Museum Musing: Missed Moments

I went to Shedd Aquarium yesterday, but it was hardly my first time there.  Mostly I went to see the new Jellies exhibit, which was compact but done well.

Sea Nettle

I’m not a fan of jellyfish (I’ve been a victim of their sting!) but I do love to watch them.  I’m one of those people who would shriek and run away if you tried to get me to touch one on the non-stinging parts, or if I saw one in the water.  They are beautiful and interesting creatures, though…I just don’t want to interact with them unless there is a thick pane of glass between us both.

Being the aquarium geek-for-life that I am, I also stopped and looked at every single tank in the general galleries too.  As is my wont, I also had my ears open for any interesting dialogue between other aquarium visitors.  I’m an insufferable know-it-all when it comes to fish, and I WILL step in with a useful fact or a correction to someone’s ignorance at times.  I only do this because aquariums are my passion, and I think fish and other aquatic denizens are utterly fascinating, and love to educate people about just how amazing fish really are.  For instance, did you know that the Mexican blind cave tetra (Astyanax mexicanus) is born with functional eyes, but gradually loses them over time as they grow up in the dark caves and cenotes of Mexico?  This is because there are two varieties of this species – one that lives in caves, and one that doesn’t.  The one that lives in caves starts out just like the one that lives in a normal environment, but loses its eyes because it doesn’t use them.  But the two varieties – eyeless and normal – are the exact same species, and can interbreed.  Fascinating!

But you know what?  There is no sign at the Shedd, next to the tank of Blind Cave tetras, that even mentions this.  And that’s what I wanted to write about – how museums can miss out on easy opportunities to educate their visitors.  I love the Shedd a lot, but it frustrates me when I see how much empty sign/educational space is being wasted.  On each tank, there are two “flanks” of vertical signs, which are used only to identify the creatures within the tank.

For instance, this is a (blurry photo of a) sign about rockfish.
It wasn't a rock, it was a rockfish!

And this is a rockfish.
Rock fish glamour shot

Sometimes there are also some signs that run horizontally, which have general information about ecosystems (i.e. “Why we need to save the African Rift Lakes”) that are sometimes only tangentially related to the tank they are beneath.  The signage and educational focus seems to be better in the newer exhibits, such as the Amazon Rising tanks or the Wild Reef exhibit.  But they have practically squandered the signage in the general galleries (i.e. what you get to see if you only pay general admission).  On each of the vertical signs, there are perhaps 6 slots for identification cards – and most of the tanks on average only use up about 2-3 slots per sign – and there are two vertical signs per tank.  The rest of the slots are just left empty!  Empty!  I could (and already have) think of lots of interesting bits of information you could put in those empty sign slots.

To me, it’s an example of how museums – especially in this poor economy – need to find new and innovative ways to present/repackage the collections they already have.  Updating or creating signage is so much cheaper, simpler and easier than purchasing “more interesting” items for the collection – it’s about taking a Depression-era philosophy of getting the most use out of what you have.  Every item is interesting in some way, and every fish or painting or letter has a story to tell.  Being a good steward of the collection is more than just protecting it and keeping it well maintained – it’s about making sure that your visitors CARE about those objects enough to want to make a return visit, or write a good review on Yelp, or donate money, or volunteer, or in some way support your institution.

Whenever I visit the Shedd, I always feel bad for the less “sexy” fish, the alewives, the chubs, the darters, who are quickly passed over for the sexier “Nemos” and seahorses, and the brightly colored reef fish.  It’s like the Shedd has all but given up on making these dull-colored fish interesting, even though they ARE interesting because of their behavior, or eating habits, or the origin of their names.   In my opinion, it signifies a failure to adhere to the Shedd’s mission of teaching others about aquatic life, and creating a connection between visitors and the collection.  I have witnessed so much ignorance about both biology and fish among Shedd visitors – but I can hardly blame the visitors – I’ve seen them peering into the tanks, then looking at the minimally informative signs, and they end up looking more confused than ever before.   They come with so many questions, but they are presented with few answers.

Some days I feel like I want to be for aquariums what Neil De Grasse Tyson is to astronomy.

I have an unstoppable desire to educate others about the thing I am passionate about – and I want to get others as excited about aquariums, and biology (and science in general) as I am!  When I visit museums (and aquariums, and zoos) I am constantly thinking up new ways to make things better – how can this sign be (re)written, how could we rearrange this case to make it more visually interesting, what is the best story we can tell about this object?  It saddens me when I see wasted opportunities for education, for stimulating the imagination and  encouraging the scientific mind.  That is what is suggested by the empty signs at the Shedd, and at other museums I’ve visited.  Fill that space with knowledge, with questions and tell the story to the crowd!
Midas Cichlids

The virtue and vice of being a museum critic

The last week I was in Chicago, I met up with a friend visiting from my old hometown of Tulsa and took her to the Loyola Museum of Art (LUMA) and the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) because both were free that Tuesday.  Sadly, most of the MCA’s upper galleries were closed for installations, but the LUMA had all of its exhibits open.  The LUMA’s special exhibit was a textiles showcase titled “Stories in Cloth: The Threads of Daily Life”.  The exhibit made me think a lot about how I approach museums, exhibit design and how my experience as a conservator gives me a different perspective than most.  I want to preface this post by saying that I found the objects in both the special and the permanent exhibits to be fascinating and beautiful, and the LUMA to be a place worth visiting.

