Recent Museum Visits: Nature versus the Unnatural

I recently visited two sites in the DC area: the Mount Rainier Nature Center and the National Museum of Unnatural History. Both use elements of a natural history museum on a small scale – one to depict real science, and one to imagine the make-believe.

Here is how the two compare:

Red-Eared Sliders at Mount Rainier Nature Center

Red-Eared Sliders at Mount Rainier Nature Center

Who and Why

Mount Rainier Nature Center is part of the Prince George’s County Department of Parks and Recreation, whose operates under the following mission statement:

In partnership with our citizens, the Department of Parks and Recreation provides comprehensive park and recreation programs, facilities, and services which respond to changing needs within our communities. We strive to preserve, enhance, and protect our open spaces to enrich the quality of life for present and future generations in a safe and secure environment.

NMUH is run by 826DC, a nonprofit “dedicated to supporting students ages 6-18 with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write.” The point of the storefront museum is not to present true scientific information, but to spark interest and imagination. It also serves as a gift shop that sells fun gift items like Future Mold (empty food storage containers) to raise money for the nonprofit.


MRNC is located within a mile walk of the West Hyattsville Metro station on the Green Line, though I’m not entirely sure about the walkability (are people really supposed to walk in that bike lane that is separated only by a white line from where the cars whiz by?). NMUH is about one block away from the Columbia Heights Metro station on the Yellow and Green Lines. Both are small spaces, and both are free to visit. MRNC is open 8:30-5 Tuesday through Saturday, and NMUH welcomes visitors from 12 to 6 every day.


I may have been an anomaly as an adult who visited each site alone. The activities available at each place imply that NMUH is geared toward older kids than MRNC. MRNC offered coloring stations, picture books, a large colorful rug, toys, and the classic Cat in the Hat movie playing on a TV, suggesting a preschool audience. At NMUH, whose mission is to help 6-through-18-year-olds with writing, the tongue-in-cheek displays and text that requires viewers to discern between real and pretend indicate an audience of older kids.


MRNC showcases live animals, including turtles, frogs, and insects. NMUH has a mascot, Alvarez, billed as the last living dinosaur – or perhaps an iguana who has lived its life in a DC residence before coming to its current home. NMUH also features taxidermy animals and tiny dioramas.


On MRNC’s grounds, visitors can see a butterfly garden and a rain garden, and a small courtyard. NMUH does not have outdoor space, but the room is adorned with some leafy plants.

National Museum of Unnatural History

National Museum of Unnatural History

Play Spaces

In addition to the indoor play areas at MRNC mentioned above, the site is also a recreation center with an outdoor playground, which was full of children and families on the warmish day I visited. Perhaps the biggest draw at NMUH is a cave in one corner, where visitors can hide and imagine.

Since It’s April…

I’ll mention that both sites have some Easter symbols: a live rabbit at MRNC, and so-called dinosaur eggs for sale at NMUH.

Happy Easter!

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Little Libraries and Little Museums, Revisited

Two years ago, I blogged about mini-parks and Little Free Libraries, and what these miniature versions of parks and libraries might imply for the possibility of miniature version of museums.

Little Free Library in Virginia

Little Free Library in Virginia

Since then, I have discovered that there are many Little Free Libraries in my area, and with the help of this handy map, I have set out to find them. If I’m going to a store or restaurant or museum with an LFL a few minutes’ walk away, I’ll take the time to go find and photograph it. They are just as cute in real life as in the photos. It’s equally interesting to open the tiny door and see what eclectic set of books is available.

Little Free Library in DC

Little Free Library in DC

Recently, I walked a few blocks from my apartment to an LFL, photographed it, and walked another few blocks in a different direction to the nearest branch of DC’s public library system, where I checked out a book. Why didn’t I just get a book from the LFL? The LFL didn’t have the specific book I needed, the one my book club is reading and which the public library was holding for me. LFLs are not so good when you need to find a certain book or research a particular subject, but if you just want to be surprised by a small and serendipitous set of choices, they are delightful and whimsical.

Little Free Library in Maryland

Little Free Library in Maryland

When I tried to imagine the same concept applied to museums, I envisioned similar little structures, filled with objects rather than books. A former toy developer in Virginia, Hans Fex, had a different idea: mini-museums consisting of tiny pieces of interesting specimens (like human brain and dirt from Dracula’s castle) encased in resin, which individuals can purchase and carry around in their pockets or display on their desks.

