by Patrick McShea
Every job has its awkward moments, even work aiding museum visitors in their interpretation of exhibits. One memorable situation in that realm involved a father explaining skeletal bear remains to his three grade-school-aged children.
The setting was Discovery Basecamp during a busy December weekend in 2012. The exhibition had been established just two months earlier as an experiment in providing museum visitors with opportunities to examine authentic objects from the Educator Loan Collection, the enormous cross-discipline teaching collection that is managed to serve the needs of classroom teachers and other educators. In a section of well-lighted, first floor rear exhibit space, three free-standing racks of wire shelves held two dozen colorful toolboxes containing a wide range of natural history materials for visitors to examine, and the tops of five adjacent tables displayed large sturdy objects for close, hands-on inspection.
I was spending the day welcoming visitors to the space, and training a work-study student from the University of Pittsburgh and another from Carnegie Mellon University to do the same. We aimed to assist visitors in retrieving and returning toolboxes, and whenever asked, to answer questions. Listening to visitor conversations during that time was an important way to evaluate the success of the ongoing experiment.
“Hey, let’s look at this,” I heard the father say as he gathered his children around a display table and picked-up one end of a yard-long, rope-linked strand of more than 20 large resin-coated vertebrae. “The tag says ‘bear,’ so let’s see if we can figure this out.” He stretched out the column on the tabletop, and moved both hands to its far end where an irregularly shaped shoebox-sized bone structure anchored the string. The structure, which was not identified on the simple paper tag, was the fused combination of the creature’s sacrum and hip bones, and the father’s unfamiliarity with mammal skeletal anatomy was immediately apparent. He mistook the bear’s butt-end for its skull, explaining to his children how the hip sockets were holes for the eyes, and that it was a shame the animal’s teeth were missing.
I didn’t correct him. Instead I explained to the work-study students that I’d be down in the loan program’s basement storage area for a few minutes. By the time I returned with a black bear skull, the attractions of the exhibition had pulled the family unit apart. All three children were engaged with toolboxes containing insect material, while their father was examining mineral samples on another table.
I approached him holding out the bear skull and saying simply, “Our lack of labels might have caused some confusion a little earlier.” He looked at the skull, glanced back at the table with the vertebrae column, and then, to my great relief, laughed and accepted the skull from me. He called his children back to the original table, and with the skull as a visual aid, offered them a two-minute remedial lesson. I stood as far away from the table as possible.
Patrick McShea works in the Education and Visitor Experience department of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. Museum employees are encouraged to blog about their unique experiences and knowledge gained from working at the museum.
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Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation InformationBlog author: McShea, Patrick
Publication date: March 28, 2022