The first thing I noticed about the textiles exhibit is that the objects were displayed in a mixed group – that is to say that there would be 20th century objects displayed next to 18th century objects, or Persian objects next to Japanese objects.  Perhaps I was rushed and didn’t read all of the exhibit signage, but I found it difficult to follow the “story” of this exhibit.  From what I could tell, there wasn’t any particular grouping of the objects, not by time period, intended use, history or geographic origin.  Some of the objects didn’t even have labels, in particular some Japanese kimonos, and so I had no idea of their significance or age.


I should note here that I was also recently in the Loyola library and Information Commons, on their north campus by the lake, and noticed a mislabeled wall hanging in one of the stairwells.  The hangings were beautiful painted cloth, but had been incorrectly labeled as “batik”.  As someone who has studied batik (I even wrote a paper on it in college) and done batik, I felt a strong urge to send an email to someone over there to let them know of their mistake.  I settled for just sending a tweet to the library’s twitter account instead. I didn’t mean to hurt their feelings (though they assured me that the Information Commons does not have feelings) but I kinda know what I’m talking about.
Sun Batik


Anyway, as I moved through the gallery rooms, I came to the last room, which had an African dance costume in the corner.  The costume was a full-body suit that had been arranged to sit in a chair from the same region.  On the wall next to the costume was another garment, also of African origin, made of leather.  I’m no textile conservator (and I can barely sew on a button) but the mounting of this object concerned me.  The garment was basically a leather shirt, with a sewn-on leather belt on the front (like a long loop from the right to the left of the front side) from which hung several iron (or similarly heavy metal) objects.  I could tell the objects were heavy because of how they stretched the leather loop down, and I wondered about the stress that was putting on the stitches attaching the loop to the rest of the garment.  I would have preferred to seen this object mounted flat, lying down in a case.

As I was examining the leather garment, two museum staff approached the seated African costume figure and began fiddling with it.  The first woman seemed to be an administrative type, while the man might have been one of the exhibit preparators.  The woman was concerned about the figure’s hand (an empty cloth glove), which was pushed up into the sleeve and the man set about trying to coax it out of the sleeve.  He asked her if there had been kids in the galleries recently, and she said no, but that it was usually the older people who mess with the exhibits.  They noticed me watching, and the man kind of grinned and somewhat jokingly said that what he was doing was really delicate work.  I said, “I know….I’m a conservator!” To which he replied, “Well, maybe you should be doing this!” I laughed and told him that I only knew how to work on books and paper, not textiles.  He told me the figure was supposed to look like it was kind of relaxing, which it really did, the way it was sort of slumped back in the chair.

I eventually wandered off, but also realized that I wasn’t sure how I felt about the mount for the seated costume either.  It had a wooden head attached, and I couldn’t see any kind of support beyond the chair it was sitting in.  There wasn’t much said on the label about it’s use, or meaning.  The posture reminded me of being the last person left in a waiting room, tired and defeated after hours of waiting and reading 3-year old copies of Reader’s Digest.

My experience also reminded me of a conundrum I often find myself in – that of the exhibit critic.  I get fidgety when I see poorly designed or written signage, or when objects are mounted inconsiderately.  I have to press my fingernails into my palm when I see objects that fell off their mounts so long ago as to have dust on them (that museum will go unnamed, but it’s fairly close to my house in Chicago).  I get flustered when a label mentions that an object was used for a particular ceremony, but says nothing of the ceremony itself!  I feel sad for objects with no labels, their meaning lost and looked over in favor of the labeled object next to them.  Sometimes I tell myself that these criticisms should be forgiven, because the museum is staffed only by volunteers (well meaning, but uneducated about preservation or proper mounting), or that their printer lost some of the labels.

Or they can’t afford the extra paper to print everything in a bigger font, or that they don’t realize that some fonts should only ever be used for children’s birthday cards and never for museum labels.

Or that maybe their framer recently got kicked in the head by a horse and so everything looks kind of slanted to him.

But always, I feel twisted with conflict when I see something that I think would be an easy fix or that is truly damaging to an object.  I worry that whoever I talk to may think I’m deranged, or that I’m some sort of snob who doesn’t understand how little money or personnel they might have to work on their exhibits.  And I do realize that many museums don’t have a conservator, or even someone trained in preservation, on their staff.  I don’t want to come off as snarky, because I truly want to help and I love museums almost as much as I love informative and grammatically correct signs.  But sometimes I just don’t know how to start that conversation, or even who to talk to!  Does anyone else have this problem?

