April 10, 2007

Museum Scoldings


Glypto-do or Glypto-don’t?

From Harvard Museum of Natural History

First Incident:

I took a photo with a flash in the Peabody Museum. The exhibits there are delicate, so you’re not supposed to use a flash. I had forgotten that from my previous visit and had to be reminded by the staff. OK - no problem. I actually wanted to take no-flash pictures anyhow because they look better. I apologized the museum staff and thanked her for the reminder.

But I was definitely embarrassed and felt stupid for forgetting.

Second Incident:

Much later in the day, I was taking photos in the Darwin exhibit in the Boston Museum of Science. Oops — you’re not supposed to take photos there at all. M actually warned me, but I thought that, like the Peabody Museum, they were only worried about the flash. No, they didn’t want any pictures taken at all. I’d already taken about 13 comparative photos of different animal skeletons (some were really cool shots, especially the chimpanzee) but a man came over and sternly told me he was going to have to watch me delete all the photos. No problem; I do not intend to be a disruptive element when I visit a museum. I deleted the photos.

After being scolded twice in one day (albeit in different locations) I was in a repentant mood and a bit subdued.

Third Incident

We always enjoy the Glyptodont fossil at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. It’s in a special case with other huge mammals, the prehistoric ground sloth and the toxodon. All of them are really cool. But they’re actual fossils so they are behind glass and a railing so that you cannot touch them. You shouldn’t touch them anyhow, of course.

But back at the Darwin exhibit within the Boston Museum of Science there was a Glyptodont fossil model. And it had a sign on it saying that it was OK to touch the model. Nice!

The kids went over and touched the model. They had fun touching it and tried to get me to come over and touch it, but I was busy looking at the Green Iguana. Soon after, K was telling me that not only could you touch the model, but the tail moved. You could pose it back and forth. She wanted me to give it a shot. I declined at that moment, because I was trying to see if the tortoises were going to move so I could get a better look at them.

Eventually, curiosity got the better of me and I wandered over to the Glyptodont with M. Indeed - it appeared that the tail was both touchable and poseable. It was attached on a hinge of some kind and glided easily with a slight push over about 35 degrees, and stayed where you put it. Not very exciting to me, but perhaps more so when you are a kid. It’s an odd-shaped tail, because the model only contains the fossil. So what you’re really looking at is the armor from the tail — a big rectangular pad of hard shell. It’s not very tail-like, or tapered. It was very fake-looking. As M touched it I made a childish joke about “Glyptodont poop” and she recoiled her hand. Then K started telling M she wasn’t supposed to touch it. I thought this was the usual sibling strife we experience, but just then a museum staff member excitedly rushed over to stop me from touching the tail, telling me we weren’t supposed to be moving it.

Thinking this was not my day for museums, I apologized yet again for my transgressions, not mentioning that there was a “Please Touch Me” sign on the thing, because I don’t go into museums looking for trouble. And, of course, now I realized that someone must have told K the tail was off-limits after she touched it.

I told M to just touch the side of the model, if she still wanted to touch it at all, but she no longer seemed that interested. Then I went back to look at the tortoises, which were right next to the Glyptodont.

Final Incident

I couple of minutes later I saw a museum staff member (or exhibit staff — I don’t know if they’re separate) scolding my kids about touching the tail. I thought this was odd because

  1. I had thought we’d already gone over this.
  2. They were standing near the head which, on a Glyptodont, is pretty far from the tail.
  3. I think someone really needs to acknowledge that when you put a “touch me” sign on something, it’s not beyond the pale that they’re going to touch the damned thing.

His tone became more harsh. “I told you to stay away from the tail!”

Oops. That got my blood up. I strode over, forgetting that I don’t like to cause trouble in museums.

I sidled up next to him and said, probably a little too loudly, “Do we have a problem?”

This seemed to cow the fellow, and he looked at the floor and muttered at me that he’d warned them not to touch the tail and they were touching the tail. I was right next to that display, about 3 strides away. The kids had stayed away from the tail. I figured that he must have spoken to the woman who warned me, and he thought he needed to intervene as well.

“I’m the one who touched the tail.” I said.

“I warned them before, and then…” I cut him off.

