Why do we collect this stuff? Does anybody ever look at it?

…the intriguing title to the final lecture in an excellent series by Undersecretary for Science, David Evans.  The entire series is available online at http://www2.si.edu/research/spotlight/lectures_2006.html.

The question that formed his title is a good one, considering that the largest portion of SI’s collection, some 126.5 million objects, reside in the Natural History Museum.  And did you know that 70% of that Museum is occupied by scientists and their labs?  It’s hard to imagine given the size of their public space.

But who uses the collection?  Dr. Evans gave several examples.  SI’s bird collection is used in a program with the Air Force to determine the interactions between birds and planes.  By studying the birds’ habits, flying patterns, migratory routes and physical characteristics, determinations can made regarding plane travel.  How, and why?   Well, for example, if the Air Force needs to set up an emergency take off strip for rapid troop deployment, it helps to know how to avoid the indigenous area’s bird population.

And SI’s science collections can also influence public policy, for example, in determining the history of the Earth’s climate and the effects of global warming.  How?  One example is that the toxicity in poison ivy increases as carbon dioxide in the environment increases.  Thus, by comparing former samples in our collections to those of today, scientists can begin to construct the evolution of CO2 levels in the atmosphere.  Especially important in similar studies is the use of type specimens for comparison.  A type specimen is the actual example of a plant that was used when scientists originally described and named the species.  The Smithsonian has 80-90,000 such type specimens in our collection, all of which have been digitized in high-resolution for optimized study.

My favorite question of the series came at the very end when an audience member asked, “why do scientists collect hundreds of the same type of insect, like a moth” for example?  David Evans wisely answered, “look around.  Can you imagine trying to describe the human species by having one example of a male, female and juvenile specimen?”

I never thought about it that way.


Check out Heritage Harbor’s new website – heritageharbor.org – and the great coverage they got in kicking off the redevelopment of the appropriately-named Dynamo House, a former power plant that will become the Museum’s home in a few years.  They’ve also started an education blog at heritageharboreducation.blogspot.com.  

dynamo house from across the riverCongratulations Heritage Harbor! dynamo group.jpg

How do you define educational success?

On Tuesday, several Smithsonian educators, and myself, attended a session of the Museum Education Roundtable.  (mer-online.org/)  The discussion focused on defining educational success in museums, and how differing educational approaches not only help to determine results, but differing definitions of success as well.

The speaker was Margaret Lindauer, faculty member of Virginia Commonwealth University, and an experienced evaluator, having assessed the educational impact of exhibits at the Brooklyn Museum and the Museum of American History, among others.  She outlined four approaches, commonly attributed to curriculum, and how the relationships between teacher and learner change, as do the outcomes.

A laissez-faire plan allows a visitor to self-direct and pursue their own interests, with a desired outcome being an enjoyable experience.  On the contrary, the Tylerian method is what we most associate with a traditional classroom – a teacher imparts knowledge to the learner with success measured by how well the learner grasps major themes.  In a constructivist approach, the teacher facilitates through provocative questioning, placing the emphasis on a learner’s self-generated solutions.  Answers are not absolute, but success involves the visitor generating their own answers.  Finally, a narrative path  turns both teacher and learner into storytellers, where facts become stories, and the learner ultimate relates their self-knowledge into the broader, contextual narrative of the program.

It was interesting for us all – educators from the Freer/Sackler to NASM to American History – to think about the approaches used at the Smithsonian, and their effectiveness.  What seems most clear is that no methodology is objective nor comprehensive – the same exhibit might employ all of them to great success.  Rather than neat boxes, these approaches seem to represent a spectrum to consider while evaluating the museum as learning environment. 

Traveling exhibitions available from the National Museum of Dentistry

The National Museum of Dentistry is pleased to announce the availability of two traveling exhibitions: The Future is Now! African Americans in Dentistry and Branches, Bristles and Batteries: Toothbrushes through Time.

The Future is Now! African Americans in Dentistry pays tribute to the extraordinary men and women who paved the way for African Americans’ success as dental professionals. With dramatic portraits, poignant memoirs and stories of individual and collective achievement, this exhibition inspires and educates visitors of every age.  The exhibition includes a moving photographic timeline of  the complex and inspiring story of individual accomplishment, educational advancement and organizational success from the 1860s through the present day; and provides a valuable new point of engagement with the youth of a host’s communities, with the potential to spark an interest in considering dentistry as a lifetime career.

The exhibition is appropriate for a wide range of museums, including institutions devoted to science, health, and history.  It is presented in partnership with the National Dental Association, and is available for a cost of $5,000 plus incoming shipping costs.  

