Dead animals, birth canals, and beating hearts: Reflections on my first 27 years of informal science education

My first real introduction to what it means to be a museum educator was road kill. Like, an animal dead on the highway. Road kill.

As I remember, it was 1991, the summer before my senior year of high school and the second of three summers I spent working in the Invertebrate Paleontology department at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH). Joe Hannibal, the curator of invertebrate paleo, was leading a group to a limestone quarry in nearby Toledo, Ohio to collect Megalomoidea cadadensis, or “beef heart” fossils. Along the way, one of the museum’s Science Resource Center – I think it was Barbara Schwimmer – screamed for our van to stop.[1] She had seen road kill that, in her expert opinion, could potentially be worth collecting. The driver stopped, and to my delight and disgust, she got out, gathered the smushed remains of some animal, and hopped back in to trumpet her success. That animal was later taxidermied, and likely made its way to some classroom in the form of a traveling diorama. Little did I know, that moment was essentially the guidepost for the rest of my life. (Nancy Howell, Barbara Schwimmer, Robert Segedi, Bob Bartolotta)

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I basically lived at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History in high school. I can’t overstate how much it changed my life.

When I think back on my time at the CMNH the group of staff educators that I worked with and saw, including people like Barbara, Robert Segedi, Nancy Howell, and Bob Bartolotta, are remarkably important figures. Of course, no one looms larger than Joe Hannibal whose warmth, humor, and patience drew me back to the museum time and again. So too did the joy I got out of descending into the basement each day to wander through fossil collections, going to outcrops to search for samples, and just being at the museum. But there were so many amazing experiences that happened because of the museum’s educators. Like one day, the summer students like me were gathered into the Science Resource Center just because there was something fun to show, like a baby skunk. They taught us how to use the “Please Touch” carts that we wheeled out into the museum lobby to chat with visitors like this guy who came in with a bone he’d found in his back yard, hoping it was something cool (I think the Physical Anthropology department determined it was a cow bone, which can be cool depending on how you feel about cows). Plus, when Joe gave me writing assignments, like to describe Ohio’s major rock formations or the Silurian salt deposits below Lake Erie, one or more of the museum’s educators would ALWAYS read and comment on my drafts, and even shared their own work for me to read. I get emotional writing about that stuff because those respectful interactions meant so much to me, and it’s so sadly rare for a black kid to get that kind of respect.

Perhaps most importantly, my interactions with the CMNH’s many educators taught me how museums and their staff should make people feel. The respect I felt was museum-wide and it made the CMNH a home, and it is literally why I’ve spent the rest of my life in museums. Those educators gave me so many memorable experiences, and the admittedly embarrasing fact that they’ve coalesced in my memory into an amalgam of faces and fun makes me feel OK about all the experiences I’ve helped create for learners over the years; experiences likely only attributed to “that guy at the museum” or “the guy leading that hike.” Those educators are why in every place I’ve worked, I’ve tried to be helpful and open and willing to do whatever it took to make visitors and colleagues feel valued; to make sure they knew that I was invested in them as people. Helping them learn and/or do their work is only a part of that investment. Seeing that educator get out of a van and walk out on an active roadway also showed me that I had to be resourceful to find creative ways to make a program work. I can’t say I’ve always succeeded, but I’ve always tried, even when the result was a pretty solid failure.

Below are some highlights of my journey as a science museum educator (with some extras sprinkled in) so far. Some of the gaps in time were when I was doing educational hip-hop performances, summer arts camps, and even teacher professional development programs with the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum and the Cleveland-based Progressive Arts Alliance. But, in a refrain that will become common over the life of this blog, those are posts for another day.

 

Summer 1992, The Cleveland Museum of Natural History, Cleveland, OH: How can a kid teach teachers? 

