The Magic of Museums


Museums are some of my favourite spaces, I find myself drawn to them, wherever I go, whether I am on holiday or on a trip for work, I always end up wondering into one. A year ago, the world watched in horror as the Museu Nacional, the largest and oldest museum in Brazil, went down in a blaze, fire consuming the building and the 20 million or so artefacts it housed. The museum was 200 years old and this tragedy prompted discussions in museum circles regarding issues such as repatriation and digitisation of collections. The loss was immense, and the global outcry highlighted just how important museums are, they serve as spaces for research as well as for learning, bringing communities together and curating heritage. To me, museums transport me back in time and renew my child-like wonder at the world around us, they make me proud to be South African, they restore a sense of appreciation in our natural world, in our history and in the possibilities of our future.

In September this year, I worked closely with fellow postgraduate students at the School of Anatomical Sciences at WITS on a temporary exhibit that celebrated our school’s centenary. The exhibit was hosted at Maropeng and I can tell you, it is no small feat organising one so kudos to museum staff members and curators who undertake this important job! Our exhibit ran for two weeks but took months to plan, we asked a lot of our postgrad students who had tutoring commitments, deadlines and research projects to work on, but they gave their time, energy and ideas to make it a success. At the end of the exhibit I thought that they would be put off public engagement and organizing temporary displays and exhibits for the rest of their lives but to my surprise, it ignited a fire in all of us. We were interacting daily with scholars, families, children of all ages and they were curious and showed a real interest in anatomical sciences. The exhibit was hands-on, we had microscopes, archaeological excavations, facial identification activities, there were activities on embryonic development and extracting information from skeletons that can be used to identify people and all of these activities were met with a level of excitement I can recall having as a child! In truth, I don’t think I have ever lost that excitement.

Museums are not just important because of what is housed within their walls, they are important because of how they make us feel. There have been studies and many articles on the positive effects of museum visits on our mental health. Some studies report that museums help reduce anxiety and stress and feelings of loneliness, simply put, museums make us happy. They also allow family bonding, I witnessed this first hand as I saw proud parents encourage their children’s enthusiasm, standing outside in the hot sun so that their children could have an opportunity to excavate a skeleton from a sand pit, waiting patiently while they placed bones in the correct positions and celebrating with them when they completed the task. I met a family who had come to our exhibit and whilst their daughters excavated, I spoke to the parents, both of whom are engineers by training. The father explained to me that the youngest daughter has been fascinated with archaeology and palaeontology for a few years (she was probably 9 years old when we met), so they’ve taken her to see the home of dinosaurs in Clarens and on this holiday they brought her to the Cradle of Humankind. Her dad asked me about career options, what she would need to study at school and how she can enter the field. I was blown away that they expressed such support for her interests so early in her life, it’s parents like hers that give me hope for more women to join my field! As we’ve discussed many times here at SAYAS, strong support systems are crucial.

As I mentioned earlier, I LOVE museums and have been fortunate enough to visit museums in Africa, North America and Europe. My favourite museum has to be the National Museums of Kenya where I attended a conference in 2016, it is massive and constantly buzzing with life. There are many schools and hundreds of students who pass through the gates every day, I think that made it even more amazing, the atmosphere was filled with excitement constantly.

lisbon museums

In 2017, I ventured to the USA to attend the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) meeting which took place in New Orleans (a complete dream come true) and true to my love for museums, I boarded a boat called the Creole Queen and went on a one-woman trip to a former plantation which now serves as a museum, this was an incredible experience although very solemn and humbling.


ripleysWhen I left for Los Angeles to work with my supervisor who is based there, I visited the Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum, I may be giving away my age here but I loved that show growing up! In 2018, I attended the European Society for the study of Human Evolution (ESHE) meeting with a group of researchers from South Africa. We spent a few days in the city of Lisbon where we visited many museums but my favourite was the Lisboa Story Centre, I enjoyed the simplicity of the exhibits and how modern the set up was, definitely something to do if ever you find yourself in the city!

