Carnegie Museum of Natural History

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    Students Explore Museum Careers at Welcome Week

    Author: Alex J. Taylor 

    Assistant Professor and Academic Curator, Department of History of Art and Architecture

    As part DiscoverU Day, sponsored by the Career Center as a part of Welcome Week at the University of Pittsburgh, 20 first year students signed up to hear about the career opportunities to work in museums from a panel of staff from across the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh. This was the first year that the Carnegie Museums participated in the program. After lunch in the William Penn Union, students made their way to the Carnegie Museum boardroom to hear how employees from a range of departments made their way from undergraduate study to a museum career. Organized by Grace Anderson and Renee Thomas from the museum’s volunteer office, the students heard from staff across the Oakland museums including Juliana Carlino, Manager of Admissions; Matt Lamanna, Associate of Curator of Vertibrate Paeleoltology, CMNH; Natalie Larson-Potts, Associate Curator of Education, CMOA; Laura Zorch, Manager of Social Engagement, CMOA; and Pitt alumni Valerie Bundy, Education Program Manager, CMOA, and Mandi Lyon, Interim Program Manager for Schools and Groups, CMNH.

    Find out more about the other organizations and businesses participating in DiscoverU Day here

    Categories: 
    • Faculty Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Cross-referencing Reflections of Greatness with object labels

     

    Egypt on the Nile: Conceptualizing a Database

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Spring 2019

    As an anthropology major, I never expected to find myself sitting at a desk in the Paleontology Department of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH). It is rather curious that the offices of both the Anthropocene and Anthropology are housed alongside invertebrate and vertebrate paleontology, but the dynamics of these interdepartmental relationship seems to bolster, rather than hinder, academic and research pursuits. 

    During my time at my borrowed paleontology desk, I undertook a database project in which I compiled object data into an accessible and adaptable spreadsheet. This Excel spreadsheet was then data merged with InDesign to create usable object cover sheets for refining the Egyptian collection in preparation for the new Egypt on the Nile exhibition. The commencement of my internship with Joint Assistant Curator of Science and Research Dr. Erin Peters began in early January at the Egypt on the Nile: Advisory Team Meeting, a two-day National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) workshop. I had the privilege of networking with museum professionals both internal and external to the CMNH. 

    The scope of my database actually changed over the course of the semester, beginning with a much more comprehensive list that included more detailed object data. This endeavor proved to be too great of an effort to finish in its entirety before the NEH submission deadline. Instead, Dr. Peters and I coordinated a scaled-down version of the spreadsheet with information most relevant to the immediate stage of exhibition planning.

    This change of course proved to be most significant in terms of personal development. I was struggling to conceptualize the scope of the project, and I felt despondent that the work I was doing was futile. I felt that I was recopying an already existing database, when in fact the database infrastructure for refining specific object data variables did not exist. Dr. Peters proved to be an invaluable resource throughout the semester. From disclosing the challenges of the museum profession to a naïve museum studies student to relating shared personal and professional life experiences, Dr. Peters not only revealed to me the realities of the museum profession, but she also reinvigorated my interest and passion in my internship project and my museum studies program. Although my acquaintance with Dr. Peters has been brief, I feel that I have learned invaluable lessons from my internship with her.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Dinosaurs, Dead Fish, and a Paleontologist Named Pop

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Spring 2019

    Millions of years have passed since the age of the dinosaur, but their reputation as some of the world’s fiercest and most awesome creatures lives on. Preserving and uncovering the legacy of these and other extinct life forms is the primary job of paleontologists as they pull back the shroud of time on these extraordinary species and the long-lost worlds they inhabited. In the Section of Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I was granted a hands-on opportunity to help preserve spectacular fossils and to further illuminate the history of scientific discovery.