My last summer at the CMNH may have been the most important for my career. Right after I graduated from high school, I co-led my first professional development program for teachers, along with Joe Hannibal. I remember standing in front of these teachers and wondering to myself, “what qualifies me to teach these teachers?” I’ve spent the rest of my career both directly and indirectly trying to answer that question in regard to museum educators overall, and in the process, I’ve become a historian and kind of ostracized myself from the work I love the most. Hopefully this blog bridges that gap.

 

Summer 1997, Newport News Park System, Newport News, VA: Be honest, make ’em smile, and listen more than you speak.

I didn’t do much in the way of education during my time at Hampton University in Hampton, Virginia where I got a degree in Marine and Environmental Science, but when I was done I took a job as a Ranger Technician (RT) in the nearby Newport News Park System. Included among my surprisingly broad duties (wildlife rehab, anyone?) was leading night-time nature hikes in the main park. I don’t know if you’ve ever led a night-hike, but they are tailor made for fails. It is dark and even once your eyes have adjusted it is still hard for a new hiker to see anything, much less elusive crepuscular/nocturnal animals. So, for example, we almost never saw owls on the Owl Hike (except for my first one which ruined any shot I had at reasonable expectations) and never saw a single cool animal on Swamp Hikes.

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The Swamp Bridge at Newport News Park in Newport News, VA. We hiked, we heard, we saw almost nothing.

Luckily there was a golf course in the park where deer would graze in the evening, so we’d swing by there and gawk before the short stroll back to the Park’s Interpretive Center. I was also supposed to help develop programs and exhibits for the new interpretive center at a beach front park adjacent to low-income housing. I spent all my time with the kids, partly because I was scared and didn’t know how to make an exhibit, and partly because they were kids who always wanted to talk. That may have been the most important duty of all; certainly, more relevant than eating expired pastries while taking trailer and tent site reservations in the campsite office. I got pretty fat.

 

Spring 1998, The Great Lakes Science Center, Cleveland, OH: Be on point and be accountable. Students and teachers are counting on you.

I moved home to Cleveland and got a full-time job at the Great Lakes Science Center, starting off as the specialist for the Environment floor.[2] The core of my job was leading school group tours where I guided their exhibit exploration and then walked them to their electricity show, IMAX, and lunch. Each morning we’d get a stack of colored papers for each of the schools we were guiding, and we’d meet them at the bus in a lab coat. Because, well, science. It seems mundane, and in a way, it was. But it taught me about how important timeliness and support are to a good museum experience for school groups. Shows need to start on time or be flexible if scheduled for a particular group. Unsupported (read: confused) teachers and chaperones can get flustered and poison every interaction from that point on. I also got to see the difference in student learning when teachers and chaperones joined in the fun, compared to the aimlessness and periodic wildness that would take place when the adults drifted off to have coffee and…do whatever people did before smart phones. I also wrote a few programs, helped with some teacher PD projects, and worked on the summer camp. It was a great experience, but it was a short one. Oh, the things I’d tell 24-year-old D.O. Alas…

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The Great Lakes Science Center used to have an Environment Floor, with stuff like a “Sick Earth” exhibit. Might be nice to have now, hunh?

 

Summer 1999, The Health Museum of Cleveland, Cleveland, OH: The honesty thing never fails, you can’t teach without listening, and there is joy in self-discovery.

Once the Great Lakes Science Center thing ran its course I landed on my feet at the now defunct Health Museum of Cleveland. It was, without a doubt, the most insane, awesome, ridiculous, satisfying, mystifying job ever. I had two main tasks: First, I was the coordinator for the traveling Healthy Acts Theatre program that featured scripted shows with puppets (!!!) and live performances by our professional and student actors. Second, I taught school package programs, which included three classes in the specially designed, themed classrooms. Healthy Acts was a mixed bag. I sucked as a coordinator, but the actors were so special, and the puppets were surreal. The student-actors were especially great, and I think about them often.