Scared from memory

Anthropodermic Bibliopegy at the Mütter Museum

Perhaps I’m revealing a bit too much about myself, but I have a lifelong fascination with the weird, the odd and the taboo.  Maybe it’s the anthropologist in me, maybe it’s the fact that I grew up reading books about sideshow people (Jo Jo the Dog Boy, anyone?) or maybe it’s just my scientist’s soul, curious about everything.  Either way, the Mütter Museum was one of those places that’s been on my bucket list for a looooong time and I was thrilled to finally make my pilgrimage there when I was in Philadelphia.  The Mütter was founded in 1858, a part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, with the goal to “advance the science of medicine and to thereby lessen human misery”.  The collection contains everything from human specimens to models to photographs and books.  At the Mütter you can find a skeleton of a foot, a wax model of a foot, a pickled foot and surgical implements for the treatment of feet and legs…all under the same roof!

My favorite part of the Mütter is probably the atmosphere of the place – this is no circus sideshow, but a hushed and reverent cabinet of curiosities.  It looks very similar to other 19th century museums of its day, with wooden cabinets with brass handles and glass panels that are a little bit distorted and wavy.  You have to nearly press your nose up against the glass to read the labels.  The downstairs floor is all old school, but the top floor is split between the older exhibit design and a couple of newer exhibits.

I found that there were a handful of items in the collection that were good examples of how photographs and pictures sometimes don’t really convey an idea as good as the real thing.  One of these was a case with two skeletons, side-by side – one was a modern woman, the other was a woman who had worn a tight corset all her life.  The difference between their rib cages was astonishing – there was very little room for the corseted woman’s ribs to expand, such that all the those fainting Victorian ladies suddenly make sense.

Another one of these exhibits was a plaster life-cast of Cheng and Eng, the original “Siamese twins”.  The plaster cast captured every wrinkle in their faces, and at life-size I could really imagine what it would have been like to meet them and shake their hands.  Their conjoined liver rests in a huge glass jar beneath the cast.

And then there were the human-skin books, which I didn’t realize were part of the museum’s collection until I was staring at them.  My first thought was that they were so small – most were octavo size quarter-style bindings and only one was a full leather binding.  The next thing I noticed is that the pores were really prominent, like on the back of my hand.  There was even one book that had been made with tattooed skin, but sadly the ink had faded over time and you wouldn’t know it except for the label.

Most of these anthropodermic bindings (and one wallet) were owned by surgeons, and several had notations that mentioned the source of the leather, giving a short bio and the name of the person and how they died.  The ethics of such bindings were understandably much different than how we understand them today – I do not think that most of the suppliers of the leather bequeathed themselves to their surgeons before they went under the knife.  However, I think it’s an interesting thought experiment to consider the ethics and issues surrounding these bindings, and those that have been brought up by the recent rash of “BodyWorlds” exhibitions of plastinated bodies.  I recently saw such an exhibition at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, and wasn’t very impressed.  For a so-called educational display of human anatomy, there was very little useful information presented beyond that which might be news to a 3rd grader.  I couldn’t help but keep noticing small details of the bodies, such as how all of them had obviously been lacking in decent dental hygiene during their lifetime.  These were not people who had had a comfortable life, it seemed.  And I was disturbed by their anonymity – who were these people? Why did they die and where did they live?  When their plastinated bodies finally disintegrated, what would happen to them?  Would they be buried or merely swept away into the trash and replaced with yet another body fresh from the preparation factory?

In contrast, I hardly found the human-skin bindings to be unsettling, particularly those with the annotations about the source of the leather.  The books seemed more respectful to the deceased, to name them in this object created with their flesh.  These were not objects that would have originally been on display as some kind of garish “edutainment”, but prestige objects to be handled with care by their private owners.  They were not mass-produced in a factory.

Perhaps it is unsettling to us, who live in a time that promises us average life expectancies of 70+ years, to see such a tangible reminder of our own mortality.  We want to bury death and fight it and remove any sign of aging from our faces.  We do not turn the bones of our dead.  We do not display or encourage the making of post-mortem photographs.  To contemplate holding in our hands something like a book bound in the skin of the dead seems anathema to our modern sensibilities, but I have to wonder if we shouldn’t consider what is lost when that becomes taboo.  What does it say about us, as a society, when we speak of anthropodermic bibliopegy in hushed and secretive voices, but herald the opening of a BodyWorlds exhibit on the front page of the newspaper?

Anyway, I’ve let myself ramble on yet again.  Long story short, I loved the Mütter Museum and would recommend it to anyone interested in the history of medicine or natural history collections.  Also, they have a GREAT gift shop – I came home with a conjoined gingerbreadman cookie cutter and some lavender soap that looks like the soap lady.