A more collaborative, inclusive Joseph Moore Museum
February 14, 2017
For decades, a mummy and giant mastodon bones have welcomed visitors to Earlham’s Joseph Moore Museum.
But as museums around the world shift away from simply preserving the past, the Joseph Moore Museum is adapting by strengthening its connection to the College’s core values of collaborative academic inquiry, integrative learning and community engagement.
“Traditional museums have always been about taking their information and sharing it with the visitor,” says Heather Lerner, an assistant professor of biology and the director of Earlham’s Joseph Moore Museum. “That’s not really the direction museums are going anymore."
Four years ago, when the museum participated in the Museum Assessment Program sponsored by the American Association of Museums, conversations began about how the museum could become more collaborative and relevant to visitors and students alike. One answer sprung, in part, from a class taught by Jamey Pavey, director of integrated programs in sustainability, and the College’s Environment Leadership Program.
“Jamey wanted her students to interact with a broad audience to talk about the connection between society and science, and I was thinking about an exhibit that connected society and science so it all kind of came together,” Lerner says.
Last fall, a group of 60 students, some who work for the museum, and others representing majors from across the curriculum, organized an open house called “Climate Games and Models of Change.” The event welcomed hundreds of guests to the museum for an interactive open house built around research and conversations already taking place on campus.
The open house was tailored for guests of all ages, and for the youngest of the museum’s guests, child-size laboratory coats were made available to make them feel even closer to the activities.
“I think something that will be surprising for a lot of people who haven’t been to our events before is the interactive nature of the exhibits,” says Lydia Evans ’19, an environmental studies major who was enrolled in Pavey’s 2015 class and works at the Joseph Moore Museum. “These aren’t exhibits that you read and pass by. There are people staffing them, they will engage with you in conversations, and all of the stations have an interactive component. It’s not a normal experience.”
The event speaks to Earlham’s distinctive approach to the liberal arts, which is amplified by EPIC, the Earlham Program for Integrative Collaboration, and three new interdisciplinary centers in social justice, entrepreneurship and innovation, and global health. This Earlham-wide approach encourages students from backgrounds in business, public policy, even the visual and performing arts, to help create opportunities for engagement at the museum that are centered around some of the world’s biggest challenges.
For the student presenters, the experience requires them to adapt to the different visitors.
“For each station we had to be prepared to present to both adults, children as well as Earlham students,” says Malia Staab ’18, a biology and environmental studies major. “We had to keep the children engaged, so we would use a drawing station and ask them, ‘where do you see climate around you?’ And for the adults, they would look at our posters, ask questions, or read some of the articles we had compiled.”
Staab’s group presented on the effects of climate change and used a magnetic pictures game on a world map to help make their point.
“With the global temperature change, we’re experiencing more precipitation, there’s more flooding, there’s more storms and a there’s higher chance of disease,” she says. “We kind of explain all of that and we have an activity that goes with it where we have pictures of some of the things that are happening around the world and you can place them on a world map or the U.S. It was to get people thinking about climate change and how it affects where you live and the world around you.”
That’s the case, even if you live hundreds of miles away from coastlines where the effects of climate change are more pronounced.
“We are talking about coral bleaching and why it’s relevant to people in Indiana because there’s no ocean or coral around,” says Mayeesha Ahmed ’17, a biochemistry major who is also the museum’s scientific illustrator. She explains that algae in the coral produce 75 percent of the oxygen that we breathe. “So it basically affects everyone.”
The experiences of the student presenters are rewarding, even transformative, Pavey says.
“The students do real research as part of the coursework and get a much greater in-depth understanding of the aspect of climate change their station is focused on,” she says. Pavey also helps presenters think through how they will adapt their presentation to the variety of ages of the visitors and how to improve understanding overall. “Through the development of their stations they do a lot with visual communications and develop stronger skills.”
Chehena Samarawickreme ’17, a business and nonprofit management major who works with the museum’s marketing group, says another strength of the event is showcasing the strength of a liberal arts education, no matter what you study.
“I think this event is a really good collaboration between the museum and Earlham’s different classes because they really showcase student work and how relevant it is to major topics today,” Samarawickreme says. “I’m not a science person, so I definitely felt like this wasn’t really a space that I could take up at Earlham, but I was wrong.
“I’ve learned a lot about this space, and the people involved in it,” she says. “I hope people also take away that the museum is a place where you can come to and learn about a lot of things, be engaged, learn and have fun.”
While climate change-themed events have been popular at the museum, so have others like a neuroscience-themed “Brain Explorers” event that took place last year.
“We are bringing people together around a topic and making a space for conversations to happen,” Lerner says. “We had no idea that there would be so many spin-offs with students organizing ‘Meatless Mondays’ or bike-to-school weeks.
“The number of applicants from students asking to work in the museum has skyrocketed as well, in part because of events like this because we are welcoming a group of people and showing how everyone has a role to play here. For many years, the museum was thought of as a spinoff of the biology or geology department, but what we’re seeing now is that students and faculty from across the curriculum see this as their place.”
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Earlham College, a national liberal arts college located in Richmond, Indiana, is a "College That Changes Lives." We expect our students to be fully present: to think rigorously, value directness and genuineness, and actively seek insights from differing perspectives. The values we practice at Earlham are rooted in centuries of Quaker tradition, but they also constitute the ideal toolkit for contemporary success. Earlham is one of only 40 national liberal arts colleges ranked among U.S. News and World Reports' "Great Schools at a Great Price."
Brian Zimmerman is director of media relations at Earlham College. He can be reached at 765-983-1256 and firstname.lastname@example.org.