Year Of The Student: Attracting College Students To Campus Museums

Written by Patti Wood Finkle, Collections Manager, Pennsylvania State University, based on a presentation with Valerie Innella Maiers, Ph.D., Professor of Museum Studies, Casper College at the joint SPNHC & NatSCA conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, June 2022.

“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.

Casper College Museum Studies student putting the finishing touches on the art show installation. Credit- Patti Wood Finkle

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.

Casper College Museum Studies students interacting with visitors at the art show opening. Credit- Valerie Innella Maiers & Patti Wood Finkle

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.

NatSCA Digital Digest – January 2022

Compiled by Claire Dean, Preventive Conservation student, Northumbria University & placement student at Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery, Carlisle.

Welcome to the January 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 what you are getting up to, exhibition launches, virtual conferences, training opportunities, webinars, and new and interesting online content. If you have any top tips and recommendations for our next Digest please drop an email to blog@natsca.org.

Sector News

There’s still time to submit to SPNCC 2022. ‘Through the door and through the web: releasing the power of natural history collections onsite and online’ will take place from 5th to 10th June in Edinburgh and the deadline for abstracts is 28th January. You can submit your abstract to the open symposia or under the general theme. Full details here.

Continue reading

Book Review: Managing Natural Science Collections

Written by Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History, The Box, Plymouth.

Working with natural science collections is quite a unique role. The specimens we care for, the stories they tell, the research we carry out or help facilitate, and the engagement with the public, are just a few rewarding jobs that we carry out daily. Sometimes there are barriers between those working with natural science collections and those at a higher management level. This is mainly due to a lack of understanding of the importance of these types of collections. “Why are there so many flies?“, “It’s just taxidermy, bring it out for people to stroke“, “It’s just a rock”. Just a few of things many of us have heard being said about natural science collections.

Whilst we can respond to these kinds of comments, some of us may find it more difficult to respond in a strategic way: in a language that makes sense to high level managers or funders. I have in the past, and I’ve found that frustrating, because I know the importance of the collections I look after. I was very pleased to be asked to review a new book about management of collections, focusing on strategy and development, Managing Natural Science Collections: A guide to strategy, planning and resourcing which was released this year and it couldn’t have come at a better time. A time when the country is recovering from an economic slump after the Covid pandemic. A time when cuts to the museum sector are inevitable.

Continue reading

Legacies Of Jamaica: A Not So Elegant Priest!

Presented by Mama D Ujuaje & Rhian Rowson, Bristol Museums, Galleries & Archives.

Abstract

This presentation discusses a previous successfully curated public event, The Food Journey, held in the summer of 2019, forming part of a long term international project linked to our Jamaican botanical collection.

Addressing many of the contentions of Jamaican history, this presentation evokes a feel of mid-eighteenth century Jamaica by describing how making use of dramatic narrative, a soundscape, food tasting, aromas and textures of the time and geography, allow the context of the collection to come alive and to, as it were, ‘answer back’ to the authority of the author’s claims. We use costumed dialogue to help re-enact the immersive feel of the original production.

We include in our presentation a discussion of how the collection came about and its use over the years and how that might be critiqued in the context of slavery analyses over time and current notions concerning the erasure of traditional knowledge forms.

Continue reading

James J. Harrison: Unnatural History

Presented by Jim Middleton, Scarborough Museums Trust.

Abstract

Scarborough Museums Trust holds an archive of the big game hunter James Jonathan Harrison (1857-1923) comprising of not only the usual hunting trophies, but also a large number of photographs and nine hunting diaries. Shortly after his death, his collection was donated to Scarborough Corporation, where for many years it was displayed in the upper rooms of the library before eventually making its way to the towns Natural History Museum when that opened in 1952.

After several years of neglect, many of the mounts and trophy heads were destroyed or removed from cases and only through careful detective work have a number of mounts been able to be definitively attributed to this collection.

One of the more interesting aspects of this collection are the photographs and diaries which give an insight into his privileged lifestyle and insatiable appetite for shooting. In 2021/22 the museum is planning an exhibition based around Harrison’s photography which will have to address a number of difficult issues regarding not only the slaughter of hundreds of animals but also the exploitation of the indigenous peoples of Africa and especially the Congo.

In 1904/5 Harrison brought six ‘Pygmies’ from the Congo which at the time was under the brutal rule of the Belgians and toured them around the UK before returning them home. This historically has always been related in a cheery, anecdotal way with little regard for the clearly exploitative nature of the venture (bearing in mind that at around the same time the Bronx Zoo had a Congolese man on display in a cage). This aspect of the narrative will be retold in a way which makes people think a little more about the inherent racism within collections and how we can redress this.

This presentation contains distressing images.

Continue reading