Written by Caroline Grounds, Freelance Zoological Collections Assistant, Musée national d’histoire naturelle, Luxembourg.
I arrived in Luxembourg 8 years ago when my husband accepted a job offer here, not knowing much about the tiny country (“where exactly is Luxembourg?”), and with a new baby in tow.
I had become accustomed to the trailing expat spouse role, so I was happy for a new adventure, though the hardest part about moving, especially to a country where you don’t speak the language, is finding your niche in which you can carve out something of your own.
As a former Biology teacher, most of my previous museum experience was in science education, as a volunteer at the NHM in London, and the George C. Page museum (La Brea Tar Pits) in Los Angeles, and I was keen to get involved in the Luxembourg Natural History Museum in any way, shape or form. Something about being around the wonders of nature, whether outside or housed in a building, is inspiring to me and, surrounded by like-minded people, where I truly feel like I’m supposed to be.
Not speaking any of the official local languages however (Luxembourgish, German and French), I quickly found that it would be difficult to find work, even on a voluntary basis as I had before. I submitted my CV to the museum anyway, and endured a rather painful phone call in very bad schoolgirl French (mine, not theirs!), which, much to my amazement, led to one of the researchers contacting me for help proofreading his research papers, which were being published in English. That schoolgirl French came in useful after all!
“Year of the Student” focuses on how college and university museum staff can attract students to their museums by employing a variety of programs and collaborations. Like many campuses natural history museums, the Werner Wildlife Museum had difficulty attracting college students who either had no idea it was there, or only remembered it as a dark and dusty place with a towering, menacing polar bear. After attending a few New Student Orientation events (there are several each semester) to chat with incoming freshmen, we realized that we needed to show them that the museum was inviting and relevant. After brainstorming, several ideas came to the forefront. One was to work with the museum studies program, which the museum had done successfully in the past, and another was to develop programs and partnerships that would bring new groups to the museum.
The museum studies class was an engaging group to work with. In collaboration with staff, the most recent group curated both an art show that featured works from the Casper College permanent collection and juried a community art show. The students researched artists, and artwork, designed and produced the exhibition pamphlet, took professional photographs for curation records, and installed both shows. They also planned and executed an opening reception in the museum space. The program attracted the attention of their fellow art students, faculty, and engaged the public who attended the opening.
Another program that engaged both current students and the public were creative writing workshops that were offered in the evenings in collaboration with the English faculty. These programs were created to engage a new audience and to utilize the museum in a less traditional (at least to us) manner. Several of the faculty members are published authors who enjoy delving into their preferred writing style and were encouraged to do so in these workshops. Using the specimens in the museum as inspiration during the cold winter nights, participants were able to tap into experiences and creativity that surprised even the most seasoned writers. From poetry to reductive writing, to traditional storytelling, each participant produced works that were gathered and published in house. This publication was the first time some of the students had shared their work with a wider audience.
Other outreach efforts centred around visiting the students where they gathered. We attended more orientation events and developed an on campus “passport” that brought students to the campus museums, the art gallery, the archive, the greenhouse, and other overlooked destinations. Staff started bringing touch specimens to the dorms one evening each month. By the third month, we had a few regulars who would stop by to see what new objects we had brought with us. Work-study students assisted at these events, giving them the opportunity to engage with their peers, which can be less intimidating for the students on both sides of the table.
These engagement strategies worked well and both campus museums saw an increase in student visitation. The takeaway lesson museum staff learned was that talking to the students one on one, through courses, or in small groups; demystifying the visitor experience through peer-to-peer engagement; and outreach to student dominated areas (dorms, welcome fairs) increased awareness and interest in the institutions. Student engagement is an ongoing process that should be adaptative, interesting, and educational while supporting the museums and the students they serve.
Compiled by Milo Phillips, Assistant Curator of Entomology for Leeds Museums and Galleries.
Welcome to the August edition of NatSCA Digital Digest.
A monthly blog series featuring the latest on where to go, what to see and do in the natural history sector including jobs, exhibitions, conferences and training opportunities. We are really keen to hear more about new exhibitions, conferences and anything that you would like to promote. If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Yorkshire Natural History Museum
The Yorkshire Natural History Museum is a new, small public museum opening in Sheffield this Saturday August 13th 2022! The museum includes geology, palaeontology and botany collections with a significant research collection of fossils from the Yorkshire Lias. Their website is still under construction but they can be found on twitter as @YorkshireNHM.
NatSCA Lunchtime Chats
After a brief hiatus, our NatSCA Lunchtime Chats are back! Last week we heard from Jazmine Miles-Long about mitigating freezer-burn when freezing your museum specimens. You can read more about it in her recent blog post if you missed the talk. Stay tuned for information on our next lunchtime chat later in the month. These lunchtime chats are for members only and normally run on the last Thursday of every month.
Like most museums across the country, World Museum suspended its volunteer programmes shortly before the first national lockdown in March 2020. This was meant to be a short-term measure but with curators continuing to work hybridly our volunteers haven’t yet returned. Organisations like Volunteer Scotland have advised volunteers to consider if and how they can work remotely.
While some museums had existing remote volunteering activities (see great examples here and here), which saw increased participation, World Museum’s vertebrate zoology collection didn’t. An additional challenge for us has been that remote access to our collections database is limited to staff with a VDI. With the pandemic still with us for some time to come (Chris Whitty has said it will be 5 years) we have started exploring ways to engage both new and long-serving volunteers with the collection online.
During lockdown, Auckland Museum published a Wikimedia strategy citing the provocative 2018 talk by Adam Moriarty which championed the importance of collection information featuring, not solely on museum’s own webpages, but in places like GBIF and Wikipedia. This reinforced our view that we need to improve the collections’ presence in Wikipedia. Wikipedia articles are created by volunteers and can be edited by anyone with a standard web browser, potentially providing a valuable activity for remote volunteering.
(Note: this article includes interactive games. If they don’t work, your organisation may have blocked game websites through your network)
You might think that playing video games falls at the opposite end of the hobby-spectrum when compared to getting engaged with nature. But the immersion and creativity allowed often provides many of the same benefits, and nature is used as inspiration for many of the most popular video games. In this way video games can become a gateway to learning about nature in the real world – did you know that the highest grossing media franchise of all time (step aside, Marvel) started as a video game about collecting fictional animals to help a scientist with their biological recording project? You’ve probably heard of it. And the Animal Crossing franchise, a game series where a core activity involves collecting insects and fish to donate to the local museum, has sold over 70 million copies.
Games like Pokémon and Animal Crossing show that natural science collections are already on to a winner when it comes to subject matter and gaming. The collections are full of characters and stories, and games should be considered as another way to provide access to these.