Elee Kirk

Children, Nature, Museums

Natural history Archive



June 2015



Notice Visitors, Create Joyful Gallery

Written by , Posted in Children, Exhibitions, Natural history, Visitors

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.



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.