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The American Museum of Natural History
Opens Its Doors to Teachers
by Sybil Maimin

The Structures and Cultures Moveable Museum, a Winnebago RV containing select museum objects that goes out to New York City schools, greeted educators in the driveway of the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), the first hint of the instructional treasure trove that lay inside the building for the 55 participants who attended the 4th annual Educator's Summer Institute on World Cultures. For three days, teachers from schools elementary through college, public and private, learned about the museum's resources and how to use them most effectively with their classes. They visited venerable halls with experts who shared knowledge and enthusiasm and offered tips and advice about how to engage young people. The teachers became students themselves in several interactive workshops. An exciting privilege was a behind the scenes visit to state-of-the-art, temperature and humidity controlled, dust-free areas to view parts of the AMNH's vast (540,000 objects) stored collections, some dating back to 1869, the year the institution was founded. Teachers learned to "think like a museum" as the challenges of creating exhibits, maintaining accuracy, and keeping up to date were discussed. As explained by Maritza Macdonald, AMNH director of professional development, "During the summer we have the chance to have teachers come together to learn how to use the museum. We have two main goals: increase the teachers' knowledge of content from an archeological and anthropological perspective and then show them how to apply it...I like to think of New York as having urban treasurers. But, we must learn how to use them."

Participants had an intriguing choice of workshops. Those who went to the Hall of Northwest Indians with museum educator Stephanie Fins were rewarded with an information-filled overview of the oldest ethnographic collection still on display in the museum in a very popular, very classic hall that "represents a moment in museum history." They learned of the importance of doing comparisons of cultures within a geographic area and of teaching opportunities presented by environmental exhibits. Peoples living among trees use lots of wood. Students can deduce from dioramas that houses made of unfastened wood planks can be packed up and moved, suggesting hunting and gathering rather than agriculture. No windows may mean much outdoor living. Lack of clay and abundance of trees results in vessels made from wood and, sure to intrigue, wood fiber baskets woven so tightly they can hold liquid, and garments woven from cedar bark. Trees in the Pacific Northwest were huge as attested by the 64 by 8 foot dugout canoe shown in the 77th Street entrance. Its voyage to the museum in 1883 via boat, train, and horse-drawn carriage and details of its installation usually elicit much discussion. The carved crest (or totem) poles that famously line the hall are only partial representations, the tree-height originals being too tall for the space. The sophisticated technology and artistry in the objects seen in the exhibits can lead to interesting questions about stereotypes of "primitive" peoples.

Archaeologist Edith Gonzalez de Scollard conveyed the fun and excitement of discovery as she led teachers through a reading of artifacts in the Hall of Mexico and Central America. Students must understand that stones, dirt, and bones do not reveal everything about a culture. Gray with age, they do not tell the same story as vivid colors of a modern textile would. Yet much can be deduced from artifacts, especially by focusing on one object. Trying to unravel the mystery of the museum's colossal stone Olmec head brought many theories from participants regarding the importance of its subject, his occupation, and how the huge stone got to where it was found. Because of their fragility, another type of artifact, pots, are generally found in sedentary, agricultural societies. Pottery shards may suggest the shape and use of vessels leading to deductions about diet and ritual. A fun introduction to archaeology for students is reassembling pieces of inexpensive, broken (by teacher) dishes and trying to learn from the pieces.

A visit to the museum's collections in their impressive storerooms was a highlight. AMNH anthropologist Laila Williamson showed objects from South America, carefully laid out on pullout shelves in cabinets color-coded by region (green-tropical forests-for South America). Most of the objects were from Amazonia and were arranged by tribe and geography. Arrows, beadwork, feathers, pots, paddles, clubs, ceremonial items, and baskets were among the 21,000 objects in the group. Issues of conservation and the difficulties of collecting today were discussed. Endangered species are off limits. The preference of many tribes for modern products, ranging from metal pots to transistor radios, rather than traditional items has resulted in a dearth of collectable objects. The museum's collections are available to researchers. Each item is entered in a computer; digital imaging of the entire collection is an ongoing project.

The keynote speeches offered other avenues of inspiration and guidance. Laurel Kendall, curator of the AMNH Asian Ethnographic Collection spoke about weddings in Asia and the many opportunities that the marriage ceremony has for introducing students to anthropology and cultural studies. The museum has several popular wedding exhibits including an elaborately decorated Chinese wedding chair that carries a bride from her home to that of her husband-to-be, a journey filled with much symbolism. An Indian couple is depicted in full, rich, traditional dress, telling much about family pride. Everyone knows someone who has gotten married. Students can think like a museum with projects involving studying and presenting family wedding photos, lists of gifts, ceremonies and family traditions. The diversity of students in New York City guarantees good results from such cross-cultural studies, promised Kendall.

The teachers were even treated to a mini film festival. Kathy Brew, co-director of the Margaret Meade Film Festival, explained, "We live in a visual culture...It is a new kind of literacy that we all have to get used to...We can all teach and tell, but there's nothing like going to the source and actually seeing and hearing." Many of the museum's newer exhibits use film.

Participants in the Institute praised it for its quality, thoroughness, and respect for the teachers. Kimberly Vaillancourt, a teacher from Staten Island found it "useful because the world is a mosaic and by understanding different cultures we can understand the world. A program like this brings people together." Lindy Uehling, principal of the NYC Museum School, a New Vision theme school that partners with four museums and sees the museum as an extension of its campus, said, "The message of the Institute is the excitement of the museum is available to all. It gives kids the opportunity to experience things that they could never get in a book...There is more here than any school could offer."#



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