But nothing I’ve ever experienced as an educator was like those classrooms in the Health Museum of Cleveland. I was quickly one of the go-to-educators for the middle school packages, that usually included some combination of childbirth, puberty, heredity, and sexually transmitted diseases. It. was. incredible. The childbirth, or Wonder of New Life room featured a wall with models of the female reproductive organs, fetal development, and the birthing process. As I taught I would slowly migrate across the wall discussing ovaries, sperm and egg cells, blastocysts, embryonic development, and internal views of the baby progressing down the birth canal. The show ended with a video of a live birth. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen 12- and 13-year old’s watch a baby crowning.

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The Health Museum of Cleveland kept it really real.

The puberty room had a demonstration wall divided into two sections – you guessed it – male and female! We added different things to each body as they progressed through puberty. For the puberty class I came up with one of my proudest creations as an educator: the soup speech. In short, I explained that even though puberty transitions your body into childbearing, most of us aren’t ready to be parents. This is similar to soup: you put all the ingredients into the pot, but it has to cook for a while. All the parts are there, but it’s not ready. The teachers and parents would nod with thankful, impressed smiles.

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Oh, the laughs I had in this room. Middle school students are the best.

Teaching STD’s was less fun, because it was mostly just showing pictures of infected penises and vulvas. I’m happy to say I never could extract a good time out of that. There were other classrooms covering the food pyramid, exercise, drugs and alcohol, bacteria and infections, etc., and almost all of them were fun to teach. STD’s basically dragged everything down, which seems totally appropriate.

More than anything, at the Health Museum I learned how important it is to listen and connect with your audience. Once I was teaching a heredity class, and about one-third through I’d finally made eye contact with every student in the room, which I thought was key to making everybody feel engaged. At that point it hit me – and I even said it out loud – that the group I was teaching was all girls. I smiled, said that it was awesome, and proceeded to urge anyone interested to become a genetic scientist because there’s a lot of stuff we need to figure out. At the end of the presentation, a school administrator that was on the tour offered me a job. I like to think it was because she recognized that I made it a priority to notice each student individually. Connecting is key to good teaching.

Another day, a father brought his son into the museum for an individualized “scared straight” session after he was caught smoking after school. I brought out the models of tarred lungs and rattled off lung cancer statistics. The kid couldn’t have cared less, and his dad seemed more worried than before. At the time I was a smoker, and I pushed all the models and charts aside and explained that I had an addiction; that I woke up and reached for cigarettes because I had no choice; that I knew I was killing myself but I didn’t know how or if I could stop; that if I could choose again I’d never have started and that he should save himself. The kid was visibly shaken, and the father was deeply thankful. It would take me a few more years – and a lung that was literally leaking air into my chest making me neck crinkle like bubble-wrap – to quit smoking. But I’ve never forgotten the power of sharing your story, and how honesty and transparency can build bridges to learning.

Sadly, the Health Museum and its unwelcoming, window-less post-Riot building are gone. The museum was rebuilt as Healthspace Cleveland in 2003 and closed soon after in 2006, with its building absorbed into the ever-growing corpus of the Cleveland Clinic; many of its exhibits sold off to other museums. What remained became a traveling program at the CMNH. A weird ending for a weird and wonderful place.

 

Fall 2005, The Franklin Institute, Philadelphia, PA: People will tell you what they need and want to learn, if you listen.

It only took 15 years to have a professional experience as important as my first, but it came when I was hired as an Interpreter at the Franklin Institute (TFI). I guess I was (and those who hold the job now still are) supposed to be “interpreting” science for the public as though it’s some kind of foreign language, which would make sense given how much time we spend trying to make people “literate” in science. But, as we all know, science isn’t a language because new research isn’t a trite add-on like including slang or colloquial terms like “jiggy” or “GIF” in the Oxford English Dictionary. Plus, people interact with science all the time in every aspect of their lives, so “translating” it isn’t as important as helping people identify science at work and helping them make sensible, responsible decisions about its use based on thoughtful consideration of the complex issues that impact how science is deployed in society. Wait, where was I? Sorry, I got distracted by a rant.

