The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History

By Suzie Thomas

During my research mobility period as an Affiliate at the University of Oklahoma (OU) in the city of Norman, USA, I have had the chance to visit lots of fascinating museums. One of my favourites, and part of the university, is the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History. Although in name a Natural History museum with palaeontology, mammology and natural history collections, the museum also houses ethnographic and archaeological collections. Much of the cultural material relates to Native American cultures in Oklahoma and elsewhere (prehistoric, historic and contemporary), but there is also a developing collection of world cultures. This collection’s expansion brings many examples of art and culture that cannot be seen anywhere else in the state.

Front of the Sam Noble Museum on the campus of the University of Oklahoma.

I’ve been able to visit the exhibition areas, and also had the privilege of spending several hours with museum director Dr Daniel Swan, during which time we talked about the activities of the museum, and looked at some of the behind-the-scenes collection stores. I was also very curious about the relationship between the museum and the rest of the university, since University of Helsinki also has several museums, and we work hard to collaborate on subjects such as museum studies. The museum staff at Sam Noble are active in research and also university teaching – taking responsibility for leading courses at OU, and for supervising Masters’ theses and Doctoral dissertations. In addition, the museum takes on numerous student interns, helping train future museum professionals and researchers.

Some of the beautiful Native American moccasins in the ethnographic collection store.

One of Sam Noble Museum’s most notable activities is its vital work collecting and documenting Native American languages, many of which are severely endangered. Many of these languages are found in Oklahoma, although documentation exists in the collection from other parts of the USA as well. Events around this work include the Oklahoma Native American Youth Language Fair, which won the UMAC Award in 2017. UMAC (University Museums and Collections) is one of ICOM’s (International Council of Museums) international committees, and is global in its reach; Dr Swan received the award on behalf of the Sam Noble Museum at UMAC’s annual conference in 2017 in Helsinki.

The museum collection stores and conservation facilities are impressive, and I was fascinated to see enormous dinosaur bones and fossils in storage, as well as many original type specimens in the mammology collection; these are, in other words, the preserved first ever specimens from new species are discovered and named. Needless to say, both conservation and security are vital – especially in a state known for its inclement and sometimes unpredictably destructive weather (we are in Tornado Alley, after all). I learned about how the Norman Fire Service undergo special training so as to know which parts of the collection must be evacuated first, and how, in the event of natural disaster.

Part of the temperature and humidity controlled ethnographic collection store.

The permanent exhibitions cover the major geological periods, as well as showing contemporary flora and fauna from the diverse ecosystems of Oklahoma. An anthropology gallery shows Palaeo-Indian artefacts and periods, as well as more recent Native American history. This includes describing the so-called “Trail of Tears” when many Native American Tribes were displaced from their original territories to Oklahoma, only later to lose their land again as white European settlers arrived and staked claims to what was then called Indian Territory.

In addition, the temporary exhibition area tries to show ethnographic displays as well as natural history ones. The current ‘blockbuster’ exhibition when I visited was “Megalodon: Largest Shark that Ever Lived” showing the breathtaking scale of this now extinct fish. From what I saw, the exhibition is extremely popular, especially with younger visitors.

The museum is also active in outreach and education, welcoming many school visits to the museum. Another project I really liked the sound of is ExplorOlogy, taking school-age children on expeditions to experience field-based research. This includes Palaeo Expedition, which takes pupils into the field to participate in paleontological excavations.

A pentaceratops on display – also the largest land animal skull ever discovered, this one was found in neighbouring New Mexico.

I really liked the depth of the extent to which Sam Noble Museum staff play an active role in university education, and loved that it also engages with different communities, and especially young people, across Oklahoma. The museum also plays host to several events as part of Oklahoma Archaeology Month – a month-long celebration of archaeology across the state, coordinated by Oklahoma Public Archaeology Network with participants from museum, universities, local avocational groups and more.

A journey at its end – The opening of Durga Puja exhibition

By Ida Vamio and Miina Savolainen

Last Tuesday evening our journey into the world of exhibition building culminated with the opening of the Durga Puja exhibition at the Finnish National Museum. The journey which started mere five weeks ago has been both exciting and eventful. Being in charge of creating the visual multimedia experience for the exhibition was at times nerve-wracking, but ultimately rewarding.