This project raises two main sets of questions for me:

  • Do these Mini-Museums truly boil down the essence of the museum to its tiniest form? Is it objects that ultimately make a museum, more so than place, context, interpretation, or visitors?
  • Why these particular 11, 22, or 33 objects? Do these dinosaur bone and moon rock pieces tap into some universal human interest, representing what is ultimately most profound and fascinating in this life? Would each person prefer their own unique set of artifact samples? Does this selection reflect any bias (for example, are these items the things Americans might find most interesting, while people from other cultures might choose a different set of objects?)?

I want to avoid the temptation to dismiss the Mini-Museum idea just because it’s different and untraditional. Or is it actually extremely traditional – hearkening back to the days when those who could afford it had their own personal cabinets of curiosities, with no curators or educators or conservators?

The Little Free Library and Mini-Museum concepts offer divergent takes on the idea of ownership. LFLs allow books to be shared indefinitely, with no owner – not the lender, not the borrower, not any library system supported by taxpayers. There is no one to whom the books ultimately have to be returned, though there’s a pay-it-forward ethos that encourages those who take a book to come back another time and leave a book.

Mini-museums, on the other hand, take mummy wrap, dinosaur egg, and meteorite and give paying customers a tiny chunk of each that they can call their own. To some extent, museum gift shops also allow visitors to take home a tiny bit of history or science or art, but the objects on display in exhibits for everyone to see are considered the main experience.

If you had your own mini-museum, what objects would you want it to include? And how do you think mini-museums fit into the larger museum world?

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Seven Recent Reads 2/23/14

  1. “what’s a museum attendant?” by a blogger named Alexandra at her Museum Attendants Diary blog. It appears to be the solitary (or only remaining) post from no later than 2010 about working in a museum in Moscow, but I only recently stumbled upon it. The writer gives a sardonic treatment to what has been my job in a few different museums. In my opinion, her most provocative statements are the following:
  • The less people touch artworks the better they become.
  • As an Attendant my biggest job is to produce shame in such occasions.
  • As this is a Modern Museum it hopes to nourish the “modern in all men” and truly believes that at the heart of the working-classes there is an aristocrat which Art in the museum-space awakens.
  • We represent a in-house big-brother that can be blamed for everything which has gone wrong. From the customers point of view we are the reason for their discomfort.
  • If you see a Attendant talking excitedly or gazing an artwork intensively you are seeing a bad worker.

As a museum visitor and/or a museum worker, do you see truth in these statements?

2. The book Mirror Mirror by Gregory Maguire. This reimagining of Snow White sets the story in early 16th-century Italy and casts Lucrezia Borgia and other members of her family as central characters. Lucrezia’s desire toward the end of the book to know everything is necessary to the plot, and it may fit historically with her patronage of arts and culture, but to me, it did not ring true after how she is portrayed for most of the book – bored, self-centered, incurious, and too busy feeling threatened by the rest of the world to be interested in understanding it.

3. “Revisiting the Borgias” by Elizabeth Merritt in the Center for the Future of Museums blog. Also on the subject of the infamous Borgias, this blog post asks whether museums can be democratic and inclusive even as they are funded by the top 1% in a society where the wealth gap is ever increasing. If the wealthiest people are funding museums, does this mean they are also shaping what museums say and do?

Corcoran Gallery of Art

Corcoran Gallery of Art

4. “The end of the Corcoran Gallery of Art” by Philip Kennicott in the Washington Post. The news of the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s downfall or reinvention (however you want to look at it) has been appearing on friends’ Facebook pages and letters to the editor of the Washington Post. Beholders differ on whether this development is good news or bad.

5. “Does a museum want your inherited clutter?” by Elspeth Kursh on This article was suggested to me when I crowdsourced a classmate’s question about donating objects from one’s personal collection to a museum. Kursh, who works with collections at Sewall-Belmont House, writes, “we can’t allow things into our permanent collections without a great deal of thought, discussion, and careful measurement of how much storage space and resources we have.”

6. “What NOT to Do with Kids in a Museum” by Hrag Vartanian on Hyperallergic. This article was first emailed to me by a friend who knows about my previous jobs as a visitor services representative or museum attendant (see #1) as well as a preschool teacher who took three-year-olds on museum field trips three times a week and worked hard to teach them “museum manners.” One primary tenet of museum manners, no matter your age, is that you do not touch objects unless you are explicitly invited to do so! Interestingly, the person who snapped the photo of the parents allowing the child to lie down on a sculpture experienced the following exchange: “I told the woman the the kids were using a $10mm art work as a toy, she told me I knew nothing abt kids. Obv she doesn’t either.” So much is wrong here. Knowing about kids and knowing about art are not mutually exclusive. Museums can be welcoming places for families, and families can be respectful museum visitors, but adults need to actively teach children museum manners in order for this whole thing to work.

