During January’s Digital Learning Week, the Museum’s Youth Initiatives team brought together youth, Museum educators, and scientists for a series of programs to explore using digital tools to engage with Museum halls, collections, and research. This post about “Virtual Wonder Cabinet” by Monique Scott, Assistant Director for Cultural Education, is the third in a series highlighting Digital Learning Week programs.
Wonder is at the heart of the American Museum of Natural History. Who doesn’t become utterly awe-struck looking at the dioramas in the AMNH’s Hall of African Mammals? Making eye-contact with a silver-back gorilla? Or sneaking up on a pride of lions? These dioramas, as far back as my childhood, inspired me to want to work at the Museum. And now I do, as Assistant Director of Cultural Education. So it was a dream come true to work on the “Virtual Wonder Cabinets” program, a day of learning for high-school students to do what I never did: jump into the diorama-making process. Through the use of digital technology, we wanted to expand upon that unparalleled sense of awe and wonder with an opportunity for students to learn the science encapsulated in each museum exhibition, the art of exhibition storytelling, and ultimately become empowered to create their own awe-inspiring digital diorama.
Digital technology creates new frontiers for 21st century students learning in the museum. Using the online multimedia tool VoiceThread, we could ask new questions in our historic institution: How can we take these iconic exhibitions and dioramas and place the science and magic-making into the hands of youth? And how can we recreate the natural world in the digital landscape and create new and unexpected opportunities for learning?
During this day of educational experimentation, we answered these questions and more. Students became explorers of the museum in ways I’d never imagined. They were able to merge a variety of tools—scientific, museological and digital — to create their own virtual exhibitions. For example, they went into the Akeley Hall of African Mammals and learned from a museum biologist, Jay Homes, how to walk in the shoes of early 20th century explorer Carl Akeley, from hunting big game in Africa to creating perspective and visual magic in the Museum’s Akeley Hall. They also learned how to make a compelling scientific narrative from the head of exhibition education, Bella Desai. Exhibitions emerged as more than just a pretty snapshot or a “once upon a time” story: exhibitions explain the world around us based on a wealth of evidence that can be translated to the digital form.
Scientific story-telling was at the heart of our program, and was eye-opening and inspiring to students. They learned the narratives of exhibitions, the well-researched and thought-out stories that students could re-create with their digital toolkit. In the end, they could create a pastiche of museum objects on the web site that they could draw upon and voice narrate to create their own unique windows onto nature. Interesting examples abound.
Students used the VoiceThread app on their iPads to digitally circle and capture a brush fire lost to most observers in the background of a diorama, giving it new perspective and meaning. Students could put together different species and tell stories about ecosystems through multi-media presentations of video, voice and text. They were able to create personally meaningful and scientifically in-depth narratives around physical museum objects in a compelling, dynamic digital medium.
At the same time, as if that weren’t enough, they launched a new prototype of a web site that allowed them to earn AMNH digital badges—becoming fluent in scientific story-telling for a story-telling badge, practiced digital “making” for the “I Made That!” badge and and an “I <3 Dioramas” badge (which, in my opinion, gave them the ultimate AMNH street cred).
The most special part of the day for me was seeing the collaborative process in action. There were collaborations amongst our departments of science, exhibitions and education; amongst students working together as scientists, writers, speakers, and creative visionaries; and ultimately between the history and future of museum education.
Wonder is at the heart of the museum and was equally in the heart of many of the budding young scientists that came through the museum for our day of Virtual Wonder Cabinets.