Professor Xenia Zeiler is thanking the students from the Museum Studies programme. Photo: Anna Wessman
The exhibition comes to life. Photo: Ida Vamio

Starting out, we had no previous experience of planning exhibitions or even of using video editing programs. Our task of researching the visual look of the Durga Puja, getting ahold of the materials and putting together the final multimedia shows was more time consuming than we originally anticipated, but it also taught us the importance of time management and communication. In the end, it all came together.

Kuva 1. Indian ambassador Vani Rao holding a speech. Photo: Anna Wessman

Everyone’s hard work was rewarded at the opening as we listened to insightful and lovely speeches from the people of the National Museum, and our teachers, thanking everyone involved for their contributions. We also had the luck of having the Ambassador of India herself to give a speech about Durga Puja traditions and the myth of Durga.

It was great seeing all the guests marveling at the different elements of the exhibition and enjoying themselves. We saw our work come to life, with the lights, objects, and texts perfectly in place and with the picture and video-shows looking just the way we hoped. It was a perfect ending to our journey.

Mingling among guests. Indian Ambassador Vani Rao, Researcher Suvi Sillanpää and Dr. Anna Wessman. Photo: Ida Vamio

None of it would have been possible if not for the amazing help and expertise of Anna Wessman, Xenia Zeiler, Pilvi Vainonen, Samu Hupli, and Carita Elko, without whom the process would have been impossible. Collaboration with an as influential museum as the National Museum has been truly educational and given us a taste of real museum work.

The experience has been extremely valuable and we can only hope that it will be offered to future students as well.

 

 

 

 

Decision-making as part of the Exhibition process

By: Thomas Ermala, Eeva-Maria Viskari & Rachel Fay-Leino

Exhibition objects on table, about to be put into the showcase. Photo: Thomas Ermala

Deciding where an object is displayed in an exhibition is actually a very difficult process when considering all the different factors. Does it reach the audience? Does it fit with the rest of the objects in the showcase? What about the exhibition texts? Deciding is an endless process of throwing ideas back and forth between people with different opinions of what is the most important about the exhibition.

Planned placing for the “Public” showcase. Photo: Thomas Ermala

As we are first-timers, this was a completely new experience for all of us working with the objects for the Durga Puja exhibition. Even though we’ve all worked in a museum before, we haven’t had this insight into exhibition planning, especially at a museum as large as the National Museum. The fact that everything we wanted to do had to go through someone else was a bit confusing, but in the end it also taught us a lot about how a museum this size actually works. It also gave us insights into all of the work that is done behind the scenes.

Exhibition being built. Photo: Eeva-Maria Viskari

The first challenge we encountered was the limited number of objects. When we started the project we were given a list of the objects that were already chosen to go on display. As this was the case the options we had were quite limited but ideas still started to pop up. In the end we chose to divide the object into “Public” and “Private” parts. One showcase would show us things that were associated with the public festival and the other would be dedicated to how it is celebrated at home.

Nearly completed exhibition. Photo: Thomas Ermala

Building the exhibition itself is just the last part of the project, it’s the culmination of all the work everybody has put into it. We were lucky to have a professional designer, Samu Hupli, guiding us through the project and providing invaluable help to us first-timers. Finally the last objects are put into place and the exhibition will be ready for the grand opening tomorrow.

Teaching exchange in Amsterdam 7.–12.10.2018

Port of Amsterdam, 1538. Photo: NR

By Nina Robbins

Heritage Studies in Amsterdam is a vibrant study program, both at the University of Amsterdam and at Reinwardt Academy. In class, students engage themselves in conversation and ask relevant questions. My week as an Erasmus exchange teacher involved lectures concerning value discussions in museums. I had a chance to talk about values on a more theoretical level, and to conduct a hands-on value workshop with different master’s level heritage studies students. Both of the classes showed me that students concern themselves with very much the same issues as those here in Helsinki. The importance of learning to give a voice to heritologically significant issues will be a skill that is more and more needed in the heritage and museum sectors. It was inspiring to realize that Finnish students going to Amsterdam to study, and Dutch students coming here are able to join the mutual value discourse without any great difficulties, and I believe this will be so with all of our courses. One could say that our values are aligned.

