Carnegie Museum of Natural History

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    Pitt + CI57: Inside the Carnegie International, 57th edition, 2018

    Authors: Erin Peters (Joint Lecturer and Assistant Curator, HAA) and Liz Park (Associate Curator, Carnegie Int’l)

    We are thrilled to announce an immersive course designed to bring students inside the Carnegie Museum of Art to learn first-hand about its highly anticipated exhibition – the 57th edition of the Carnegie International. The course develops from a multi-year collaboration of Pitt’s museum studies faculty and the International’s curatorial team. Erin Peters, Joint Lecturer and Assistant Curator, HAA, and Liz Park, Associate Curator, Carnegie Int’l, will develop and co-teach the course over the fall 2018 and spring 2019 semesters as an iteration of HAA 1021: Inside the Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh.

    A major international survey of contemporary art, the upcoming Carnegie International will run from October 2018 through March 2019. Nearly spanning the academic year, the exhibition provides an ideal case study of current museum and curatorial practices. Our two-semester course will introduce general museum studies topics as well as focus on the multi-layered process of curating and interpreting a contemporary art exhibition through the International. The exhibition itself will be the classroom and the textbook for the course – students will engage different topics each week on the floor in the galleries. Our sessions will involve in-depth discussions of the artworks and their settings with guest speakers. The weekly topic will be determined by the exhibition and the featured artworks.

    We are particularly excited about the participatory feature of the course that has the students conducting group field research in the museum, interacting with the visitors in a reciprocal learning process designed to augment the experience of both the students and audiences. In addition to other course assignments, field journals will chart our progress by chronicling the students’ weekly research shifts in the galleries and changes in their understanding over the span of the course. In order to attain a fuller understanding of the International as a curatorial project, the students will be encouraged to attend related programs leading up to and throughout the run of the exhibition.

    To learn about what is already under way for the 57th edition of the Carnegie International, visit the website here

    Categories: 
    • Faculty Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
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    Toward a Critical yet Empathetic Eye for Exhibition Design in the Anthropocene

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Late October, Alex Taylor and Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh gave me the opportunity to attend a conference concerning exhibition in the Anthropocene at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. This opportunity enabled me to sit in on talks and discussions on exhibiting climate change, postnatural histories, and geologic time scales in contemporary ways. The University of Pittsburgh’s Colleen O'Reilly and Aisling Quigley's historical and digital work on Botany Hall in the museum and Richard Pell's keynote, The Missing Museum: Excavating Wonder and Curiosity, are exemplars in illuminating hidden histories through digital supplements and attention to provenance. 

    O'Reilly and Quigley presented their work on historically and digitally preserving and interpreting the pedagogical and artistic integrity of the museum’s Botany Hall. They illustrated the history of the dioramas as well as their provenance. Making a point to complicate that history, they discussed how the dioramas in their current state still argue for the dominion of man over nature. Reframing this modernist fallacy under the current conditions of the Anthropocene, O'Reilly and Quigley argue for the forefronting of prerequisite historical interpretation. They interrogated the assertion in the previous panel, that "dioramas are useful teaching tools," and maintained that objects in themselves, even with the aid of wall and brochure information, do not provide their own interpretation. Rather, as demonstrated in the preceding panel concerning the visually stimulating and interactive exhibits a the Natural History Museum of Utah, supporters of geologic, botanical, or biological knowledge must supplement the material in a historically oriented way. Within these questions of visual and historical representation, they offer a compromise: Botany Hall: Dioramas in Context is a work in progress that offers entrances to disciplinary knowledge in a pedagogical capacity. This compromise was echoed by audience members afterward, proposing the possibilities of social media, audio-visual, and Virtual Reality supplements to exhibition design. You can read more about their Botany Hall project here.

