Thursday, May 14, 2009

Afternoon In The Museum

Big day yesterday! We finally got that backstage visit to the museum that Elder Son earned with his science visit to the beach a couple weeks back. Of course, it wasn't as easy as that. Oh, no.

First, the cello lesson. Natalie handled that, getting Elder Son to the high school by 0830 to meet his teacher. And of course, that got him back to his own school just after 0900, so essentially as soon as he went through the door he was rushed into the Statewide Testing programme. They've been doing it all week -- the standardizing tests that all schools go through to discover what sort of level everybody's at. Elder Son had the written English stuff on Tuesday, then the reading part on Wednesday, and yesterday was math -- or 'maff' as he pronounces it. Can't convince him yet to enunciate his 'th' properly. Gonna be some grief there sooner or later.

Smaller Son hung out with me and the Mau-Mau for the morning, but as soon as the primary school went to their morning break, we were down there collecting Elder Son. Then the Mau-Mau went off to visit her very best friend, three-year-old Miniblonde who lives at the nursery down the hill. Miniblonde's mum was prepared to keep the Mau-Mau for the afternoon, which was a tremendous relief.

We met with Dr Lisa Gershwin, the curator of Natural History at the Queen Vic Museum, just in time for lunch. I liked her instantly: she's a ball of energy with tremendous enthusiasm, quite a breadth of knowledge, and a delightfully open and encouraging attitude. If you google her up, you'll discover she knows waaayy too much about the most brutal and vicious of the jellyfish species -- but that hardly touches the surface of her interests.

Conversation with Lisa is entertaining as hell. The only problem is I've got too many questions to ask all at once!

The museum visit itself was really, really tremendous. Lisa sat the boys down and gave them a very clear, very careful explanation of the rules about touching things -- and then plunged us into the deep end. We met various of the collection managers, and the boys were shown what seemed to be an endless sequence of treasures. Drawer after drawer of specimens -- platypus, devil, thylacine (definitely 'no touching'!)... a drawer full of stuffed bats and bat skeletons that nearly sent Younger Son wild with excitement... another draw full of whale earbones, dense and heavy and stony but elegantly curved and curled like works of art. There was a tiger skull that Younger Son held, working the jaw and growling fiercely. There was a stuffed raccoon that excited Elder Son beyond belief. (Not sure why he was so excited by a raccoon, but he was.) Porcupines, hedgehogs, echidnas, possums, Opossums, bandicoots, quolls, birds, turtles, snakes --

The 'no touch' rules were carefully enforced for the delicate specimens -- which means, of course, the boys got hands-on with many, many different things. They stroked the fur of a stuffed koala, and compared it with a platypus and a wombat and a possum, and we discussed the whys and wherefores of habitats and furs and so forth. They exclaimed over the lightness of bird bones, and the heaviness of whale earbones, and admired dozens of different skulls.

Then we went down to the insect section, and if anything, they became even more excited. Butterflies, beetles, grasshoppers -- I think what really excited them was the fact that the things they were seeing were things they knew from home. They exclaimed over ladybird beetles, and weevils ("Look! We found one of those!") and dung beetles ("It's blue like the one we found!"), jumped up and down over praying mantises and and phasmatids, and even managed to be interested in the biting flies.

Now, you'd think after an hour and a half of that sort of thing, they'd be slowing down. But no: the collection manager for the minerals and fossils section got hold of them, and they vanished into one of the back rooms down under the museum while I stopped and chatted with Lisa. And what kind of adventures were they having? Well -- when I found them again, they were babbling delightedly about fossil dinosaur poo (they called it a 'coprolite', quite correctly) and about dinosaur gizzard stones, and all kinds of crystals and minerals and gemstones.... I interrupted them long enough to ask Tammy (the minerals collection manager) if the boys could try lifting a couple large samples of Cassiterite (tin ore) I'd spotted, to illustrate a discussion we'd been having about the concept of 'density'.