7. “Bao Bao is the big ticket, but what about the salamander next door?” asks Natalie Jacewicz in the Washington Post. The writer challenges zoos to “transition their emphasis from conservation for the sake of human enjoyment to preservation for the sake of a species community.” This direction is one in which zoos need to keep moving, but to be fair, zoos have already come a long way since the days of putting animals in individual cages and making them perform tricks to entertain people. What do you think the zoo of the future will look like?

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Discover Colombia Through Its Art

Whenever a locality in the DC area produces many identical fiberglass or resin sculptures, commissions artists to use them as their canvases, and puts the finished works in public spaces throughout the area, I feel a strong compulsion to find and photograph them all.

Usually these public art phenomena relate to the area where the statues stand: turtles in College Park, for the University of Maryland’s mascot; airplanes in Crystal City, in honor of nearby Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport; fish and crabs in Baltimore, which has the Inner Harbor and the National Aquarium; raised hands in DC to advocate for full voting representation; pandas in DC commemorating Tai Shan.

A sculpture from Discover Colombia Through Its Heart in Dupont Circle in 2009

A sculpture from Discover Colombia Through Its Heart in Dupont Circle in 2009

In 2009, 47 heart sculptures came to DC, part of a branding campaign known as “Colombia Is Passion.” The art exhibit itself was called Discover Colombia Through Its Heart. This installation did not pay tribute to a local claim to fame like the public art exhibits mentioned above, but instead celebrated Colombia – one way in which the series of sculptures was unusual. Additionally, not every piece was a fiberglass three-dimensional art form. A few made the heart shape in more atypical materials; one piece in the series was a heart-shaped fully functional coffee shop.

The installation, with heart sculptures at Union Station, the Lincoln Memorial, and other places in the city, was fun to photograph. These hearts were full of color, portraying Colombia as a land of art, music, flowers, and coffee. For me, much of the enjoyment comes from going to different places and finding every piece in the series.

Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center

Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center

Last September, I visited the Inter-American Development Bank Cultural Center. In this small museum space, I viewed the exhibition The Marvelous Real: Colombia Through the Vision of its Artists. A video in the exhibit showed a heart shape being cut into a man’s chest – the exact shape of the heart sculptures on display in DC in 2009. The artist, Andrés Felipe Uribe Cárdenas, created this video as a critical response to the heart-as-Colombia’s-national-brand campaign. Uribe titled the video “Marca Nacional Registrada,” or “Country Trademark (National Brand),” and the imagery juxtaposes the campaign to promote Colombia internationally with the religious idea of the Sacred Heart.

The heart sculptures garnered controversy from others besides Uribe. Protesters characterized the campaign as propaganda that ignores violations of “human, labor and environmental rights in Colombia.” The sculptures were called advertising rather than works of art. Indeed, the hearts did not have the same feel as other public art installations I’ve seen, in which each sculpture is the unique creation of a different commissioned local artist.

Did the exhibit The Marvelous Real present the true heart of Colombia better than the fiberglass hearts? The exhibit showed the perspectives of 24 different artists, not a public relations campaign. Was the exhibit the ultimate artistic statement on Colombia? No. There isn’t one; no one exhibit or work of art can be. And the IDB is not without its own controversy.

Between these two exhibits, we see a heart made of coffee and a heart made of blood. Hearts are ubiquitous right now, especially hearts made of paper or candy. Whatever is in your heart right now, happy Valentine’s Day weekend!

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Throwback Thursday: Center for Wooden Boats and Gas Works Park

I am not much of a sports person. I did not watch the Super Bowl, and I was only vaguely aware of it until I realized that my team was playing.

How did the Seahawks become my team? In August and September 2008, I spent a long Labor Day weekend visiting a friend in Seattle. I was interested in volunteering while I was there; Diana did some research and learned we could sell programs at a Seahawks game at Qwest Stadium, with proceeds benefiting the American Heart Association.