    Rich Pell's keynote began with complicating the seemingly evergreen dichotomy between natural and culture. He positioned his Center for Postnatural History as an intervention in this divide, a descendant of the first museum in the United States, Peale’s Museum in Baltimore,  Maryland. Peale's museum was dedicated to science, art, nature, and technology, a mission expressing the unity of cultural industries in the early history of the United States. “Sincere science,” as it were, put on display: conundrums, wonderful and curious things in the arts and natural world, wild and domesticated animals, and the awesome like. The postnatural, as an approach to the natural and unnatural world, posits that biological life has been intentionally and heritably altered by humans. The postnatural stems from this exhibition lineage and provides the foundation for the Center. His exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History debuted at the conference: We are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene, is a manifestation of innovative exhibition design and historical positioning.

    With the postnatural as the un/natural force behind his thinking, he argued that the Anthropocene is always in the background of our collections, that "we have always been collecting the Anthropocene.” He provided his artifact of the Common Grackle that was stoned to death by schoolchildren from a Pennsylvania school district. He forefronted this provenance of this artifact, a specimen intentionally altered by schoolchildren. Naming it an "ambassador of that moment," he pairs it with another artifact, a bald eagle shot to death during the Battle of Gettysburg. The bald eagle was witness to the Civil War, war being a notable arbiter of the Anthropocene. These artifacts are interlocutors between moments long passed and today. In his work at the Smithsonian, he uncovered and reconstructed a history of genetically modified organisms while documenting the people that brought specimens, recently killed by newly cleaned windows or quick-at-hand brooms, to the attention of the on-site collector. Security guards and secretaries then became arbiters of the museum’s displays of knowledge; they became wrapped up in the species’ and institutional history. It is in this ways that Pell validated provenance and attribution as critical historical markers in exhibit display in the Anthropocene.

    Pell defended his study and exhibition practice (though I do not think he had to!) when he said, “you might think what you’re looking at is boring,” that if you look closely enough something awe-inspiring happens. He invited us into the inspiring, frustrating, and wonderful dignity of “boring” research. Though he admitted that the spectacle will often supersede sincerity, an indebtedness to sincere inquiry will preserve the integrity of knowledge and the integrity of sincere exhibition practices. Same with O’Reilly and Quigley: updating our exhibition methods continuously within the shifting conditions of the Anthropocene will maintain the integrity of these spaces as mediators of systems of knowledge, especially today when those systems are under increased scrutiny, questioning, and in some cases, attack. These stories take intention and effort to unfold, as Pell states in Land, Animal, and Nonanimal (K Verlag 2015). I would like to add to the discussion that though a historically critical eye will help viewing these deceivingly complicated objects, I argue that intentional, tender attention to these objects—and an understanding that artifacts are not as simple as they appear—will engender a empathetic yet critically thinking audience, newly motivated to preserve the life and lives on this planet.

     

    Thanks to Colleen O'Reilly, Aisling Quigley, Deborah Danuser, and Rich Pell for the winding conversations supporting many of these observations.

     

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

    Image of the Carnegie Funerary Boat within the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt

     

    To Survey or not To Survey: Conducting Audience Evaluations

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Fall 2017

    A survey is just a piece of paper or an online questionnaire that takes a couple minutes of your time; a completely insignificant portion of a lifetime. Who knew that the small piece of paper, or the few seemingly simple questions could hold so much weight in the world of museum curation.

    This semester I had the privilege of interning with Dr. Erin Peters, the Assistant Curator of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, in the development stages of the new Egyptian exhibit Egypt on the Nile. I was tasked with creating and carrying out formative audience evaluations; gathering feedback from the Walton Hall of Ancient Egypt visitors on the plans and ideas for the future exhibit. Before my time on the museum floor, I began by reading articles and past evaluations to gain an understanding of the methodologies and importance of the audience evaluation. Although the curators and the museum staff have the final word in an exhibition, audience feedback will feed into the creation of the exhibit; after all, the exhibit is for the visitors.

    As they were in the later stages of the evaluations, the survey I created had to be more specific to the designs of the new exhibit. I was focused digital display for the Carnegie Funerary Boat, specifically its auditory segment. This resulted in a multi-style question survey about the possible interactive ideas for the boats installment. In addition to the survey, I used visual aids to give the visitors a clue as to how the exhibit will come together, and to illustrate the new themes and digital additions to the current objects on display. This resulted in approximately one-hundred and five total responses. I will be concluding my internship by compiling all the responses and analysis into a final report that will be used in to next stages of exhibit development.