Tammy shrugged, and said she could think of something better to illustrate density. Then she opened yet another cupboard, and out came a couple of football sized iron meteorites!

That's about when I started getting jealous. I'd never handled a goddam meteorite! And despite my plaintive hints, I still haven't! The boys hogged them completely, and there wasn't enough room for me to slide around the open cupboard door and just grab the damned things away, so my meteorite-lust went completely unrequited. Bah!

The final revelation... well, I'm pretty sure I can't talk about it. Let's just say this: we were shown a fossil specimen which is genuinely on the absolute cutting edge of science. It's not even written up yet, but if and when it is, the thing is going to significantly alter our picture of early life on the planet. The boys thought it was 'cool'. Having a little more perspective and training, I thought it was fucking mind-blowing... so yes, by the end of our backstage pass tour, even I was reduced to a state of childlike excitement. Yahoo!

We made best speed for home afterwards, collected the Mau-Mau, and then I promptly started the whole fire-building, cooking, evening stuff routine. It was all going just fine until Natalie called to say she'd locked her keys in the surgery... sigh. So the kids got up from the dinner table (chicken, leek and chorizo risotto) and we bundled into the car (again) and scooted down to Scottsdale to the rescue. Then back home again... finish the dinner, bathtime for the kids, and finally, finally off to bed.

I'm completely delighted by the museum visit, and all the museum staff. Everybody we met was friendly, and they seemed really pleased to have a couple of small, enthusiastic boys (and one large, enthusiastic father) underfoot. There's something here that needs to be done, I can see. I know the various Field Naturalist clubs around Tas are ageing, and I know that birdwatching societies, etc are having trouble finding new, young people to come aboard. Yet I know my kids are excited as all hell by the natural world, and the science they can see and touch and be part of. Likewise, I know of other kids around here who are likely to be just as excited. And then there's the museum, with this massive pool of expertise and enthusiasm -- and no mechanism to really reach out to the kids in a way that brings them into the process.

Interactive displays are well and good, sure. But the chance to actually be part of the science of the museum? That's pure gold. So the boys are going to sign on as museum volunteers, and I'll make sure the proper forms go to various other parents around here, and then, time permitting, we'll start putting together small science and nature-based projects and excursions. These kids are smart. They can catch and label small specimens. They can definitely collect and press botanical samples. I already know they can spot fossils -- we've done that before. So... if we can get a bit of guidance and support from the museum (and they seem only too eager to be involved!) I don't see why we can't go a long way towards giving the kids a chance to get really hands-on at the most basic level of scientific fieldwork.

Jeez, I wish this kind of thing had come my way when I was eight!


  1. Apols for sounding pretentious - but as a biologist, and a dad, I can't begin to describe how awesome this is. Not sure how we go about availing this on a larger scale, or even if it's possible, but if we could, imagine the difference it'd make to have a genuinely science-literate generation coming through.

  2. Easy, why on earth wold you expect easy?

    Mate this sounds like a great day for the kids, how cool it would be for them?

    Only thing I got that comes close to this was searching for fossils in the al-Rub al Kali when I was 9. I just hope your kids appreciate this trip, also it may well open up avenues for them in future.

  3. So jealous!

    In a vaguely similar vein, we've arranged for a reptile bloke to come to my little bloke's birthday next month - he shows off and lets the kids handle lizards, snakes, and other assorted critters. Heck I'm even looking forward to it!

    And my folks have added to their menagerie with a Water Dragon my sister found...yes the little bloke loves visiting Nan and Pop's even more now!

  4. That is great. Engaging young enthusiasm and curiousity with the basics of scientific enquiry. There's so much potential with this sort of activity it becomes mindboggling where it could lead, if all kids who were interested were given such opportunities.
    Aside from that, its fun!

  5. Dr Yobbo: I'm not certain it's possible for anybody who calls themselves "Dr Yobbo" to be truly pretentious - aside from the fact that you don't sound pretentious at all.