Me and Diana, dancing in the halftime show at a Seahawks game in 2008. Photo likely by a fellow volunteer/performer

Me and Diana, dancing in the halftime show at a Seahawks game in 2008. Photo likely by a fellow volunteer/performer

We signed up for this volunteer opportunity. We were told to wear blue and green to show team spirit, and that all the volunteers would get a couple perks – the opportunity to watch the second half of the game for free, and a chance to run onto the field during the halftime show and participate in the performance by dancing to a band covering “Tears of a Clown.”

And so it came to pass that I danced in a football game halftime show, even though I am not that into football, or dancing in front of an audience for that matter.

Looking back on that 2008 Seattle vacation reminds me of the components of a great trip for me: visiting museums and other attractions, catching up with friends, eating and drinking (I got chai at the first Starbucks!), looking for quirky things like pig sculptures, and volunteering.

Center for Wooden Boats

Center for Wooden Boats

In addition to selling Seahawks souvenirs for the American Heart Association, Diana and I spent time sightseeing. One museum we visited was the Center for Wooden Boats, which not only had a small building for exhibits along the water, but also offered boat rides on Lake Union to visitors (for free on the day of the week we visited). According to the museum’s website, “CWB envisions a future without barriers to enjoying our waterways.  We make it easy by making boats on the water accessible to all.” The free public sails that CWB continues to offer visitors certainly help make enjoyment of the water financially accessible.

Diana at Gas Works Park

Diana at Gas Works Park

Aboard the boat, we watched the scenery as we sailed by, including the famed Space Needle, as well as Gas Works Park. On another day, we actually set foot in Gas Works Park rather than just viewing it from a sailboat. Once a place where coal was converted to gas, it is now a park featuring some of the original structures, along with a play area for kids and a picnic shelter. Diana and I had endless fun taking photos in this unique environment.

One place we did not go was the Seattle Art Museum, which made a bet with the Denver Art Museum as Super Bowl Sunday approached, following a recent tradition in which a museum in the city of the losing Super Bowl team lends a work of art to a museum in the city of the winning team for three months. Seattle won, of course, and now gets to display “The Broncho Buster” by Frederic Remington as a symbol of its victory.

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In Defense of Museum Photography

This report made the museum-people-on-the-Internet rounds several weeks ago, and I am finally putting down my camera long enough to write a response. The study validates everyone who’s ever said that museum photography is a bad thing – not because the flash damages objects, or because of legal copyright issues – but because it is the antithesis of all aspects of the correct and proper way to experience museums. The prevailing explanation is that photographing an object gets in the way of actually engaging with the object.

The experiment found that visitors who photographed objects in a museum remembered less about the objects than visitors who were told only to observe the objects. These results would indeed be damning for museum photography – if the sole purpose of museums were to memorize what objects look like.

I don’t doubt the results, at least not based on my understanding of my own cognitive functioning. If I am not able to photograph something, and I know I’ll want to remember it later, of course I’ll observe it more closely – it’s my only chance to do so. But I would rather take a photo, because my memory is imperfect, and a picture is something I can closely observe again and again.

The study included some caveats; for example, visitors who zoomed in on parts of an object with the camera actually had enhanced memories of the objects. Maybe photography can be a way of interacting with museum displays after all?

As a very shutter-happy person, I take photos in any museum that will let me. I tend to take a lot of shots, for a lot of reasons:

Documentary/stock photos: These images just show what is there, what things look like. They are basic shots of buildings, exhibits, or objects. They make up my own stock of photos that I can use in my blog, since I never steal stock photos from the Internet and paste them here. The photos might be the ones people say look like postcards, which my photography professor used to say is an insult.

My family, being very obliging at Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

My family, being very obliging at Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum

Snapshots of people: These photos correspond with the facilitator museum identity. If I am visiting a museum with family or friends, I might take candid shots or, if I am feeling bold, ask them to pose. I take these photos for the social memories, just as I take pictures of people with their birthday cakes.

When I asked friends why they might take photographs in a museum, a few mentioned taking photos of family members. They wish to share the memories later, both with people who were part of the museum outing and people who couldn’t be there.

These photos of people in museums are often photos of people engaging with the museum in some way.  And some might end up being good photos of people, not mere snapshots.

Photos of things I want to remember or research later: These photos are usually images of text. Maybe the museum is crowded, or my companions are telling me to hurry up. Accordingly, I capture the wall text so I can read it later when I have more time. Or perhaps the text includes something fascinating that I’ll want to Google when I get home so I can learn even more. (I was, until very recently, smartphone-less, and while the smartphone is great for quickly looking something up, I prefer to be sitting at my computer for in-depth research). Or maybe I want the exact wording of the exhibit script, so I can quote it here.

