhD research involves getting 4- and 5-year-old children to photograph things they like in the museum, and then talk to me about the pictures. Two thirds of the children photographed this head. And when it was mentioned in interviews, children often told me that they liked it (it was sometimes a favourite), that they liked it’s sharp teeth, and that they had put their hands in its mouth or touched its teeth.

So the children talk about it as something scary, but in a fun way. Like Jurassic Park, they seem to know it isn’t real, but still appreciate it’s scariness, albeit in an entertaining manner.

But I saw something slightly different when I did observations in the gallery. Some children seemed genuinely scared of it. Parents would try to get children’s photos taken with the T. rex, and the children would back away, shake their heads, sometimes even cry. It seemed to be actually, genuinely frightening.

At one point, I saw some parents trying to get their little boy to go up to it, which he refused to do. I joined in the conversation, saying that I thought it was pretty scary (it had actually scared me earlier in the day – they had moved it so that it was now on the base of the T. rex skeleton, and in this new position it caught me unawares). The boy stopped to think about this. And then he decided on a course of action. He would subdue the beast. He reached into his pocked, took out a box of tic-tacs, and held up a sweet to the mouth of the T. rex.

I think there’s something really interesting going on with all of this. E. O. Wilson talks about Biophilia – the innate love of certain elements of nature that humans feel, due to our evolutionary history. For example, we are attracted to the landscapes that are most conducive to our survival, or to animals, which we needed to understand to be able to hunt. The flip-side is biophobia – our innate propensity to fear animals such as spiders and snakes, which were threatening to our survival.

So, because words are fun, I’ve coined the phrase ‘biophobophilia’ to describe the situation above. In this word, I want to capture both the sense of children simultaneously loving and fearing scary creatures, but also, the sense that they actually enjoy their fear.

In fact, the fascination with scary animals makes perfect evolutionary sense. The children needed to avoid being eaten by these animals, but the way that humans (and other animals) stay safe, is by learning about our foes. Being nervous of something, whilst also being motivated to look at it and learn about it is actually a really effective way of making sure we don’t get eaten by it.

So while the children (sort of) know that the things they see in the museum can’t really eat them, in the dark recesses of their brain, biophobophila keeps these modern, urban children, who are more likely to be killed by a car than a crocodile, totally fascinated by big, sharp, scary teeth.

Sunday

1

July 2012

1

COMMENTS

Observation Notes: Not All Bones are Dinosaurs

Written by , Posted in Research, Visitors

Over the past couple of years I’ve spent a lot of time at the wonderful Oxford University Museum of Natural History, where I’m carrying out my PhD research. Although the bulk of my research has involved getting four- and five-year-olds to take photographs for me (as I described in my very first post), I have spent almost as much time wandering around and around the museum, observing visitors more generally.

I really love doing observations. I think it’s easy to imagine that most museum visits are quite mundane – we see the other visitors milling around, or we mill around ourselves, and everything blends into the hubbub of the crowds. But when you start paying attention to the individual conversations, you see that actually the museum glitters with gems of quirky conversation and idiosyncratic behaviour that reveal the individuality of each visitor’s experience.

My approach is definitely one of participant-observer than invisible social scientist. I find it almost impossible to stand back and blend in with the furniture while carrying out observations. Actually, I’m not even sure this is possible in the museum – a semi-social space where we are all on public display, and the behaviour of other people can be as fascinating as the exhibitions. I’ve found that sitting with a clip-board actually makes me stand out more than just hanging around and occasionally making comments to other visitors as I might do were I a visitor myself.

So some time last year, I found myself having the following conversation as I stood by the large skeletons in the photograph above. A small boy looked at the skeletons, then turned to me, a random adult, and asked, “What sort of dinosaurs are they?”

“They’re elephants,” I replied.

“Elephant dinosaurs,” he said.

“No,” I said, “they’re elephant skeletons. You know we all have bones in our bodies?” He nodded, suspiciously. “Well,” I said, “these are the bones from inside an elephant.”

The boy narrowed his eyes, looked at the skeletons, looked at me and then walked away. Clearly, I was deeply misguided. He was in a museum. Museums are for dinosaurs. Dinosaurs are giant skeletons. Heck, there’s a giant T. rex stood right in the middle of the museum. Stupid lady.

I hope I didn’t ruin his day. It’s a tough moment in a boy’s life when he comes to realise that not all skeletons are dinosaurs.

Ah, the ethical minefields of social research!

(A version of this post originally appeared on my now-defunct Tumblr blog Stuffed Stuff)

Tuesday

26

June 2012

0

COMMENTS

100 Languages of Visitors

Written by , Posted in Research, Visitors

I said “Do you speak-a my language?”
He just smiled and gave me a Vegemite sandwich

Land Down Under, Men at Work

When I worked in a museum in multicultural Birmingham (UK), myself and the other staff would sometimes worry about whether or not we should provide any of the museum text or leaflets in additional languages other than English. Since starting my PhD I’ve gone back to thinking about the languages used in museums, but my concept of language has changed somewhat.

My research in part draws on the Reggio Emilia approach. For those of you not familiar with early childhood education (probably the majority of you), this is a progressive preschool education system from northern Italy, much beloved of and envied by nursery teachers everywhere. One of the concepts that Reggio educators like to use is that of the “100 languages of children”. They don’t mean “language” in the sense of English, French or Mandarin, but rather any means by which children take in information about the world, and then express their understanding to other people.  (more…)

Tuesday

19

June 2012

0

COMMENTS

Cameras, Children and Museums

Written by , Posted in Research

Hello, and welcome to Through the Museoscope. This is my brand-new blog, in which I plan to talk about the things that interest me about visiting, working in, studying, and generally thinking about museums. For more on the name of the blog, check out the ‘About’ menu.

I thought I’d start of by talking a bit about the research that I’m in the process of carrying out right now. I’m currently about 3/4 of the way through a PhD at the very wonderful School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK. My thesis explores young children’s experiences of natural history in museums. After spending the first year and a half thinking about and trying out different methods, audiences and museums, my project ended up at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (visit it, it’s great!), getting 4- and 5-year-old children visiting with their families to use digital cameras to photograph the things they liked about the museum. (more…)