    Thanks for the kind words, folks. I feel ever so slightly less embarrassed about being such an overgrown kid. I'll check in with Lisa, and see if I can say anything about that one particular fossil. I mean, I didn't get sworn to secrecy or anything. But I know they haven't written it up yet, and honestly... I'd hate to make it difficult for them to get proper credibility by saying something stoopid.

  6. Flint, I tend to always agree with you. For that reason, I must say this:

    You were SO FUCKING WRONG about "Star Trek!" Now, I know why fans screamed for Elvis, the Beatles, and/or Tom Jones. The same feeling was bottled inside me - watching "Star Trek." Yes!

    It's probably the only chance I'll have to disagree with you.


  7. "It's not even written up yet, but if and when it is, the thing is going to significantly alter our picture of early life on the planet."

    I've a minor in Anthropology and a minor in History. When this "secret" hits the journals, let me know. Have you ever thought about being a university instructor? You've a feel for it.


  8. You're gonna be a demon when you have grandkids and have even more of an excuse to regress to childhood!

  9. OH BEESO, can you imagine him as a GRANDAD!, Bloody hell. OH and do not be surprised at the Boys affliction for Raccoons..I LOVE THE BASTARDS, as him WHY. I'll bet its the face and tail, the mask and the mischievous nature and look. its so god dam alluring its not funny. We need, however, to migrate him towards explosives somehow, that fits the SCIENCE side of thing, Directed at Living organisms, that shall drag Doc in, and you my man, can for posterity, scribe his various machinations and expanding object exploits.

    OH, and we just got back ( thats me and the two boys )from Star trek), hmmm, starts well, plateaus, then finishes fairly well. Must say, I was kinda, just every so slightly disappointed, I did expect more explodie goodness, space age style, I will take their laser packs and whatever the fuck those missiles were, but, shit, I'm not sure, its STILL FUCKING MISSING Something.

  10. Just got back from trek too, pretty disappointed, not a patch on serenity

  11. Sounds like a Blast! I'm green with jealousy...Anabelle has been greatly enjoying her nature clubs at school. They've grown their own butterflies, frogs, preying mantis' and fish. The month of February was all about space and she couldn't get enough. This would have topped all of that...

  12. Still -- a nature club at school is pretty good. It's not like we've got one here. Thus the DIY approach!

    And Jane? Disagreement taken in the best possible spirit!

  13. Oh man, remember the old QLD museum? Drawers full of rocks you could actually slide out yourself, and the glass topped tables that you peeled the leather cover back on to reveal a gazillion butterflies and beetles and moths - a bucket of jewels it was - and the plane hanging between the mezzanines!

    My personal fave was a series of nine plaster casts of a fetus in utero. I used to go there on my way to ante natal appts at the RBH and burst into tears at the thought of what was going on inside me.

    And it was dark and dusty and echoey and BIG (or was it that I was just little?) and I used to get my parents to drop me there and leave me instead of going to the Ekka with the family. And it looked like a fucken christmas cake with all that post-colonial mad decoration. God I loved that museum.

    I hate the new one with equal passion. I hate that everything is over explained in the most banal and bland way, I hate the interactive touch screen shite and that there is no way you can get up close to anything in all its teeming variety any more.

    Brilliant! I haven't thought about that place for years. Thanks for digging that memory up for me. Cheers, FH.

    You realise you are practically immortal now - your boys will be telling that story to their grandchildren.

  14. So Very jealous.
    I would have sent the little buggers to the car to get my hands on the real live (hopefully not) meteorite.
    Aged about 5 The Bobettes defined a Museum as "Where they keep dead interesting animals" & a zoo as "Where they keep the live ones."

  15. Welcome to my world mr FH. I went to a workshop at the 'Big Object Store' of the Melbourne Museum recently and they have some truly amazing stuff there. Flying trams, anti-aircraft guns and some very weird vehicles.

    Sad to hear Ms Hughes' response to Queensland Museum - they have such an enormous array of material all out in storage, where no-one can access it.