    Due to the large number of responses in a short amount of time, the significance of visitor feedback becomes more apparent. While compiling the results you begin to realize how a collective audience feels about a museum experience; what kinds of displays attract the most people, how lines affect a museum experience, whether visitors are willing to stop and read labels, and what they are hoping to learn when they enter a museum space. This survey will help dictate the use of hand-sets versus overhead projection of sound, how the boat segments are displayed, whether or not they utilize both auditory and visual displays, and even what themes and concepts are focused on within the exhibit as a whole. As a past visitor I never really get a chance to see the impact I made on the exhibit just by visiting, but working behind the scenes I got the chance to experience first hand not only how important the visitors are, but how stopping to fill out a few quick questions can shape future museum experiences.

    Overall, this internship provided me with a greater appreciation and understanding for the work and effort needed to create an accessible and effective exhibit, as well as the skills and the drive to continue working on curatorial projects in the future.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

  • We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene

    This is the facade that greets visitors at the start of the newest exhibition at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene

     

    We ARE Nature

    Museum Studies Intern at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Fall 2017

    Not to sound dramatic, but this semester I was a part of history being made here in Pittsburgh. The Carnegie Museum of Natural History was the host of the 2017 ICOM NATHIST Conference, facilitated by a partnership of the museum and the International Council of Museums and Collections of Natural History and focused on the newest addition to the winding exhibition halls.

    The exhibit is on the Anthropocene, a new geological age now being discussed in the scientific community, marking the impact humans (and human activity) have had on the earth. We Are Nature: Living in the Anthropocene is the first exhibit of its kind in all of North America. Described as “unflinching”, it is an incredible, in-depth reflection of how we have impacted the environment in a myriad of ways.

    While the museum bustled with regular programming and preparation for the conference, I was aiding the marketing department to keep the usual public engagement accounts running, like Instagram, Facebook and the Tumblr blog. Across accounts, it was my job to generate content that was, to borrow a word, symbiotic with the events and related programming to not only the conference, but the centerpiece itself, We Are Nature. From planting vertical gardens to beginning a backyard compost, the readers of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog are armed with information to retrace their steps back to nature and continue to make Pittsburgh a greener city.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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

    Waiting for people to come and take the survey.

     

    Egypt on the Nile: The New Life of The Carnegie Boat

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Fall 2017

    Finally, working in Walton Hall in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, my childhood dream has come true! I would be administering audience evaluations during my curatorial internship.  As I asked people to participate in my survey about the funerary boat I heard many interesting stories. Explaining the new ideas being proposed to show the boat in a different light really excited the people I was talking with, which in turn excited me even more about the exhibit. Talking about the boat’s 'lives' for the new exhibit is already bringing a new life into this forgotten treasure. 

    Walton Hall is on the third floor of the museum. Across the hall is the Alcoa Hall of American Indians. Walton Hall is a hidden gem, hiding on the 3rd floor. When you walk in you are immersed into the ancient world. Immediately to your right is the Carnegie Boat. Making your way through the exhibit you see objects from the reign of Senwosret III to the mysterious reign of Akhenaten, and further on. Of course, we have examples one of the most popular type of objects of any Egyptian exhibit, mummies! There are cat mummies, mummies that were sold under false pretenses, an actual ancient burial and of course some beautiful sarcophagi finish out the mummy area. A number of people told me about how much they loved the diorama of the temple craftsmen. I have to admit, I love them too. It is great to see a recreation of life in action.