Did you know that the first modern toothbrush was invented in the late 1700’s?  Filled with fascinating facts and fun activities for the whole family, Branches, Bristles and Batteries: Toothbrushes through Time allows children and adults to “brush up” on truths about toothbrushes while helping to develop habits that ensure good oral health. 

Targeted to elementary-age children, the exhibition includes interactives that encourage healthy eating, the importance of brushing, and an understanding of the toothbrush’s role in history.  It provides an excellent opportunity to partner with local professionals to promote dental health education outreach. 

The exhibition is appropriate for science, health and children’s museums, and is made possible by the support of United Concordia Companies, Inc.  It is available for a cost of $5,000 plus incoming shipping costs.

Educational and marketing materials, installation instructions and condition reports are included in the registration packets of both exhibitions.  To learn more about these exhibitions and for booking information, please contact Scott Swank, DDS, Curator at 410.706.8704 or sswank@dentalmuseum.umaryland.edu



An afternoon of Chinese Kunqu Theater

On Friday, August 4, some Affiliations staff attended an explanatory demonstration of this fascinating art form, a precursor to a real Kunqu performance at the Freer/Sackler Gallery entitled ‘The Palace of Eternal Youth’.  http://www.asia.si.edu/events/performances.asp

Named an ‘Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ by the United Nations, kunqu is classical Chinese musical theater.  We learned that a single performance may be made up of 50-200 scenes, so one performance of kunqu, performed at Lincoln Center in NYC, lasted for 19 hours!  (We were assured that the performance at Freer/Sackler would be much shorter.)  Until well into the 20th century, kunqu was gender segregated – not only the acting troupes, but the audiences as well!

Qian Yi singingIn the picture here, acclaimed young actress Qian Yi demonstrates the precise movements of kunqu.  Each character has a different way of walking which indicates their role – consorts of the emperor glide very slowly, almost imperceptibly, while maids rush around in circles, walking quickly heel to toe.  Scholars have yet another precise walk.  Ladies of the court always keep their hands in a precise configuration, to evoke the beauty of orchids, with fingers spread and articulated. 

As one might expect in a Chinese art form, yin and yang are implicit, even in movements.  Before pointing right, an actress will weave her hand around to the left, and vice versa.  If a character has to bend down to pick a flower, he will first rise up on his toes.

Many different Chinese dialects can be used in a kunqu performance, but it is the clown that most frequently mixes dialects.  Qian Yi also demonstrated how kunqu sounds, and the extensive use of melisma – a word I didn’t know until today!  Melisma is the technique of changing the pitch of a syllable of text while it is being sung.  It is said that melisma achieves a hypnotic trance in the listener…. certainly true in this case, as we could hardly stand to leave once she started singing!

Packaging sunlight from cucumbers

On Friday, some of the Affiliations staff attended the first in a new lecture series by SI’s Under Secretary of Science, David L. Evans.  Deriving his title from a scientist in Gulliver’s Travels, his thesis in the lecture was to illuminate the values of pure scientific research, unfettered by a concern for its practical application.  (check it out http://www.si.edu/research/spotlight/lectures_2006.html.)

To illustrate, he told the stories of three former Smithsonian Secretaries, all notable experts in their time, whose devotion to pure research found application only decades later.  Early in the 20th century, a Smithsonian Secretary, an avid ornithologist, preserved entire birds in alcohol, rather than just the skins or bones.  In the last 20 years, researchers were able to access and study the DNA of the birds from that collection for clues on bird flu mutations and transmission rates.

He referenced a seminal work in the history of scientific research, Vannevar Bush’s Science the Endless Frontier. (http://www.nsf.gov/about/history/vbush1945.htm)  As science advisor to FDR, Bush submitted this report to the president in 1945, arguing that pure research would benefit the country in three ways – economically, for public health, and in national defense.  This document ultimately led to the formation of the National Science Foundation.  Again, at the end of the 20th century, legislators revisited the document, and added the benefit of helping to establish public policy.

Dr. Evans finished his talk by sharing three current research projects underway at the Smithsonian, that as yet, have no practical application in mind.  The one I found most striking concerns our universe.  Scientists have long known that dark matter constitutes part of our universe, and that the universe is expanding.  Astronomers at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics have also recently discovered that the universe’s expansion is accelerating – it goes faster as it disperses, and they are able to measure this acceleration.  They have determined that approximately 70% of the universe is this dark energy, pushing it apart.  Which means that a very small fraction, less than 10%, of the universe is made up of the stuff we’re on – planets, stars, etc. (cfa-www.harvard.edu/)

How this information will ultimately benefit us is anyone’s guess, but as Dr. Evans pointed out, it does make one “scale our regard in cosmic terms.”   That perspective is always useful.