As Interpreter, I was asked to perform in a way that was totally different than in any other museum. It was a revelation. In the mid 00s at TFI, the Interpreter’s job was to perform public science shows, staff the many activity carts scattered around the museum, train volunteers and staff on those carts, and do assigned “duties” to maintain the carts and show supplies. No part of the job included school-specific programming, and at the time of my hire, TFI didn’t offer any package tours for school groups. As a result, I spent my time interacting with public visitors and informally with school groups. At the carts, I didn’t have a strict script that I had to stick with. I could just…talk. There was a fluidity that turned out to be one of my biggest learning experiences as a museum educator.

The best example was the Heart Bar, the cart dedicated to heart and circulatory system physiology, pathology, and treatments, which included various models of hearts and blood vessels, preserved animal hearts, and real stents and pacemakers. Many of these were things familiar to people dealing with heart issues and treatments – either personally or within their families – but had never seen them up close. I can’t tell you how many times someone would say, “my uncle has a stent – is this what it looks like?” Or, “I used to have this pacemaker! They’ve upgraded since this one.” Or, “so this is what they did to my mom…” It felt so important to help people understand their bodies and their lives in ways that I would have assumed would happen with their doctor. Sadly,  I learned how little medical professionals actually teachI when my father suffered an aortic aneurysm a few years later. My time at the Heart Bar helped me understand what happened to my dad, and how amazing it was that the Cleveland Clinic doctors and staff were able to save his life. In a perfect world doctors and nurses could educate while healing, but it probably isn’t practical. It’s hard to teach someone who is actively being fleeced by a morally bankrupt medical system, even when you are a well-meaning health care provider.

Most importantly, being an Interpreter was fun, which allowed me to build my career in some unexpected ways. I actually felt refreshed after a day of teaching and doing shows, so going to grad school in the evenings wasn’t hard at all. Somehow I allowed myself to get talked into being promoted to a coordinator, which was idiotic, but I was rescued by being named an IPSE (Internship in Public Science Education) Intern and working with materials scientists from Penn State University and the incomparable Jayatri Das, now TFI’s lead bioscientist, to create nanotechnology demos for carts. I was also mentored by the brilliant Beth Tinker, who was then a museum exhibit designer and program developer, and should be running a museum by now if she isn’t already.

After getting my Masters from the University of Pennsylvania, I’ve continued my education at Cornell University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Along the way I became a historian and returned to Philadelphia in 2012 to do research on TFI, which quickly grew to include about 267 other museums (rough estimate). I see science education and museums differently now. I have become more critical and somewhat radical in my thoughts about how museums can and should contribute to society. But those stories – you guessed it! – are blogs for other days.

So there you have it: a brief look into the professional museum/informal education experiences of D.O… so far. I’ll probably be expanding on many of these stories as I continue blogging, and adding in some more. For example, I can’t wait to tell you about how and why I found myself launching frogs across a stage with an oversized slingshot. More importantly as you read on, and hopefully take issue with some of my arguments, I encourage you to keep my background in mind. Even though I am a historian now, I still think of myself as a museum educator and want everything I do to be of value to museum educators. I’ve had a wildly diverse career, too. I’ve done everything from nature hikes to outreach to teacher professional development to public shows. Those experiences have taught me that every aspect of museum work – from research to concessions to janitorial work to fundraising – is in service of the visitor. My historical research should be no different. Otherwise, my work won’t be as valuable as viable roadkill.

 

 

[1] It’s funny, but before I wrote this blog, I’d never really connected my career with the people who taught me how to be a museum educator. It says so much about how inglorious museum education can be, and how deep of an impact it can have.

[2] I was promoted to something like School Programs Manager or something, which I absolutely sucked at because I’m not a good coordinator and there was no one to manage; there might have been one floor specialist left. I burned myself out. I was so clueless back then.