    Dr. Erin Peters and her team are planning a digital interpretation of the boat that will showcase its various lives. The lives of the boat would start from the cedars of Lebanon spanning until present times. The idea is to show the importance of the boat and what it meant to the ancient Egyptians that were building it and the use for it in their afterlife. The first five of these lives are proposed to be a more visual aspect of the boat, the last five are proposed to be auditory. Showing the lumber being cut and shipped, the building process, the idea of the use for it the real world, the use in the spiritual world and finally the rediscovery of the boat. I asked visitors how they would enjoy seeing these lives in a visual way, what lives they liked the best out of those five and which if any they felt like might not need to be there. I also asked participants which ways they learned the best (by watching, listening, or physically interacting.) Watching and interacting have been the top responses. Overall my goal was to see how people would react to the idea of a new exhibit that includes digital technology and hands-on interaction. I am pleased to say that people have found this concept very pleasing. They are excited to see the exhibit updated, they are excited to learn more about Ancient Egypt as a topic as whole, and they are excited to be able to get a better grasp of the boat even if it is still behind the glass.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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

    Shopping for furniture at Construction Junction for the Human Diorama in the new exhibition: We are Nature

     

    A Whale of a Tale: Archiving and Exhibition Design at The Carnegie Museum of Natural History

    Author: Eliza Wick

    Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Summer 2017

    I came into my fellowship at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History with certain preconceptions. Namely, I had a preference and more experience with museums that may be more traditional, such as the Carnegie Museum of Art. But I was eager to see how a natural history museum differed from what I was used to. I also expected that I would be making decisions each day that would be effecting changes in the museum in a more direct way as well as contributing to the formation of future exhibits, however I quickly learned that that was a bit of a naïve and idealistic view of how a museum works. My work as an intern, while important, was more of an archival project in backtracking, documentation and organization of historical material and how that information related to current halls and future exhibitions.

    One thing that I quickly became aware of is how almost every museum has to operate from a perspective that is often overlooked: the museum as a financial entity. Despite being a non-profit, a museum still has to make enough money to do things like upkeep of permanent halls, creation of temporary exhibits, borrowing of traveling exhibits, paying employees, graphic design projects, and much more. Due to the fact that revenue is only generated really from grants, admission, and generous donations, creation and innovation must be brought down to reality and altered to fit the limited funds that most non-profits must face.

    With this in mind, many ideas have to be struck down to fit the reality of budget and time more so than I had naively expected. I thought that ideas could be implemented quickly and without limits; however I learned that museums by nature take time to implement new projects, ideas, halls, etc. Work must be reviewed by many people and departments because museum work stresses the collaborative and group effort.

    I remember someone describing the design and implementation of exhibitions as being for the long haul. Essentially you are hoping your ideas and efforts will come later in five years or so, resonating with a museum-goer deeply concerned for our natural world. Through particular implementation and design that you curated hopefully helps visitors become more interested in science or better understand a concept.

    Additionally, something I had not considered all the way through is how much a natural history museum differs from a more traditional art museum. A natural history museum requires much more preparation and planning of exhibitions in most cases than an art museum. There are factors like specimen acquisition, preservation, and preparation as well as thought mapping of how you want to educate the scientific topic in space.

    Natural history museums also make the majority of their own props, stands, cases, and anything else that will be going into the physical space. All of these considerations as well as protection of specimens and of the visitors means that much more time and energy must be put into the final product than an art museum where the pieces stand alone. In a way, the exhibition department in a natural history museum is like an artist and educator because they get to design and create the majority of the pieces in the exhibit. 

    There is also the fact that many exhibitions require that permanent changes are made to the physical building and like new walls made, old walls taken down, blocked exits, new walking patterns, etc. that become more costly and laborious.

    Understanding the museum budget, raising money, and how finances and time affect production allowed me to better understand the history of the institution and made my archiving process much more informed and tailored to a museum as opposed to another entity.

    I treasured my fellowship, most of all, because it satisfied my personal fascination and admiration for archival research. I also cherished the fact that I personally got to make choices that affected the organization and logic of their exhibition department archival system.

    While archival research and organization may not seem like a pressing issue, this information is actually essential for knowledge about past exhibitions and renovations, current halls, and for the production and planning of future exhibitions. For example, there was a traveling exhibition in the mid-2000s about a whale. The exhibition required that a life-size whale be installed from the ceiling. This required some significant changes to the rooms walls, ceilings, and general layout.

