Grizzly Beastly Magically Science Stories in Museums

By Brigid Gallagher 31/07/2012

Of late I have been caught up with young children and the real world of a heritage conservation and archaeology business. But now I am back and wanted to kick off  with some thoughts about a small museum. One that is fairly typical of many we have visited and have littered about NZ.

 This weekend I was seduced by a heritage museum website.  It reeled me in with ‘Family’,’ Hands On’ and ‘Re-created’– good graphics, pleasing colours, black and white photos of people from the past….

And so I dragged my family along. To be fair, I did not have to do much dragging…we are always pleased to find a new place to visit.  As far as we knew this museum had been closed, was now under new management in place, and had reopened, revitalised…with a new enticing website.

But why o why were we so disappointed?! Again!

Poor presentation. Poor communication.  Poor interpretation.  Again.

The bones were there, in fact they had a good chunk of muscle on them too.  But the volunteers of this community owned museum, who should have been the flesh on this really really nice collection of historic artefacts and paraphernalia on display let it down!

Instead of adding the colour, the texture, the elasticity to the flesh of this collection, we came away feeling tired , dehydrated and not inspired to return! 

While many may roll their eyes at the idea of visiting what they belief to be a collection of nik naks and collectables their parents and grandparents once used….they could be best serve as the storytellers of science for New Zealanders. 

The science of our human history – technology, industry, biology, physics, chemistry, arts and crafts.

There were stone toki (adzes), moa bones and gizzard stones, grammar phones and records, slide viewers and cameras, a bush walk and birds (unfortunately no sound), a fake cow that once passed milk, a telephone operators system, ye olde doctors bed, a re-created kitchen and all the tools and a tractor.

These are the raw ingredients for grizzly beastly magically science stories…the kind that kids and adults enjoy.

Who cannot resist horror stories from the original doctors bed, touching gizzard stones straight from the innards of moas and the magic of early film projection?

Grizzly Baby Bottle Science

A story with massive science potential for me had the baby (dolly) in its pram with a self warming glass water bottle beneath. 

–          The bottle itself was an interesting shape (they ranged from banjo or violin shape, with flat sides to the much safer banana shape in the early 20th century),

–          The origins of the practise would have been interesting (the first in the United States was patented in 1841) though artificial feeders have been documented long before this.

–          The fact a baby sat on it in her pram fascinated my children ….

but the really gorey and sciency storey is the one about the rubber tube that the baby would have had to suck on to get the milk. 

The Baby Bottle Museum  in the UK says that only 2 out of every 10 children survived under the age of 2 in the late Victorian period in England due to the inability to clean the tubes and the point of attachment with the bottle adequately.  These banjo shaped bottles went from being known as ‘Mummies darling’ to ‘The Killer’.


The lack of sterilisation, bacteria build up, poor general hygiene, bottle reuse…Child health and hygiene is a great message to send out to the young, or young at heart.

Its history, its science and its relevant at the same time!

The message ‘isn’t it neat’ you too can keep your milk [milo] warm by lying on it through the day or night does not cut it…I kid you not!

And the reason we got to lift the baby and discover this story? Quite frankly it was apparent that our kids were beginning to annoy the woman…and so she showed them something!  Smack my brow with a rubber tube! 

Demonstrate, communicate and interprete for the client works!  They were immediately quiet and captivated – though heaven help the collections mangle under the enthusiastic arm of our 5 year old a little later.

The point of this dialogue is this:

–          That for a museum that advertises itself as one where you can handle the collections without the ‘evil eye’ of attendants upon them, we were closely monitored and not allowed to walk through the museum alone (even though the artefacts were stuck down, and the attendant unable to answer basic questions).

–          That appropriate presentation, communication and interpretation panels are fundamental. Select your stories, make them memorable.  A glass bottle made from molten sand that burns red hot like lava to make the shape is a lot more exciting than a rare bottle from Germany to 5 year old and a 35 ish year old.

–          That to get science across in a way that is generous and exciting, you need to have time to explore and be excited, not forced into a monotonous dialogue  by a volunteer security guard, masquerading as ‘passionate about our heritage’ .

–          That science and history intermingle  ALOT. It is time to give new meaning to old subjects, and science just might be a way to do this.  

It is not intended that this entry is a negative one, because the museum content we saw was very good with masses of potential.

But the overwhelming disappointment that the front face of the heritage was clearly not using the collection to stimulate the minds of society, and help heritage become relevant…meant that the renovation was only skin deep and is not likely to lead it into a more appreciated attraction.

I suspect that the use of science communication could be the answer to heritage communication problems.

And just a quick footnote from a lover of all things heritage… when did it become necessary to make the cafe and shop bigger than the whole museum, when surely the collection is the draw card.

0 Responses to “Grizzly Beastly Magically Science Stories in Museums”

  • While driving through the south west of western Australia in April, I called into a settlers museum in a small town, I asked if they had any Aboriginal artifacts and was told that some stone tools had been returned to the local Aboriginies, then found a display case with a collection of artifacts from the Northwest, grinding stones etc. and then on a wall a hand written dig report and several associated artifacts in a frame. This was in a small three or 4 room building.