The urgency of our time and the utility of the past: how American science museums can use their history to help build the future

I don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet. If ideas expressed here have been published or discussed elsewhere, please add a link in the comments and/or email me at domccullough@gmail.com and I’ll update this post accordingly.

 

The deadline has been set, and the clock to save life on Earth as we know it now spins with ominous speed. According to a new United Nations report, we have twelve years to stave off the most catastrophic of the inevitable impacts of climate change. To be successful, at base, every single global citizen must now take real, earnest steps to change their behaviors, neighborhoods, workplaces, and governance to maximize the potential of renewable products and processes. To be blunt, shit is incredibly real.

Having been one myself, I can imagine that science museum educators everywhere are taking this as a critical call-to-arms and an impetus to double down on the climate change education work that’s been done for YEARS. From my vantage point as a historian, science museum professionals seeking ways to broaden the impact of their  work will find some of their most useful tools in an unlikely place: their institutions’ own pasts. In order for science museums to meaningfully help build a livable future, they must confront the mistakes in their own history and reapply some of their success.

Beginning with the tremendously influential industrial science museums of the 1930s – the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, the Franklin Institute’s science museum, and the long defunct New York Museum of Science and Industry – many of these institutions have been stages used to promote and quite literally sell a consumption-based, product-driven image of American life that climate change demands we replace.[1] Several similar museums popped up around the country in the 1940s and 50s, and some established museums even incorporated industrial approaches into their practice, most notably the Boston Society of Natural History that transformed into the Boston Museum of Science in the 1940s.[2]

As an example, let’s take one of my favorite photos from the Franklin Institute’s history: this 1941 image of Nichol Smith, head of the museum’s Chemistry Section and a trained chemist, standing in his section’s newest addition: Sun Oil Company’s walk-through Oil Refinery.

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Nichol Smith in Sun Oil Company’s 1941 Oil Refinery exhibit at the Franklin Institute

Amidst a miniature refining plant, bubbling tubes and flowing liquids showed visitors the scientific and technological processes involved in refining oil, all in front of a massive photomural of an actual refining plant. It looked spectacular, in both image and message. Here was an exhibit selling an unabashedly glowing and idealized version of the oil industry, promoting Sun Oil’s collective intellectual and mechanical prowess along with the entire fossil fuels enterprise.

Exhibits by corporations like Bethlehem Steel and Pennsylvania Salt Company sold similar messages with analogous grandeur, while products like Bakelite promised domestic comfort and advancement. In short, to borrow from the title of Du Pont’s iconic exhibit that was featured in each industrial science museum, better living was coming through corporate science.

 

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Bethlehem Steel’s 1952 exhibition at the Franklin Institute
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Du Pont’s iconic “Better Things for Better Living…Through Chemistry” exhibit

Of course, many of you (as I once did) might argue that the blatant corporate commercialism featured in these museums has been eradicated over the succeeding decades. But a closer, more difficult look at exhibit and program underwriting reveals that corporate presence has been muted, and, to be fair, often leveraged for positive, necessary educational outcomes. Inarguably, corporations remain impactful in American science museums, and revisiting their heyday of influence reveals two major tasks that modern science museums must take on to help save the world (I really wish that was hyperbole): First, science museums must directly engage the corporate-sponsored images of American prosperity that warp the expectations of many to this very day, and second, offer unabashedly glowing and idealized versions of more sustainable, and ultimately livable, alternatives.

As I’ve moved from being a museum educator to being a historian of science, technology, museums, and education, I had a realization that’s driven a surprising amount of my thinking: it’s hard to overstate how important it has become that Americans live full, satisfied lives of consumption to prove their superiority. The Cold War, for example, was essentialy contested to prove that capitalism was better for humanity than communism, and having bigger, better, faster, and stronger things was an actual front in that battle.[3] In America, we had bountiful grocery stores, toys for kids and adults alike to play with during their plentiful leisure time, and homes filled with comforts, entertainments, and tools to make everything easier and more enjoyable. The USSR had bread lines, rations, and government control over everything, including happiness. For many Americans, having more is a sign of strength. If all we do is talk about the dangers and science of climate change, we do nothing to keep the resulting recommendations to consume less seem like weakness. When you look at it this way, climate change science and how it tasks us with changing our lives is downright un-American.