Artsy Photos: These are the photos that make proud as a photographer – and of course, all the failed attempts. I am referring to images that don’t just show what (or who) is there, but which also involve my own creative contribution. They tend to be photos of parts, angles, light, shadows, reflections, juxtapositions. And they usually involve engaging with museum objects.


I’ll be the first to admit that, yes, I sometimes do use photography as a substitute for processing what’s in front of me. I might be thinking, I’m a bit distracted now (and/or I’ve already been reading and absorbing information here for an hour and my brain can’t hold much more), so I’ll take a picture that I can examine later.

But photography is also one of many tools visitors can use to learn more, not less. Visitors can learn by conversing, mentally evaluating, taking notes, sketching, playing the games and pushing the buttons in the exhibition, reading, listening, scanning the QR card, looking carefully… and photographing. Nina Simon has argued in favor of making museum photography policies “as open as possible,” and the recent #MuseumSelfie day encouraged people to photograph themselves with museum pieces.

Museum photography will not be for everyone, but a camera does not inherently contaminate the museum experience.

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Seven Recent Reads 1/21/14

  1. “Recent Research on Museum Worker Well-Being: Are Museum Professionals Happy?” by Paul Thistle on his Solving Task Saturation for Museum Workers ~ Help for fully loaded camels working in a rain of straws blog discusses research by Andrea Michelbach on full-time museum workers in Seattle. The survey found that the respondents were overall quite happy and fulfilled, but they struggle with simply not having enough time to do everything they are expected to do. On Twitter, a couple other museum people (including Michelbach) and I tossed around nuances that would be interesting for future study (full-time versus other worker classifications, government-run museums versus private, emerging professionals versus veterans in the field). I’ve also left some comments on the blog post itself. For now, I’ll segue into:
  2. “Smithsonian’s dinosaur hall to close April 28 for five-year renovation” by J. Freedom du Lac in the Washington Post.  To the detriment to children in their “magic years for dinosaur love,” the National Museum of Natural History’s Fossil Hall will close for renovation until 2019; visitors will meanwhile have access to a temporary exhibit on dinosaurs. Yes, five years is a long time; even fixing a Metro escalator takes less time. But given how time-deprived museum workers already are (see #1 above), the improvements probably can’t get done any faster with the resources currently available. And working with dinosaur bones is not something you want to rush: if you mess up, you can’t order or print extras.
  3. “Kelpies will encourage public art” by Tiffany Jenkins in the Scotsman discusses what should – and should not – be expected of public art. These works of art “have to say something meaningful about the place or the people where the work is situated, the work has to resonate with the public,” Jenkins writes. She continues, Many art works have attempted to do this literally and unimaginatively: such as fish sculptures or bird models in a seaside town.” I confess to liking Baltimore’s Fish Out of Water and Prince George’s County’s Birds-I-View, though honestly, I tend to like most statues and sculptures and murals that make one block different from the rest and keep the scenery interesting. This article probes more deeply into the purpose of public art.

    A Birds I View sculpture at Bladensburg Waterfront Park

    A Birds-I-View sculpture at Bladensburg Waterfront Park

  4.  “ ‘Flea market’ Renoir ordered back to Baltimore Museum of Art by federal judge” by Ian Shapira in the Washington Post. This bizarre story has a happy ending for the Baltimore Museum of Art, which has been reunited with the Renoir painting “On the Shore of the Seine,” which had been stolen in 1951.
  5. “Missouri History Museum acquiring collection of gay artifacts” by David Hunn in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.  When future young people wonder how people ever could have discriminated against, hated, and killed others because of their sexual orientation or identity, the students will benefit from a museum field trip as part of their learning. Museums are starting to collect relevant artifacts now, to help tell the stories of victories and struggles in movements for equality.
  6. “Guiding Lies” by Sadie Dingfelder in the Washington Post’s Express centers on an interview with Robert Pohl, DC tour guide and author of Urban Legends and Historic Lore of Washington, DC. Pohl dispels six oft-repeated myths, which you can think about when you explain to your out-of-town guests why they can’t ride the Metro to a lobby on J Street in the swamps of Georgetown.
  7. “Seven game-changers who will transform the Washington scene in 2014” by various Washington Post writers. Among these influential figures are an art museum curator, a history and culture museum director, and a zoo star.
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