    This semester, I worked under the supervision of Dr. Matthew Lamanna, Associate Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, and Linsly Church, Curatorial Assistant in Vertebrate Paleontology, with my work allocated into two main projects. The first involved scanning and transcribing decades-old curatorial documents, whereas the second entailed conducting conservation work on fossils. Although both tasks seemed straightforward at first, little did I know that, in the process of conducting them, I would delve into a captivating and sometimes bizarre world that included socks full of invertebrate fossils lost on a German mountainside and a 1940s scientist’s wife’s threat to cut off the cookie supply for the entirety of an expedition into the Montana badlands. These stories and many more come from my time spent in Vertebrate Paleontology.

    My first assignment was to scan, transcribe, and preserve archived correspondence dating from the 1930s to the early 1960s, a time when Vertebrate Paleontology at the Carnegie Museum was spearheaded by curator J. LeRoy (aka “Pop”) Kay. I would come to learn the significance of this period as I gradually read and transcribed hundreds of documents. Amazing stories would come from these documents, including the ones about “rocks” in socks and a cut in the cookie supply as mentioned before. Most importantly during the Pop Kay era, however, would be the renovation of the museum’s exhibition halls, making way for important expeditions and collections, such as the acquisition (in early 1941) of the original skeleton of the infamous dinosaur Tyrannosaurus rex ever discovered. 

    My second assignment taught me the valuable lesson of being able to adapt to constantly changing conditions. It began with the conservation of middle Eocene-aged (~50 million-year-old) fossil fishes from a paleontological site known as Monte Bolca in Italy. Under Church’s guidance, I learned how to clean, repair, and build storage mounts for fossils. What made the work interesting was that, although these fishes are tens of millions of years old, the job was never at a standstill. Over the course of my internship, I also learned about the materials used to make molds and casts of fossils, the difference between a genus and a species, and how to analyze bones recovered from the field in a laboratory environment. 

    As the semester came to a close, I began reflecting on my own connections to the legacy of dinosaurs. To paleontologists, evolutionary relationships, fascinating anatomy, and the geological history of dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures are what makes the study of these ancient beasts worthwhile. The endless stories from the Pop Kay era, the current Vertebrate Paleontology staff’s reminiscences of their equally tasking and rewarding expeditions, and a future career path are what dinosaurs have come to mean to me.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • William Mayer in the Anthropocene Living Room.

     

    Changing the Museum Experience Through the Anthropocene

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Spring 2019

    You probably have a certain expectation of what a natural history museum looks like. You would expect to see cases with filled with old dinosaur bones, taxidermic animals and dioramas. Perusing through museum exhibits of this nature, you might be surprised to come across a space full of couches and chairs, with books or news articles, in which to sit down and read. Not only that, but also a space dedicated to humans and nature in a largely modern context.

    The Anthropocene Living Room at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is such a space. A new addition to CMNH, the Living Room was designed to continue to communicate and engage visitors in information about the Anthropocene and reinterpret humanity as a working part of nature following the museum’s prior special exhibition on the topic, We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene. The Anthropocene is the current geological age in which we live, defined by the impact which humans have had on nature and the global environment, dealing with issues from climate change to nuclear fallout. This certainly feels like a new topic in a natural history museum, in addition to its non-traditional design. Over the course of my internship at CMNH under the advisement of Dr. Nicole Heller, Curator of the Anthropocene, I have been working to evaluate visitor interaction with and reception to this experimental new type of museum space.

    I have done a combination of survey work and observational data collection over the course of several weeks, and in my analysis, I have found positive results. Overwhelmingly, museum goers are interested in the Anthropocene. Around 70-80% of survey takers judged the Anthropocene as being relevant, both to natural history and to themselves personally, and they indicated that they are interested in learning more about it. Furthermore, visitors who have been in The Anthropocene Living Room or went to We Are Nature agreed even more so that the Anthropocene as a topic was personally relevant to them than the general populace of museumgoers. Not only that, but a sizable proportion of museum visitors is willing to, and even want to, spend time sitting down and reading books at the museum. Over half of those observed sat down in the couches or chairs in the space, and a third of all visitors engaged with reading material available to them.

