My Ruffer grant took me museum hopping across America

  • 22 May 2017

Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, goes on a trip to explore natural history collections in the US, after receiving a Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant.

An iconic display of over 400 dire wolf skulls excavated from the La Brea tar pits

An iconic display of over 400 dire wolf skulls excavated from the La Brea tar pits

The words were spoken down the phone: ‘We are pleased to let you know that your grant was successful.’ It was unexpected. I’d applied to the Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grant scheme for funding to visit museums in America, and I honestly didn’t think I’d get it. Was that a chuckle I heard in response to my overexcited reaction?

I work at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery, which is undergoing a major redevelopment project that will see a huge extension to the existing building and the addition of new, state-of-the-art galleries. In preparation I was keen to explore some big natural history venues to help with ideas for the space I’m involved in developing. Thanks to the grant, I was able to make a whistlestop tour across the US, visiting three states, four museums and thousands of specimens in a week.

Los Angeles, California

My first stop was LA: the city of angels, Hollywood and empty sidewalks. Stepping out of my motel and into the mid-November heat, I immediately broke into a sweat, which continued to pour as I walked for over an hour to reach the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. But it was worth it. When I arrived, I was greeted by two fabulous sculptures of Tyrannosaurus rex and Triceratops horridus in a recreation of a duel that took place some 66 million years ago.

The life size Tyrrannosaurs rex and Triceratops horridus sculpture outside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Photo: Jan Freedman

The life size Tyrrannosaurs rex and Triceratops horridus sculpture outside the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

There I met curator, Sam McLeod, who showed me their specimen storage and amazing collections: thousands of fossils from California, recording life long-lost, stored in purpose-built wooden cabinets. We chatted about everything from different labelling techniques to extinct giant ground sloths before meeting Xiaoming Wang, Curator and Chair of Vertebrate Palaeontology. We discussed the schools outreach programme, where two trucks that drive around the city: ‘They’re funded by sponsors, so there is little cost to the museum. We drive to schools giving them an opportunity to see real museum collections.’ It’s like a museum version of meals-on-wheels and reaches thousands of kids every year, who would otherwise never get to see museum specimens in the flesh.

We went on to talk about displays, research, citizen science, funding and fossilised poo: one of the most wonderful things in the museum sector is that no matter where you are in the world, there is an unspoken connection when one museum curator meets another.

The displays at the museum were impressive: large specimens along with the space to properly show them. The dinosaur gallery was awe-inspiring and filled with real fossils and life-sized casts of skeletons. The mineral gallery was jammed with thousands of beautiful crystals in every colour you can imagine, but was darker and calmer. I quite enjoyed the different feel of the galleries and how you knew you were stepping into a new experience each time.

The Page Museum at the famous tar pits at La Brea was my next stop. Intense heat and a two-hour walk along never-ending boulevards, meant my shirt was stuck to my back. There I met the Collections Manager, Aisling Farrell, who was instantly welcoming and laughed when I told her I walked from my motel. She took me around the incredible site, where millions of Ice Age fossils have been, and still are being, excavated. ‘Tar seeping up from deep down has been a natural trap for animals here for at least 50,000 years,’ Aisling told me as we walked across the grass, past dog walkers and a family having a picnic. ‘We still have volunteer projects running where they carefully excavate and document bones from open pits.’

The great sabretooth cat, Smilodon fatalis, greets passers-by on Wiltshire Boulevard Photo: Jan Freedman

The great sabretooth cat, Smilodon fatalis, greets passers-by on Wiltshire Boulevard

The site can be traced back to the early 1800s when it was an asphalt mine, excavated and used for roads, buildings and fuel. Bones were discovered, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that they were really studied. It was saved from development and the site became a public park. The museum was built in 1977.

As we continued walking, school children ran excitedly to get a closer look at the life-size mammoth models. Interestingly, the museum doesn’t have a big outreach schools programme like the Natural History Museum. With the open space, and set in a more affluent area, they automatically receive more on-site school groups.

Back inside, Aisling left me to soak up all the incredible creatures found right in the middle of LA. The main display space showed full reconstructed skeletons of giant extinct camels, bison and sabretooth cats. Displays in other rooms were full of specimens in cases, but it was the bigger displays that pulled in the visitors. You can read more about my visit to La Brea here.

