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Natural History Museum Defines
New Vision, Direction
Imagine a 3,000-square-foot blank slate. For the first time in its 15-year history, the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History has a building of its own, and once it is expanded to the front (once funding is secured), the staff will have the happy challenge of filling 3,000 square feet with permanent exhibits.
Deciding what to put in that space has been the task of the Museum's staff. The public is invited to an Open House at the Museum on Hillside Road on Sunday, Oct. 14 from 2 to 5 p.m., to learn about more about new programs and plans for the future.
The starting point of the planning process was the Museum's strategic plan developed by the Museum's Board of Directors and staff and adopted in 1999. This plan helped redefine the Connecticut State Museum of Natural History as a regional museum, with exhibits and programs that focus on Southern New England's natural and cultural history.
"The Museum's goal is to present the facts of natural science in a context that raises pertinent questions about people's relationships to the environment," says Ellen Censky, Museum director.
"The Museum is committed to demystifying science and restoring it to the common sphere," she adds. "We are committed to making it more possible for people to understand the world around them and to realize that science is interesting and fun."
The new focus is intended to capitalize on some of the strengths of the University, especially its collections and research. UConn houses the largest and most complete collection of specimens and artifacts from Southern New England, collections that complement and match the quality of research being done at the University in related fields.
The strategic plan also defines the audience. The Museum serves a diverse audience: as the state's museum, its audience includes K-12 teachers and students, as well as the citizens of Connecticut. It is also the University's museum, serving faculty, staff, and students.
"As a voice for the University, the Museum is able to exemplify how the work of a top-rated research institution impacts people's lives, and thus becomes an integral part of the University's long history of generating knowledge that works," Censky says.
In its new space, the Museum proposes to offer exhibits that encourage learning at several different levels. The first layer will be a "foundation" exhibit. Real specimens, interactive devices, and multimedia presentations will communicate how geological, physical, and biological processes have interacted over time to create the Connecticut region, and how, in turn, these processes have influenced the choices people have made. This exhibit will set the broader context for understanding the natural science of this region, and will lay the groundwork on which other levels of learning are built.
The second layer of this exhibit will be aimed at people with more specific interests. For example, using self-guided tours, visitors will be directed to special stations within the main exhibit that deal with particular aspects of Connecticut's geology, plants and animals, or archaeology.
The third layer of the exhibit will be called "Specialty Backpack Tours." This will be the most flexible layer, where the Museum will provide the tools to teach at various levels. The tours will be designed to meet the needs of very specific audiences. Tours could be developed in collaboration with University faculty to meet the needs of particular classes, for example, or with local school teachers or home schoolers to augment their curricula. The "backpacks" could contain hand-held computers, selected specimens from teaching collections, and activities that lead visitors on a scavenger hunt through the foundation exhibit and engage them in more focused interactions.
Museum exhibits and educational programs will be interconnected. An example of this is the annual BioBlitz, begun in 1999. Designed as part contest, part festival, part scientific endeavor, the BioBlitz brings together scientists from across the region to conduct a 24-hour survey of plant and animal species in an urban park. The event is designed to increase public awareness of biodiversity in Connecticut and to excite children about science as a career. The program highlights researchers at the University, complements the Museum's traveling exhibit on biodiversity, and is extended by Museum outreach programs.
A documentary about BioBlitz will be aired on MSNBC's National Geographic Explorer in December.