    My experience working at the CMNH has been particularly enlightening for me. The Anthropocene Living Room and the Anthropocene at large provide a new perspective into the museum-visitor relationship and moving forward I hope that the work that I have done helps in developing an understanding of efficacy in the design of museum spaces.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Ethics and Policy in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Spring 2019

    When first learning about the Ethics Intern position, I was under the impression that I was going to spend a lot of time at my desk taking notes and observing in office meetings.  Instead, I was tasked with researching and compiling information from several sources for the new Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) Code of Ethics. My research consisted of reviewing other museums Ethics Codes, cross-referencing different international and national ethics guides, meeting with the CMNH Ethics committee, and meeting with other CMNH heads of departments that would be affected by the newly updated rules. By the end of the internship, I was to make several suggestions for updates and additions to the Ethics Code to the Director of the CMNH and the Ethics committee to take into consideration for the new CMNH Code of Ethics.

    In my meetings with several department heads, I learned a lot about how different rules and policies affect different departments. Before becoming an intern at the CMNH my experience with museums ethics and policy it was limited with a focus on art. In my meetings with other departments, I gained additional knowledge of policy and regulations and their impact on various studies. However, because of my role in this project, I was able to gain a deeper understanding of the overarching policies governing each. My understanding of “Ethical” correctly shifted beyond the decision of displaying an object to include other aspects. Such as the logistics of receiving an object, conservation, public engagement, inclusivity, and professional conduct. The best part of my learning experience was my meetings with other museum professionals and hearing their take on different aspects of the Ethics policy, and I was able to learn from their different field affected their views.

    I did learn a lot about the policy aspect of the museum, during my time as an intern. I also learned more about professionalism in museums and the inner workings of departments in a Natural History museum. As I move forward in my career, I will be looking back on this experience as something that allowed me to learn and grow as a worker and have a more complete understanding of policies and the inner workings of museums as a whole.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Eli Savage contributing to The Evolution of Sex and Gender lecture at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History

     

    The Evolution of Sex and Gender: Chase Mendenhall on the power of diversity

    Author: Eli Savage

    Undergraduate student and CMNH content contributor

    Chase Mendenhall’s talk on March 7 in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) provided a broad and informative overview of the biological basis for sex and gender diversity. Mendenhall began at the cellular level, detailing how some bacteria extend fibers to one another that serve to transmit information that helps to promote each bacterium’s continued survival. Though this may seem irrelevant to us as humans, leagues removed from our distant, unicellular predecessors, he explained how this is the most basic framework for why diversity is crucial for groups to thrive. He used children playing board games as a human example: if one child finds a new game to play, it is in the best interest of the group for that child to introduce the new game to the group, expanding everybody’s options for play and allowing each child to pick a game best suited to their skillset, maximizing the group’s efficiency and well-being.

    Mendenhall then explained that an organism’s sex, as defined in biology as a near-universal rule, comes down to whether its gametes are relatively large or small. That, he said, was it. Everything else we tend to associate with biological sex—ovaries, testes, penises, vaginas, pregnancy, breasts, etc.—varies wildly, and are viewed in contemporary biology as gendered characteristics rather than sex characteristics. Gender, while a difficult term to define in any concrete and all-encompassing way, can be defined as everything that is associated with or extrapolated from an organism’s sex, from its body parts to its role in a family to the way it does or should act. 

    To illustrate these principles, Mendenhall listed numerous cases of non-human animals that diverge from human ideas of “the norm” when it comes to gender and sexuality. One of these was the long-tailed manakin, a species of tropical bird in which males exhibit almost exclusively homosocial behavior—two males will pair up for life and spend years choreographing an elaborate, beautiful courtship dance to perform for a female during the brief annual mating season. An interesting mystery in this dynamic, though, is that only one of the two males does the vast majority of the mating, and no difference has yet been found between the roles. It is unclear what the other male gains from this arrangement, aside from one chance in a hundred to mate with a female, but their dance, a stunning and mesmerizing display, would not be possible with only one bird.

