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!