Mandy the Shetland Pony and Stan the T-Rex are the true celebrities of Oxford University Museum of Natural History. They feature in any number of museum selfies. On one memorable afternoon, I saw Mandy the centre of attention to a wide range of visitors. Her mane was restyled, her tail braided; I saw her hugged, patted and her eyes adoringly gazed into. Since then one young visitor has offered me all his pocket money to buy her. I politely declined the generous offer. At the other end of the room I often witness Stan experiencing admiring best buddies poses, “air” toothbrushing and the classic “look he’s after me!” pose.
But it is not the familiar, but rather the unusual and unexpected which create off-balance moments when people show how they really feel and are completely open to learning something new. Object handling is a wonderful way for people to really engage with what a museum is about and make the most of exploring something really closely as they develop their understanding. Generally, this is enormously enjoyable too. We turned that expectation on its head this half term sharing some of nature’s more beastly secrets with the public.
The experience built a real rapport between mediators of the object and the audience around them who shared in the experience both personally by direct touch, smell and sight of the object but also and by observing the reaction and our response as educators to it. The whiff of Badger for example created a particularly extreme response much to the amusement and heightened caution of those who were waiting to get closer . . . some wonderful yucky expressions were observed! Especially from a young child who took a real deep inhale next to the badger and just about went cross-eyed!
All the specimens chosen for this half term object handling were beastly creatures chosen for their repulsive lifestyles or features. The important thing was to get across that what might seem grotesque or grisly to us made them perfectly adapted for the environments in which they live. So the badger uses its stink to mark its way around underground.
The adaptation clue threw a spanner in the works though, as our badger is a bit special, being albino. I asked our visitors reasons why he might be that colour. Several said, reasonably enough, this was because he was an arctic animal and camouflaged for that environment. It was great to encourage that kind of thinking, but also to open minds to the idea that sometimes there maybe other reasons for the colouring and other clues that help us to identify a type of animal and where it lives: such as claws perfectly designed for digging and a memorable whiff for way-marking routes underground. I was able to share with them how an arctic animal is different to an albino animal in that the albino has no iris eye colour which accounts for the pink eyes.
One child was very definitely ONLY interested in Dinosaurs, so I showed him the coprolite – without letting him in on what it was beyond being connected with dinosaurs . . . from the clues I gave he figured out it was a dinosaur poo – “But why on earth would anyone want to polish a poo!?” He was disgusted and appalled!
I love a strong reaction. These open the way for a really engaged discussion. We talked about what we could learn about what a dinosaur had for his dinner from a coprolite and why some scientists are really interested in that. He made a close inspection with his magnifying glass and pronounced it to be a herbivore. Not only was he correct, but I also persuaded him that other disgusting animals were useful too – dung beetles might not be as big as a T-Rex, but so important for the planet and he had some great reasoning as to why.
Several children thought the rabbit was adorable and enjoyed stroking her so I became hesitant to tell them the rabbit’s revolting secret. But children can’t resist a secret can they? “Tell us!!” So I did – the rabbit is a coprophage – it eats its’ own poo! The affectionate children pause in stroking the bunny or pull their hand away momentarily. But why would it do that?
We get past the revulsion and talk about the good scientific reasons for disgusting behaviour in nature. As we talk about how this helps the rabbit to get nutrition quickly and in a way that means it can stay small and fast. A cow eats grass too – but it breaks it down by having multiple stomachs to process the nutrients out of the grass – the rabbit’s solution is to put it through the same stomach twice.
Not everyone is disgusted by the same things. A nine year old child is completely focused on the tray of beetles and as we discuss the dung beetle’s diet and the fact he is looking at their skeletons he looks up with delight where others would be repulsed. “Its an Exoskeleton!” he volunteers. And there is no hint of revulsion at all just purest fascination. “That’s great – how do you know?” I ask him – “Oh we did that when we visited last week,” he tells me, airily. “Did you come with your school?” “Yes” he says, patiently. Its important to respect scientific enquiry at any age so my brain starts whirring with how to develop his interest.
Last week, eh? I sat in on one of those lessons and watched Chris Jarvis do a double-act with a human skeleton, ably supported by other skeletons in the crew in order to teach children from real examples. I know it is reasonable to expect this child will very probably know the answer to my next question – and one which is directly relevant to the next specimen: a rabbit. If he doesn’t, we can figure it out together.
“What kind of skeleton does this rabbit have?” “Oh . . . I know this . . . an . . . Endoskeleton!” Big smile. I can see he feels really proud to recall this. “Perfect answer! Well done - that’s pretty impressive but what kind of skeleton does this Octopus have?”
I know I am pushing it, and he’s frowning because its not easy to remember hydrostatic skeleton, but he hears someone close by murmur “They don’t have skeletons . . . do they?” and that’s when triumphant he says “They have the squishy bag kind!” Perfect! “That’s right or the fancy word is “Hydrostatic skeleton”. Little murmurs behind show that everyone is really impressed. And once we agree he is a scientist with excellent recall he is ready to learn more – such as why the rabbit is revolting and how the Octopus is a jet propelled predator. Our exchange is being observed by several other children and it encourages them to ask their own questions too.
Letting people set their own agenda for learning through unique experiences is what makes museum so unique. These are experiences that they would never encounter outside a museum. That’s the key to why I am here on the Skills for the Future traineeship too – because once you get a taste for museum learning you crave more. I don’t know about you, but I’m hooked.