“Yes, you warned her (I indicated K) but then I came over and moved the tail because I didn’t know.” He was still muttering. As he continued muttering, I asked M to be sure: “Did you…?” and she shook her head “no”, soberly.

“…and I’ve warned them two or three times now…”

It’s plain not possible to have to warn my kids not to do something two or three times in a museum (and was it two or three — they are different numbers). They may have trouble sometimes listening to us at home, but except for a tendency to touch glass display cases now and again, which I think is universal for children, they are very respectful in a museum. They didn’t even complain when the staff gave them instructions that conflicted slightly with the sign.

“No, that’s not what happened. You warned her, and she didn’t touch the tail again. Then I touched the tail and a lady came over and warned me against it…” He interrupted me this time.

“Well she’s one of the scientists…” (Ah, I see. So her rebuke wasn’t official and he had to add his two cents)

“… and after that, nobody touched the tail.” I finished.

He continued looking at the floor. “Well, now you know.”

“Yeah, now I know you need a better sign.” I let that one slip, and we walked away from the Glyptodont as staff guy scurried back to wherever his post was.

You know, I really don’t want to cause trouble in museums. And I hate when kids are disrespectful of exhibits, even and maybe especially my own kids. And I appreciate how difficult it must be at times to manage an exhibit with kids running around and how tired museum workers must be after a busy day (Good Friday - a no school day for many).

But there isn’t a quicker way to gain my ire than to unfairly criticise or scold my kids. And I’m not quick to cool down from it, either.

[Edited to add: Even though my photo above is from the Harvard Museum of Natural History, the 2nd, 3rd and Final incidents described all happened at the Boston Museum of Science Darwin Exhibit. I know it’s kinda confusing, but I wasn’t allowed to take photos at the Darwin Exhibit, so I don’t have any from our visit. And I happened to snap a Glyptodont fossil picture earlier in the day at the Harvard Museum. Sorry for the confusion; I don’t want Harvard’s wonderful museum to be tarnished by this. The only incident which happened there was me getting warned about my flash, which was my fault entirely. ]

Posted by James at April 10, 2007 8:50 AM
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Did the guy look old enough to have a grown daughter? Or maybe a sister? You could suggest that he send her into a bar wearing a "Please touch me" sign and see what happens.

I was surprised to read that glyptodonts were the size of a small car. From the photo, the skeleton looks a lot like an armadillo.

Posted by: julie at April 10, 2007 10:34 AM

The model was about two and a half to three feet tall, I'd say. The fossil at the HMNH (photo) was about the same size as well. The sloth fossil is much taller than a car, but if he squatted down he'd be small-car size. And the glypt. does resemble an armadillo.

We seem to always make the staff nervous in museums. Whenever we go into the MFA in Boston we get chased around by staff. Once I pointed at a statue and they started in from the sides of the room. We must really look like bums.

Posted by: Maggie at April 10, 2007 11:34 AM

You should have asked the Glyptodont guy if he drives an SUV with really big tires. I hate it when people do that.

As for kids and museums, there are ways to warn without embarrassing. When we went to one of the Smithsonians last summer, #2 touched a sword mounted on the wall. A lady came over and very quietly said,"I know you are a really careful boy, and I would trust you to hold that sword. However, there are a few people here today who I just wouldn't trust, so I need to ask you not to touch that in order to make sure they don't want to touch it either. Can you help me out with that?". She was wonderful! #2 got the message, he felt like she wasn't criticizing him, and he continued to enjoy the museums with eyes only.

I'm sorry that happened to the girls. It's a crime to make children not want to visit museums and such, and that's surely what would happen if that man were to keep on doing his little shtick.

Posted by: Cindy at April 10, 2007 11:59 AM

That last story is just ridiculous. If they don't want people touching it, they really shouldn't put a sign on it saying "please touch me". I mean how many braincells does that leap of logic take?

How many thousands of touches does it take before someone figures out that the tail moves when you touch it?

I mean I respect that it's a fossil, zillions of years old, and the guy is trying to protect it, but if it really is that fragile there should be someone standing next to it explaining exactly HOW it may be touched, if there are limits. Or better yet, just put it behind glass and let the kids touch the trilobytes... hell they sell those in the gift shop...