    It may not seem like a major issue in the moment, but it means that any blueprint of the area that was dated prior to this alteration would be significantly off in its measurements. And, because it is a traveling show, the whale was only temporary, but the alterations were permanent. Therefore, an updated blueprint needed to be made to avoid confusion in the future. This became especially significant after the dissolution of the exhibitions department and the later revival of it because there were many old blueprints that had dimensions that did not match the current features of the space. Being off by even an inch in one’s measurement of a room can be tragic for the installation of a future show because items might not fit. Hopefully this serves as a very tangible reason as to why archival upkeep, intelligence, and research is so important.

    What can be done to help archival get more attention and communicate its importance?

    I believe that keeping the relationship open between our History of Art and Architecture Department at the University of Pittsburgh and the exhibitions department of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History would be the best way to help further develop and explore these archives as well as be mutually beneficial to both institutions. It would be valuable work if a future intern would use my archives and/or guides to conduct research on the institution or exhibits, further develop the archives, or document the current halls and exhibits on display now as a proactive project for the future of the archives. I would love to stay in touch with any future students that might encounter these archives or the wonderful group of staff that make up the exhibitions department.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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

    Scientists at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History offer their interpretations on the relationships and dynamics between people and museum collections. The scientists shown in the images are not the same people referenced in the text.

     

    Natural History, the Anthropocene, and Crisis

    Author: Mitchell Kiefer

    PhD student in Sociology

    During our Consuming Nature workshop, we discussed at various times the shift that the Anthropocene represents in our thinking. My own project is an analysis of the changing narratives within natural history museums, understanding the focus on ideas such as the Anthropocene as not only scientific statements about the world, but political and cultural arrangements. The emergent popularity of the Anthropocene – epitomized, perhaps, by its inclusion in a major institution such as Carnegie – suggests a particular understanding of the relationship between nature and culture. Just as ‘modernity’ may best be understood as a collective mindset of advancement rather than a realist description of social processes, the Anthropocene may be best understood as a collective understanding of nature-culture, reflective of unique and contingent social forces. What, though, are the social conditions that are reflected in this idea? This is too large a question to answer in a blog post. Instead of trying, I’ll suggest a few insights from specific examples of the Anthropocene in natural history museums.

    A crisis consciousness? If people only act in times of crisis, and the impacts of climate change are slow onset, the Anthropocene may represent a way of matching scale. By situating the pace of climate change in geologic eras, the changes look quite rapid, indeed, and may become more easily perceived as a looming crisis.

    Natural history museums such as Carnegie are institutions that wield cultural authority, and shape the ways people understand the natural world. Along with a new narrative of the Anthropocene, museums are also adopting new roles. One scientist with an administrative role at Carnegie told me the museum is now outward looking, drawing inspiration from the public and current social issues in shaping displays, exhibits, and programs. This represents a more general trend that speaks to the development of Anthropocene narratives. People in charge of these institutions recognize a relationship between people and science that may be new to major natural history museums. Another scientist with a similar administrative role suggested that Carnegie is acknowledging its role in delivering scientific information to the public in the context of people losing faith in and questioning science.

    To reconnect science and people, Carnegie is becoming more reflexive in how it displays and communicates information. The work of human scientists is proudly displayed, as is the work in constructing dioramas. More information is given on the processes of producing exhibits, and displays are incorporating more interaction between nature out there and people.

    What does this mean for communicating the Anthropocene and the possibility of a crisis consciousness? The new ways of displaying and the new content in displays does something different than suggest a new geologic era imposed by humans (though this, too, is suggested). What the Carnegie museum is doing is more reflective of the Anthropocene as a new way of understanding the relationship between nature and culture. Carnegie shows that yes, in fact, people have relationships with nature in ways that influence each other. Whether this change in narrative was born by some internal realization within scientific disciplines, a need for struggling museums to find funding, some other reason, or a combination of dynamics is a bigger question to be asked.

