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Nick Ginipro: A Summer at the Museum

Asking questions is hard, and in a museum where all the information is exclusively contained on plaques scattered around exhibits, it’s even harder. If someone wants to know more about the whales hanging from the ceiling, or about the dinosaurs towering above them, they have to remove themselves from the museum experience to look it up online. This is often why people find themselves wandering around museums as more of a passive viewer, often saying, “Oh that’s pretty cool”, but never fully understanding the nuances and the details behind what they are seeing. This summer, I had the chance to help address this issue by working with the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences as a floor programs intern.

If you’ve never been, the NC Museum of Natural Sciences has exhibits ranging from fossilized dinosaurs, geology, model ecosystems of all kinds, to live specimens like insects, fish, snakes, and they even have a sloth in its own conservatory full of living tropical plants and butterflies. It’s filled with information about North Carolina and the complex environments we find throughout the state, and how different things influence and shift them. And best of all, it’s completely free! The lack of an admission fee means that the museum and the science within it is more accessible to all groups of people, which means we could get visitors who might know nearly everything there is to know about each exhibit, or we could get visitors who are seeing some of the displays for the first time in their lives.

Demonstration my seed dispersal cart to guests

With this in mind, my job as a floor programs intern was to help interpret some of the exhibits, and also provide more hands-on, detailed demonstrations of scientific topics through cart presentations. These cart presentations were the bulk of my workload, and involved taking a subject (for example I developed a seed dispersal cart with another intern) and setting up a roughly five minute long presentation to cover the main points of the subject, as well as some fun facts that people may not be aware of.

A cart presentation is almost exactly what it sounds like; we have a few models or displays set up on a mobile cart that can be moved around the museum so that we hit as many guests as possible. For the most part, you find a good, high traffic area, like at the top of an escalator or in a popular exhibit, and you stay there for however long you want. If you feel like you aren’t getting enough visitors, you can pack things up and move somewhere new. The great thing about a cart is it allows people to get closer to the subject in a controlled environment. They don’t have to worry about damaging any complex displays or being too far away from an exhibit to get the full scope of something. They also allow for a more tactile experience, where people can pick up parts of the cart, turn them around and actually feel their weight, texture, and size, rather than just having to take a plaques word for it. Kids especially benefit from this because there is so little out there that they have experienced. The amount of times I had kids come up to our seed cart who had never seen the full husk of a coconut, or who didn’t know that the helicopter things they pick up off the ground in the fall were the seeds of trees like maples and tulip-poplar, really opened my eyes to the challenges of interpreting information to children, and it made me gain a lot of respect for educators as a whole. When someone learned how to walk and talk just a couple years ago, the language you use to communicate with them, and not just to them is extremely important.

This is where we get to asking questions. Finally, a visitor to the museum is interacting with a person, a real human being. Not a plastic plaque with words on it, not a prerecorded video of someone spewing information, but an actual person capable of answering whatever questions they may have, whether it be about the carts or an exhibit somewhere else in the museum. Those questions might be as simple as “Where’s the bathroom?”, or they could be as complex as “How many calories does a blue whale need to eat a day?” (around 20-50 million if you were wondering). This open format enables people to be comfortable being curious, it lets them ask the questions they would normally have to look up later, immediately. In my opinion, being curious is the easiest way to stay young there is, and nobody really wants to get old, do they? My goal as an intern was to create a conversation between me and the guests; I didn’t want to simply talk to them like I was giving a lecture, I wanted to promote their curiosity, make them feel like they were scientists even if it was just for a moment, and thanks to my supervisors and the museums support, I genuinely feel like I was able to accomplish my goal. If you have ever been interested in scientific interpretation, or even if you just remember how cool going to the museum was when you were a kid, I would strongly recommend looking into either volunteering or interning with the museum in some capacity, so you can help pass on your knowledge and passion for science to those who visit.