In addition to my teaching I found some time to visit several museums and other museological locations, seeing a lot of different options for displaying art works and cultural historical objects, from plexiglass handbags to archaeological findings. Often you will find the most interesting objects in the oddest of places.

Archaeological findings in the Rokin metro station escalator in Amsterdam. Photo: NR

All in all, it seems that all of us working in the heritage field have a common concern, i.e. how to provide the best possible methods for passing on knowledge to our students and eventually to the general public. It is very much about being a mediator and passing on networks of values. In my teaching I talked about history and hands-on experiences that have been shared among museum professionals since the 18thcentury, discussing how to balance that legacy and knowhow with contemporary realities. For example, looking at Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings in a contemporary exhibition organized in the oldest museum in the Netherlands was a time-stopping moment. We are the professionals who get to choose and assign value to such items, and we are the professionals who get to be mediators, passing on the importance of these items to future generations.

Wybrand Hendriks, Teylers museum of art and science, 1810, Haarlem. Photo: Teylers Museum
Teylers museum of art and science, 2018, Haarlem. Photo: NR

It is empowering to acknowledge that we are not alone in our endeavors. There are museum professionals who find it their life’s work to protect and safeguard the idea of museums and collections. I would like to thank the students in Amsterdam for making my teaching week a memorable and fulfilling one; it was a good start for future co-operation between our heritage institutions.

As a discipline with relatively few practitioners, we certainly benefit from collaboration beyond our own borders.

 

 

 

Creating Durga Puja: An Exhibition and an Experience

By: Minna Turunen, Gwendolyne Roggeman and Clarice Bland

University courses tend to stay very theoretical. This is a sad fact that every student realises at some point during their educational process. With still some years to go before graduating and no view of the scholastic system changing significantly, most students can do nothing else than wait. But this year, we – eight students from the University of Helsinki – got the opportunity to put theory into practice and to finally learn something outside of our books and classrooms.

Empty display cabinets in the National Museum of Finland’s pop-up space. Photo: Clarice Bland

The Museum Content Planning course is a collaborative project between the National museum and university. It offers students the chance to learn things hands-on and meet actual people who have already found their place in the museum world. Writing museum panel texts, object labels, and writing blog posts are only part of the lessons learned during this course. Communication and time-managing skills are also essential when working with different people. From the student’s perspective these meetings are extra valuable. After all, we are all people who are aiming to get into museum careers. This project helped us to become familiar with the realities of working in a museum, what career possibilities we have in the future and most importantly what we need to do and study to accomplish our goals.

Durga puja altar donated by the Pujari Finland Association. Photo: Minna Turunen

On Monday 10th of September our adventure began. Our mentors, course organizer Dr. Anna Wessman and curator Pilvi Vainonen told us to get organised and to build a pop-up exhibition for the National Museum of Finland in only 5 weeks! After the practical announcements from our course leaders, Professor Xenia Zeiler gave us our first knowledge about the topic of the exhibition: the Indian Durga Puja festival.

We also got divided into small groups, each with our own responsibilities and tasks: a text group to write the information panels, an object group to decide the setup of the museum objects and a visual techniques group to enrich our exhibition with videos and images. And of course, this work also involved several members from the museum staff, because there were some tasks we simply didn’t have the knowledge to do.

Thomas Ermala, Gwendolyne Roggeman, Miina Savolainen, Ida Vamio, and Clarice Bland during our first visit to the museum. Photo: Minna Turunen

Our group prepared the texts for the objects that would be on display, as well as some background texts about the exhibit and the festival in general. One of the main problems that we encountered was the sheer amount of information about Hinduism, Durga Puja, and the festival itself – what should we include and what was irrelevant information? We also tried to keep it simple so that visitors who has no knowledge can come to the exhibition and not feel confused.

We began by looking at academic sources, but soon realised that the language was too complicated. We then looked at websites from the Hindu community which explained the festival and its importance in a much more down-to-earth manner. These websites, as well as the National Museum’s object catalogue and other texts, helped us to create a good array of texts. We also considered the sensitive aspects of creating a display about a religious festival.