    I do want to suggest, though, that a narrative that re-connects people and nature, as well as people and science, seems to reflect the scientific community’s perceived need for people to 1) acknowledge the possibility and extent of human-induced ecological, geological, and biological changes, and 2) interpret that as crisis.  This is carried out in museums like Carnegie given the realization that museums can be more than holders of artifacts and drivers of scientific inquiry. They can direct public understandings, both scientific and cultural.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
    • Schenley Park Entrance 1922
    • Schenley Park and Forbes Field 1936
    • Maria Sibylla Merian, Der Raupen wunderbare Verwandelung und sonderbare Blumennahrung
    • Andrey Avinoff at Carnegie Museum of Art
    Schenley Park Entrance 1922

    Schenley Park Entrance, 1922, Pittsburgh City Photographer Collection, courtesy of the Archives Service Center, University of Pittsburgh

     

    Picturing Nature in Early 20th Century Oakland

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    In the context of the Consuming Nature workshop, sparked especially by our plans to visit the Hunt Botanical Institute, I was thinking a lot about how to situate CMNH’s Botany Hall and its dioramas in the social and cultural context of Oakland. I had learned from research conducted by Kate Madison and Emily Enterline, collaborators on our project, of the involvement of Rachel Hunt with Andrey Avinoff in the creation of the botanical dioramas. Hunt (wife of Roy Hunt of Alcoa) was president of the Garden Club of Allegheny County, which contributed the funds for the first diorama of wildflowers of Pennsylvania, completed in 1928. Press from the time noted that the Garden Club of Allegheny County had also contributed to the improvement of the entrance to Schenley Park, which was visible from the windows that used to be in Botany Hall.

    I also had learned from the research of Peter Clericuzio (Visiting Lecturer in Architectural Studies at Pitt) into the architecture of Forbes Field that early twentieth-century Oakland was positioned as a cultural center and soothing escape from the grime of the city. I therefore came into the workshop with the notion that the dioramas might belong in this context, in which picturesque views of nature, leisure, and cultural enrichment worked together. At the same time, I was aware that the philanthropic funding behind the institutional framework for this came from the very industry that was destroying the environment.

    At Hunt Botanical Institute, we were able to see Elizabeth Shoumatoff’s portrait of Rachel Hunt (with background painted by Avinoff), as well as examples of the kind of botanical illustrations that were Rachel Hunt’s passion: large, richly detailed portraits of individual plants that almost seem to pose for the viewer. Chuck Tancin also mentioned to us that at the insistence of Roy Hunt, the shelves in the library reading room are aluminum (but painted bronze so as to fit with the overall aesthetic), which is a poignant anecdote for thinking about the intersecting agencies at work behind Pittsburgh’s institutional investment in the culturally sophisticated appreciation of nature.

    At CMOA, Lulu Lippincott shared with us some of her expertise on Avinoff, and we viewed some of his artworks. As Lulu explained, these works can be understood as depictions of his philosophy about the links between art, science, the natural world, and spirituality. Even though Avinoff was known as an entomologist, it is clear to me now that Botany Hall was of special interest to him. In the context of Avinoff’s interests and Hunt’s patronage, the representational strategies of the botanical dioramas, which must be described as picturesque, theatrical, and somewhat political, as much as scientifically accurate, come into clearer focus. It is important to imagine the museum, and the philanthropic culture that shaped the space of Oakland, as both driven by a dream of a unified sphere of progress and idealism of all kinds, rather than the division between art and science that came to structure the institutions in the later twentieth century. This cultural space allowed the appreciation of nature to remain congruous with the glorification of industry.

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh
    • cleaning nile crocodile
    • cleaning polar world diorama
    • R2 vacuuming marine life diorama
    • Cleaned marine life diorama
    cleaning nile crocodile
     

    My Best Friend is a Vacuum: A Tribute to R2D2, the Faithful HEPA-Vac

    Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History - Spring 2017

    This semester, I was lucky enough to be an intern with Gretchen Anderson, the conservator at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I learned a lot. I cleaned a lot. And throughout all of this cleaning, I was always accompanied by R2-D2, the trusty HEPA vacuum. For most conservators, HEPA vacuums are the most efficient for the gentle cleaning of objects. For every diorama we were cleaning, R2-D2 was invariably by our side, waiting patiently to collect our dust.