Seattle, Washington

Jumping on a plane the following day, I made my way to Seattle. Unlike LA, the air was fresh, cool and clean, with the strong smell of pine from the trees that lined the streets. I was there to visit the Burke Museum, where I was met by the wonderfully enthusiastic Collections Manager, Meredith Rivin. Hundreds of thousands of specimens filled the store rooms. She showed me the amazing collections of invertebrates and Ice Age creatures, while a volunteer worked on documenting the beautifully preserved fossil plants on a desk close by.

The museum is also going through a huge redevelopment project. ‘We are building a brand-new museum site,’ Meredith explained as we peered at the building site opposite. ‘The building work started last month. It will be for new displays, offices and store rooms.’ It is work that I can relate to and we talked about what has gone well for the project so far.

Meredith also introduced me to several of her colleagues. I met the learning team who prepare and dispatch loan boxes to schools all across Seattle. At $50 dollars a week, plus transport costs, to borrow the box full of museum objects, teachers’ guides, and extra activities, this is a steal for schools in the city. ‘We decided on a small charge because this gives the school more responsibility for the boxes. If they are paying for something, they’ll take more care.’ And it works. The ‘Burke Boxes’ are in high demand.

One of the Burke Boxes from the Burke Museum, large crates carefully packed with museum objects and information sheets for schools Photo: Jan Freedman

One of the Burke Boxes from the Burke Museum, large crates carefully packed with museum objects and information sheets for schools

Raleigh, North Carolina

My final stop was the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh. There I met Trish Weaver, Curator of Invertebrate Palaeontology. Showing me round the stores, her knowledge of the collections was something to admire. Her real passion was for the more 'unsexy' objects, and this shone through as she moved away from the giant sloth bones to the drawer of Ediacaran fossils. What looked like splotches on a dull rock was actually evidence of life 550 million years ago, brought to life by Trish’s unwavering enthusiasm.

She took me up through the massive building of the old displays and the recent new extension. Built in 2012, the additional Nature Research Centre is full of interactive, engaging displays. ‘The bone-prep lab is always popular for visitors,’ Trish said as we looked through a glass wall watching staff excavate a dinosaur bone in front of us. ‘Visitors stand here, just watching. They can talk to the scientists too.’

I spent a lot of time exploring the galleries. The displays were spectacular, and the stories never lost through technology or trying to impress. I visited twice, not only because there was so much to take in, but because it may well be the best museum I've ever been to. It has a very successful ‘Skype in the Classroom’ programme, where dedicated staff run sessions with real specimens, and even live animals, reaching school children across the state. There was a lot of useful insights to take back home with me.

The displays at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences were spectacular, while this simple, small sign lets visitors understand why museum collections are so important Photo: Jan Freedman

The displays at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences were spectacular, while this simple, small sign lets visitors understand why museum collections are so important

Plymouth, Devon

The whole experience was incredibly valuable. I met so many passionate curators, who I’m still in touch with. There were lots of similarities with the UK, but there were some enormous differences too. The places I visited had the space to have big, impressive displays. But then, if we’re clever about our spaces here, can’t we be impressive too? American museums appear to have money to spend, yet when I spoke to each curator separately, they expressed similar problems to us: government funding varies and there are constant cuts.

But what I saw time and time again was how each institution strongly invested in its visitors and encouraged people to get involved. Each museum had dedicated space to showcase their citizen science projects: in Los Angeles one project asked residents to place pots in their gardens to trap insects. The pots were sent back to the museum, and the staff discovered 30 new species of fly to the city – an incredible example of how we can involve our visitors and the local people with science.

I returned home full of new contacts, new ideas, and a new way of looking at our own redevelopment project in Plymouth. The people, the collections, the ideas have had a big impact on how I’m working now. The trip opened my eyes to what museums can achieve. In a year or two, I’d love to return to see how things have developed and perhaps even create a few joint projects with new colleagues.

Jan Freedman is Curator of Natural History at Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery.

Tags: Jonathan Ruffer curatorial grants