    Another example was the clownfish. Mendenhall joked that if Finding Nemo had been accurate to the actual behavior of the species, the film would have gone very differently. Clownfish, he explained, live in groups of many males and one egg-bearing female. If the female dies, the males have a solution: one among them changes sex and becomes the new female. This process is beneficial to the survival of the group, and it’s hardly unique to clownfish—many species of fish, amphibians, and other animals practice sex-switching.

    Mendenhall finished his talk by returning to humans, providing two anthropological cases of gender and sexual diversity being beneficial to groups. One being the bissu of the Bugis society in Indonesia, an inter-gender priestly class, and the other being Native American two-spirits, or individuals viewed as containing male and female spirits in one body. Stressing that diversity is a key feature, if not the key feature, of the survival and development of all life. It is not something to be feared or discouraged, but embraced as a natural continuation of how we got to where we are now.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Dinosaurs in Their Time - The exhibit that I worked on during my first several days as conservation intern

     

    Conservation: Preserving the Past for Future Generations

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Fall 2018

    For the last four months I have worked as a Conservation Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. During this time, I have been exposed to a wide range of practices common among natural history conservators that I can apply to my future career. While before the internship I maintained a keen interest in the field of conservation, working under head conservator Gretchen Anderson has given me a newfound appreciation of conservation work. I have learned that conservation encompasses a wide range of responsibilities and expects that the conservation team work closely with many other departments, including exhibits, collections, and curatorial.

    Over the course of the semester I had the opportunity to clean and preserve taxidermied specimens, package and send out loans, assist with scientific imaging, and create a housekeeping plan for the entirety of the museum of natural history. Interspersed between these hands-on activities were cross-departmental meetings, instructional readings, and even classes to further teach me about the science of conservation.

    The housekeeping plan was the most urgent and important task of the semester, requiring that I met with staff from each section of collections, maintenance, and facilities. All of these departments worked together to set a standard that would keep the museum clean and all collections safe. Without the dedicated work of a conservator, museum collections would not last nearly as long as is now allowed.

    I appreciate the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s willingness to teach and willingness to give true responsibility to their interns. I have learned more than I would have ever expected, and I am excited to one day establish myself in the conservation field.

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • Photograph of myself in front of a fossil diorama at the CMNH, a topic of discussion at a meeting.

     

    Ethics: How Museum Policies Are Made

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History—Fall 2018

    This semester I worked as the Ethics Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH). My experience opened my eyes to what goes into policy and decision making for a large institution. As an avid museum-goer my whole life, I never considered what goes into making exhibits and installations that the public gets to see. The work I completed over the course of this semester exposed me to the other side of museum work and gave me an appreciation for how museums function. 

    During my internship, I was responsible for researching Codes of Ethics from American Alliance of Museums accredited institutions and compiled all the information into recommendations for the CMNH’s Code of Ethics revision. This unique internship provided me with opportunities to grow as a researcher and allowed me to partake in meetings with various museum staff and faculty members. 

    During my internship, I had the opportunity to attend three meetings with senior museum staff. I met with the Director of the Museum, Director of Science and Research, and the Chairman of the Ethics committee, as well as two staff members who work in the collections department. My final meeting was with my mentor and the Chairman of the Ethics committee to present my findings. During these meetings, numerous museum issues and regulations were discussed, including whether or not fossils should be treated as minerals or human remains, and even how to display ivory in the animal dioramas. Through these conversations, I learned about the ethical considerations of curation and display in natural history museums. My internship experience gave me a new perspective as a museum-goer.  When I walk into museums now, I can no longer look at intricate animal dioramas or Native American artifacts passively. Now, I have an understanding of the ethical issues and procedures that go into displaying these objects.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Tim filming the Titanic... After Dark Promotional Video

     

    Titanic: Dinosaur Edition

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Fall 2018

    During my internship at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, I assisted Tim, the museum’s Videographer, with filming a promotional video for the event Titanic… After Dark. Tim had cleverly storyboarded a video similar to the movie Titanic’s trailer, including iconic scenes from the movie–but with Rose and Jack being played by dinosaurs. We filmed at various locations in the museum, starting at the long benches in the Alcoa Foundation Hall of American Indians. We used this area to recreate the iconic scene where Jack paints Rose wearing the “Heart of the Ocean” necklace. 

