Elee Kirk

Children, Nature, Museums

natural history Archive



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.



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.



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

Written by , Posted in Exhibitions

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…)



August 2012



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)



July 2012



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…)



July 2012



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.



July 2012



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)