Even though we had no knowledge of the Durga Puja tradition from the beginning we soon reached a point where the festival had no secrets anymore – and this only after weeks of intensive research and exhibition planning. You can probably imagine what a challenge this has been for both us, students, and the museum staff.

Follow this sign to Durga puja pop-up exhibition. Photo: Minna Turunen

After a few weeks of writing the texts, editing them, and re-reading them, we finally got to send them to Pilvi for a proofread. Everything was starting to come together! In the next post, more details will be revealed about creating an exhibition, as well as another perspective of this collaboration.

Durga Puja – pop-up exhibition at the National Museum of Finland 16. 10. 2018 – 28. 10. 2018
Free admission.

Arvot on saatava sormenpäihin

Studio Drift, Fragile Future, 2018, Stedelijk Museum. Photo: Nina Robbins

Puhe arvoista käy museoammattilaisten piirissä aktiivisena. Aihe on kuitenkin helposti karkaileva. Arvokeskustelusta on vaikea saada kiinni tai tuottaa sen päätteeksi konkreettisia päätelmiä. Kuitenkin keskustelun tarpeesta olemme kaikki samaa mieltä. Olisi hyödyllistä, jos jollakin tavoin saisimme arvot hyppysiimme, ja voisimme tässä moniosaamisen viidakossa selättää myös arvokeskustelun palvelemaan museoiden tavoitteita. Olisi toisinaan myös hyödyllistä, jos jokaisella museotyöntekijällä olisi tarvittaessa valmiudet heittäytyä täysimittaiseen arvoväittelyyn.

Olen pohtinut, kuinka konservointityössä jokainen toimenpide täytyy kyetä perustelemaan ennen työn aloittamista. Samalla tulee pohtineeksi myös omien toimiensa pitkäkestoisia vaikutuksia ja työhön sisältyvä arvolatauksia. Minkälaisen viestin tehtävä konservointityö tai valitut materiaalit välittää eteenpäin? Arvopohdinnan piiriin kuuluvat niinkin arkiset kysymykset kuten: ”Valitsenko synteettisen vai orgaanisen liiman?” tai ”Mikä on valittujen materiaalien liukoisuus viidenkymmenen vuoden kuluttua?” Konservointityössä tulevaisuuden on aina oltava menneisyyden kanssa sinut. Tämä käy ilmi esimerkiksi pohdittaessa värien haalistumista tai sitä, kuinka restauroida patina maalauksen pintaan.

Nämä pohdinnat ovat joskus hyvinkin nopeita, mutta toisinaan vaativat päivän tai kaksi kypsyäkseen. Ne ovat kuitenkin automaattinen osa arjen työtä. Usein päätöksiä tehdessä ei edes tule ajatelleeksi, että kyseessä on silkan konkretian ohella myös jonkin asteinen arvovalinta. Kun valinta on tehty, niin takaraivossa on vankat perusteet sille, miksi juuri tämä reitti kaikista olemassa olevista vaihtoehdoista on paras. Ja toisinaan tulee jopa tunne, että myös täysimittainen arvoväittelykin luonnistuisi. Tämän pohdintaketjun soisi jalkautuvan myös muille museosektoreille. Jalkautuminen ei kuitenkaan tapahdu ilman harjoittelua, joka on hyvä aloittaa aivan opintojen alussa.

On hyödyllistä, että arvokeskustelua viritetään ja käydään, vaikka sen päämäärät tai syvin olemus näyttäisivät pakenevan. Tälläkin saralla vain harjoitus saa aikaan selkeyttä, nopeaa reagointia ja väittelyvalmiutta. On hyvin todennäköistä, että työuramme aikana joudumme tilanteeseen, jossa hyvinkin nopeasti pitää kyetä perustelemaan, miksi jokin kulttuurihistoriallisesti merkityksellinen asia on merkityksellinen museon lisäksi myös kaupungin tilatoimistolle tai kaivinkonetta käyttävälle urakoitsijalle. Lukuvuonna 2018–2019 Helsingin yliopiston museologian opintokokonaisuus tarjoaa kursseillaan opiskelijoille myös mahdollisuuden käydä arvokeskustelua ja harjaannuttaa väittelytaitojaan muiden opintojen ohella. Tervetuloa kursseille harjoittelemaan.