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, 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!