    One of the first dioramas that I used R2-D2 on was the Nile Crocodiles in the Wildlife Halls. I never thought I would get up and personal with a Nile Crocodile and live to tell about it, but fortunately, these were dead. By wrapping a piece of vellux around R2-D2’s nozzle, we could gently suction away the dust and soot particles. This was a technique we used for most of the open-air dioramas.  

    During my internship, we also cleaned the Polar World exhibit. Bundled up in sweatshirts, we spent the week tidying up the various open-air dioramas in the exhibit. There was one minor issue, however; the artificial snow had trapped our number one enemy-dust-and was not relinquishing it without a fight. So we decided to vacuum up the snow and remove it completely, with plans to refresh the dioramas later. Shortly after we began vacuuming up the snow we realized that R2-D2 was getting clogged; poor R2 could not handle the dust and artificial snow together. So, we had to use a different bagless vacuum, one that happened to look like a jetpack. Each project had its own unique challenges, but the artificial snow was definitely one of the most testing obstructions we encountered to cleaning the dioramas.

    The most recent diorama I have been involved with is the Pennsylvania Marine Life diorama in Benedum Hall. For years, people have walked by and maybe some of them have noticed the fine layer of ocean silt that covered the exhibit. In reality, this fine layer of silt was actually the accumulation of about 30 years of dust. This was a diorama that Gretchen had been itching to get into since she first began working at the museum. After the glass was removed, we used brushes, air rockets, and of course, R2-D2, to clean the years of dust off of the objects. We also used facemasks to protect ourselves from breathing in the extremely small dust particles.

    These are just a couple of the projects I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in this semester. This internship has opened up the world of professional conservation to me, and I could not be for more thankful for my mentor, Gretchen, for giving me this opportunity. And also for R2, who always cleaned up my dust for me.  

    Learn more about the Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh initiative here

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    Botanical dioramas, collaborative research, digital space

    PhD Student in History of Art and Architecture

    Aisling and I continue to chip away at our Botany Hall project, and it seems high-time for a status update. Back in January, we held a colloquium in the History of Art and Architecture department to share our progress and experience with three undergraduate museum studies students, Leslie Rose, Eliza Wick, and Bridget Lynch, who worked on our project in the context of their academic internships last fall. They all posted here about the research projects that they designed and executed, which will be included in our digital exhibition, alongside the work of MLIS students Kate Madison and Emily Enterline. In the colloquium, we traced the development of our research questions, and the network of experts and archives that now form the foundation of our work. We got valuable feedback from HAA faculty and students, as well as from CMNH staff who joined us for the discussion. Our presentation from that day is attached here.

    This semester, we have continued to distill the key insights that we want to get across in our exhibition, and what tools we want to use at this stage in the process. We are pondering a digital tool that we could potentially use to create a first iteration of our exhibition, such as Wordpress or Tumblr, something that could be flexible as we add, edit, and test with users. We hope that a first iteration will help us determine the best structure for this online experience, which is one of the key questions for us this project. At the moment, we are creating content in the form of Word documents of text and images, and hand drawn maps of how the content will interconnect online. Our ultimate goal is to work with a web designer to create a customized, interactive, online experience, which will require grant funding, so at the moment whatever tools we use need to be extremely accessible and adaptable, and not get in the way of us trying to plan our digital curatorial argument. As far as our future visions go, however, we are inspired by the structure of things like this Oxford Museum exhibition about brains. It is both informative and manageable, both guided and open, and it makes digital space feel welcoming and flexible as opposed to limited and tricky.

    We are also very lucky to be participating in this year’s Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh workshop, Consuming Nature, which will mean visiting local collections and participating in discussions with a group of other Pitt scholars from a variety of fields who are interested in notions of landscape and relations between humans and nature. We are cooking up some other plans as well for applying to conferences and organizing workshops this coming summer and fall as ways to present the results of our research and continue investigating how Botany Hall works, and plan to have a first iteration of our exhibition available for online viewing in Fall 2017.

    Categories: 
    • Visual Knowledge
    • Dioramas in Context
    • Undergraduate Work
    • Graduate Work
    • Collecting Knowledge Pittsburgh

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