Posted by: Chuck S. at April 10, 2007 12:14 PM

I wish he had been more inclined to be clear about what his problem was and perhaps discussing why the situation arose in the first place. He was in less of a mood to talk to someone his own size.

Posted by: James at April 10, 2007 12:17 PM

The one in the picture is real, the one at the BMoS (which we were allowed to touch) was only a model.

The sigh should have said: "Please touch my armor, but not my tail."

Or they could just have removed the tail. Or not let people touch it.

Many options here.

Posted by: James at April 10, 2007 12:34 PM

I've worked (paid, volunteer, and contract) in musea. The woman Cindy met has a healthy sense of ownership as well as an understanding of what a museum is supposed to do: Engage, Educate, and Inform. Touching an exhibit engages the audience, der. Contradicting signage is common among staff who try to supercede management so that they appear more "expert" to visitors. Arguing isn't what I mean by "engage." I expect more from the HMofNH.

Posted by: ThirdMate at April 10, 2007 1:26 PM

The HMofNH was fine -- it was the MoS where the girls were scolded. The MoS!! It's for children. The sign said "Please touch me." It was a big, yucky-feeling rubbery model (I touched it). The whole thing was absurd.

Posted by: Maggie at April 10, 2007 2:07 PM

I've added a note to clarify what happened where. Sorry to cause confusion! I think the picture makes things worse, but that's my only photo of a Glyptodont.

Posted by: James at April 10, 2007 2:45 PM

Yeesh. What a jerk. I'm sorry, but bullying children because you have had a trying day/week/life/whatever doesn't wash with me. I think it would get my dander up even if it weren't my kids. I think you showed pretty good restraint.

Posted by: briwei at April 10, 2007 4:34 PM

My apologies for my lack of reading comprehension. There. I apologized. Imus apologized. What's up with the Museum of Science guy?

Posted by: ThirdMate at April 10, 2007 4:44 PM

Everybody probably thinks their children are angels, and I wonder if anybody's reading this thinking, "yeah, they were probably touching it," but our children really do behave well in museums. We go very often (at least every other week in the summer, but some summers every week), so they know how to behave. And they are very respectful of authority figures other than us. :-P

When we were in the HMNH, there were two monstrous boys. First we were doing an interactive global warming activity in which we watch a movie and vote on individual panels. There are five voting stations. These two boys decided to both sit at the only unoccupied voting station when the activity was almost over. But they didn't sit quietly, they struggled with each other and yelled at each other so we couldn't hear the movie (and stepped on my foot in the ruckus). I said quietly, "we'll be done in a minute and then there will be plenty of seats," but that didn't slow them down one bit.

Later, we were in the mineral room, which is just rows and rows of horizontal glass cases. One of them threw a book at the other, and it landed on a glass case.

I sympathize with the parents that they might have difficult children (and I don't blame them, you take what you get), but that doesn't mean they have to inflict them on the museum. Once they start misbehaving, take them out. Get a babysitter, and go by yourself next time.

Posted by: Maggie at April 10, 2007 4:49 PM

Museum staff are often volunteers; there wasn't much of a screening process when I volunteered at the MoS in Boston. So visitors could probably do them a favor by pointing out the bad apples.

Posted by: Mike at April 10, 2007 5:03 PM

Ok -- I've dorky picture of me in front of the ground sloth at the Natural History Museum.

See here

Also notable: you can see the tail of the Glyptodont to get an idea of the scale of that animal.

Posted by: James at April 10, 2007 5:06 PM

Holy crap, his hands are as big as his head! (I'm referring to the ground sloth, not James)

Posted by: julie at April 10, 2007 5:24 PM


As you have taken this photo, and as perhaps I could use it here at the museum in our PR, could you please send me as hi-res version as you have?
Did you happen to shoot our glyptodont from different angles? I'd be delighted to give you
photo credit. Thanks so much. Blue

Posted by: Blue Magruder at April 11, 2007 9:44 AM

The photo and permission are on their way. Let me know if you have trouble receiving the photos.

Posted by: James at April 11, 2007 10:12 AM

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