Community Spotlight: Museum of Natural History

The Ann Arbor community deeply values knowledge. Take for example the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, which is located right within the borders of downtown: “There are twenty million items in the natural science collections at the University of Michigan,” Amy Harris, director of the Museum of Natural History, says. “I like to say they go from mites to mastadons, or mammoths, if you want.”

The Museum of Natural History isn’t just a museum, of course. It’s a living, breathing member of the community. It’s a bridge that connects university faculty with students with all those who live, work, and play downtown.

“The museum can be a social outing,” Harris explains. “We’ve heard about students who like to come here on first dates. We heard one person say that it’s a good way to find out if the other person is an interesting person. But then when they’re here they might realize that they could work in those labs. So it’s an entree into recognizing that students are doing research all over campus and that they’re really welcome and invited to be part of that.”

But the Ann Arbor community is constantly evolving, and, therefore, the museum must evolve with it. The Museum of Natural history was originally built in 1928, but on April 14th, 2019, it will be reopening in its new and improved space in the Biological Sciences Building. According to Harris, this space will provide the museum with increased avenues to strengthen and redefine its role as a member of the community.

“The old museum was in a 90-year-old building, so built in 1928. It was actually built to be a museum, so it was state-of-the-art then, but over ninety years without any thorough updating, it really kind of fell behind the needs of the museum,” Harris says.

A lot changes in ninety years. The old building had very few women’s bathrooms, which may have been the norm in 1928, but simply doesn’t work in a modern environment with plenty of female researchers and museum visitors. The old museum also lacked adequate climate control, and didn’t have air conditioning in the galleries. In order to serve the needs of a community that thirsts for knowledge, the museum was due for a major upgrade.

“This space is about a third bigger than the old one, and we have some really fantastic new spaces that we didn’t have at the old museum,” Harris says. “We’re putting science on display by giving visitors an opportunity to look into real working labs and seeing scientists at work.”

One of the primary focuses of the new building is interactive elements. The University of Michigan, one of the world’s top research institutions, is located right in downtown Ann Arbor, and the museum provides an avenue for community members to claim an active role in groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

“We’re trying to get away from the ‘finished science’ feel of older museums to more of an ‘active research’ feel,” Harris explains. “Science is a process and it’s ongoing and you can be part of it.”

The entire museum is founded upon this concept of “active research.” Instead of just displaying research that has been completed, it centers current innovation, showcases researchers, and encourages community members to engage in research. This interactiveness consists of active involvement from all members of the museum community.

“When researchers are trying to get funding for their research, they write proposals, and one of the major funders is the National Science Foundation,” Harris explains. “They require that researchers do some form of educational outreach. They can do a whole range of things, but one possibility is to work with us, and we’ve been doing a lot of that.”

The museum supports these researchers through a variety of programs. For example, one of the programs is a “science communication training program for faculty graduate students and postdocs, and we’re going to expand that to undergraduates. So we give them the skills of how to talk to someone in the public who doesn’t know anything about science. How can they explain and engage in a conversation about what they’re doing and why it matters.”

Another goal of the museum is to utilize the inquisitiveness of the Ann Arbor community by creating avenues for community members to contribute to research. Part of this goal is reached by allowing visitors to watch researchers work in their labs. Another component of this process is Citizen Science, which allows community members to actively participate in research.

“Members of the public can actually contribute to real research projects by helping either to gather data or analyze data,” Harris explains. “A good example is, here at U of M, we have a researcher who puts cameras on trees in the woods and when they’re motion activated so an animal walks by a picture gets taken, data gets sent to Ann Arbor. She’s got thousands and thousands of photos and she needs help to identify what’s in all those photos, so she’s got a web based platform where anybody in the community can help identify those animals using a key.”

The museum catalyzes community engagement in Citizen Science by creating a space where visitors can learn about the process and try it firsthand.

Harris says the new museum provides “a twenty-first century updated set of opportunities, where the community can learn about the research that’s happening at this top-of-the-line research university in their own hometown. They can get a sense that science isn’t finished. It’s an ongoing process that they can get involved in, and I think that’s really exciting.”

The Museum of Natural History opens on April 14th, 2019 in the University of Michigan Biological Sciences Building.