Recent elections have shown the long-term effectiveness of the strategies companies used to linked their products and consumption to our country’s well-being; strategies that included science museum exhibits. Politicians have needed only to conjure images of a dream-like American past of opulence and freedom to return voters to the trough of fossil fuels. Many of these images were powerfully sold in science museums, and those of us who still work in science museums must work to erase their negative impacts and find ways to repeat their successes. For example, we can revisit the Sun Oil Company’s 1953 “Oil Serves America” exhibit, looking at the exhibit’s language and supporting documents and talk about how those messages turned out to be wrong.

Oil Serves America Booklet Cover
These images and text from the 30+ page “Oil Serves America” exhibit booklet point to the kinds of ideas museums used to promote, and that still shape how we think about science, industry, and America

 

 

We can talk about how mid-twentieth century science museum exhibits were recognized in advertising communities as “industry’s softest sell,” where marketing was so neatly woven into education that it was thought to be imperceptible.[4] And we can talk about how those ideas were about products and profits, and NOT about data and sustainability. We can’t just pretend those things didn’t happen. If you think this can’t or shouldn’t be done, a great example is the Looking at Ourselves exhibit at the Field Museum that reconsiders the museum’s deeply racist The Races of Mankind exhibition from the 1930s to directly refute the resist dangerous ideologies that the museum itself once promoted, identify their lasting consequences, and offer fact-based remedies.[5]

But these exhibits also show that depictions of real world applications of scientific progress can be powerful tools in shaping public opinion, raising the question of why we aren’t showcasing visions for the sustainable future that scientists and engineers can help us create. Where are the exhibit showing off not just the science of windmill farms and solar cell production, but also the actual corporations doing this work and the careers that could be booming in the future? Why aren’t there more exhibitions highlighting construction companies and architectural firms making green homes and buildings? Why aren’t there cheesy depictions of happy sustainable homes and children being amply fed by locally-sourced, sustainably farmed foods consumed seasonably? People don’t want to be frightened, they want to be reassured. We can’t sell doom and gloom as a reason for action, we have to sell action as a path to happiness and security. That’s exactly how science museums nursed the public through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Cold War, only the action was consumption. If we have any hope of bridging the gap from a country in denial to real, substantive change, we have to do the same, and sell the jobs and environmental industries that will help us build a livable future.

Of course, there’s far more to learn from museums of the past, many of which I think can help museums today. And there are also real questions about centering American industry in narratives coming from science museums, which is problemmatic at best. But those are posts, academic papers, and presentations for days to come.

 

[1] We need a ton more research on these museums’ early years, which I’m working on. Jaume Sastre’s work on the New York Museum of Science and Industry that closed in the 1950s has been huge in getting  the ball rolling. See Sastre-Juan, Dr Jaume. “Pilgrimages to the Museums of the New Age.” Science Museum Group Journal 6, no. 06 (2016). https://doi.org/10.15180/160606.

[2] Victor Danilov, former head of the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago has written a lot about the development of science museums. See Danilov, Victor J. Science and Technology Centers. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1982.; The current name, Museum of Science, Boston, came later. See https://www.mos.org/history

[3] Carroll Pursell’s work has been most impactful, but these ideas are found in several histories of technology. I also remember living through the last years of the Cold War, when the importance of consumption was as strong as ever to American superiority. See Pursell, Carroll W. Technology in Postwar America : A History. New York: Columbia University Press, 2007.

[4] “Industry’s Softest Sell: Museum Exhibits.” Business Week, September 30, 1961.

[5] There are some interesting newspaper stories considering the exhibit online. See http://www.chicagotribune.com/entertainment/museums/ct-field-race-sculpture-column.html