    From there we moved to the museum’s grand staircase to recreate the moment Jack goes to the first class club and sees Rose coming down the stairs. I helped to set up scenes, carry props, and assist the actors. I helped the actors adjust their dinosaur costumes, attaching the proper wigs and accessories to them for each scene. It was extremely difficult to get our “Heart of the Ocean” necklace to stay attached to the inflatable dinosaur costume, so I helped figure out the best way to keep it in place. I was even able to make suggestions for the best locations to recreate scenes from the movie.

    The museum frequently hosts After Dark event nights that have various themes, and are for visitors ages 21 and up. After Dark events occur at night from 6-10pm and are a unique experience where adults can visit the museum, as well as purchase cocktails. These nights spark a lot of public interest since they are a fun excuse for the attendees to dress up, see live music, fun demonstrations, and are centered around a unique theme. During my time working at CMNH, I assisted in creating social media content for the Zombies After Dark event, which was held in October 2018, as well as creating social media content for the Titanic… After Dark event in December of 2018.

    As a Museum Studies intern in the Marketing Department of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, it was my job to help promote special events and exhibitions and to respond to event inquiries on social media. My work was overseen by Kathleen Sallada, Erin Southerland, and Tim Evans. Throughout my time at the museum, I was assigned a variety of tasks in order to assist the department in any way possible, but my favorite assignment was assisting Tim film the Titanic… After Dark video. When the final video was released on Facebook, it received a lot of positive attention from the public. I enjoyed being a part of creating such a great social media advertisement and seeing all that goes into video production. 

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Academic Interns
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
  • View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh by William Wall featured at the Carnegie Museum of Art

     

    Studying the Anthropocene from Pittsburgh Landscapes.

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Fall 2018

    I discovered the history behind Pittsburgh’s great landscapes, most notably View of the Great Fire of Pittsburgh by William Wall featured in the Carnegie Museum of Art. Scanning through various documents of the website Historic Pittsburgh, I found one from the Pittsburgh Fire Department from the Great Fire of Pittsburgh in 1845. This fire destroyed a third of the city, but ended up propelling the city to what it is today. The document included the events leading up to the cause of the fire and the properties involved. Each building had a story behind it from the saving of the First Presbyterian Church to the saving of the city documents in the city’s bank vault as the rest of the building was demolished.

    During my time as a research assistant for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH) had myself dive deep into Pittsburgh’s environmental history. Albert Kollar, Collection Manager of Invertebrate Paleontology, originally wanted to extract information about Pittsburgh’s landscapes by using the paintings in the Carnegie Museum of Art. His original article made earlier this year is featured here. As he analyzed the painting’s visual content, he wanted someone to look into the historical evidence behind these paintings. This had myself sift through archives from the University of Pittsburgh and Historic Pittsburgh. 

    Finding the exact point of the fire and where it spread to, we confirmed that William Wall’s painting was fairly accurate in its depiction, even though it was done a year later. The weather in the painting was not accurate, but this was the time period where American paintings were to depict the United States’s beauty. We confirmed the weather by utilizing a list from the National Weather Service of how much monthly snowfall Pittsburgh gets from 1900 to now. This was originally to help with looking at issues regarding flood control, but it helped with the Great Fire as well.

    My experience as a research assistant for this project did help me with what I would like to do in the future. I found out that I am not a researcher, but rather someone who wants to use their creativity in order to provide a service to those around me. I am grateful for this experience to try new things before being pulled in one direction or another. Now, to the future!

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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