International museums are a fun time but learning about your own country is equally entertaining and important. I have been able to see many of the natural history museums here because of my field of study, my personal favourites are: Iziko Museums (because you can literally walk under the skeleton of a whale), Ditsong Museums (because it is home to one of my favourite fossils Mrs Ples and one of my favourite curators Dr. Mirriam Tawane) as well as the Origins Centre (it is down the road from my house and they host many fun activity days as well as the most interesting public talks). There are many, many other museums throughout the country, a list can be found here and you can see what local museums appeal to you. Remember, museums need foot traffic in order to keep their doors open so your visit helps ensure that it stays open and inspires the next generation of researchers, teachers, historians and explorers.

The final stretch fatigue

Can you believe we are in the last quarter? We are on the verge of saying goodbye to 2019 and welcoming 2020. This is it, the final stretch, but many people (including myself) are dragging themselves toward the finish line. According to the Merriam Webster dictionary, fatigue is a noun defined as ‘weariness or exhaustion from labour, exertion, or stress’ does this sound like you? There is a phenomenon known as ‘end-of-year-fatigue’ where many people have described a feeling of lethargy and a lack of focus as the year comes to a close.

downloadEarlier this year I wrote a blog post on mental health, “We need a break, it’s both of us (but more you than me)”, and I revisited it when writing this post because exhaustion does not suddenly happen, it is usually a slow build-up, a tower of anxieties built on a foundation of stress before your mind and your body tell you ‘enough is enough’. I thought that I was suffering alone until, in typical Kim style, I took to Twitter to share a few funny gifs about my lack of energy and to my surprise, many other academics and students related. Fatigue can be especially tricky as a postgraduate student as we often work throughout the year with little to no breaks, we do not have set semesters or holidays and often work over weekends and during the evening. So, although many people feel this ‘end-of-year-fatigue’ toward November, mine kicked in toward the end of August.

There are many articles which outline how to deal with this fatigue and survive the final push, here are a few of the top tips!

Focus on how far you’ve come

Sometimes in the rush to achieve all our goals, we tend to forget how much we have already accomplished. Everything that has been marked off a checklist is a small victory! Take stock of your year and all you have achieved, you may be surprised at how productive you truly were. This is a good reminder of your progress and helps to motivate you to continue crossing items off your ‘To do’ list

Create a schedule and manage your time

download (1)If you are anything like me, you start the year off as the most organized person and then slowly but surely that turns to chaos somewhere around the middle of the year. This is a good time to fix that, create a schedule and make use of your calendar, set aside time for your work and include breaks as well. Time management is crucial to your success as a postgraduate student and can often help avoid burning out. There are many great apps that can help with this as well, my personal favourite is Trello which helps me keep tabs on what I have done, what I’m currently doing and what I still have to do.

Revisit your goals and set targets for the last push

At the start of the year, we are often ambitious but as I have discovered, life happens and many unexpected obstacles arise. This may have thrown off your initial set of goals and targets, some may have been put on the back burner and some may have been discarded. This is a great time to reassess your goals and targets, be mindful of your time and what you would still like to achieve for the year, there is no shame in shifting things around! We tend to think we are superhuman and that we have to do it all before the clock strikes midnight on 31 December, this often creates even more anxiety.

Take care of your health

Exercising and eating well can sometimes go out the window when you are tired and have UberEats. I am guilty of this too, I am often tired and do not want to cook a healthy meal, instead, I want to eat several chocolates and lay in my bed. This can contribute to your feelings of lethargy, get up and move about, even if it is a short walk or a 30-minute yoga session, it will help you clear your mind and often makes you feel energized.

Create healthy habits

Do you check your emails at midnight? Do you work every weekend? These are all unhealthy habits that contribute to that feeling of being consistently busy and in the end, result in fatigue. Be firm with your time. I will repeat that. Be firm with your time. We all love what we are doing but your time is precious, you cannot and should not devote every waking hour to working! It takes a long time but start breaking these bad habits and replace them with healthier ones. Stick to your working hours, no matter what they are.

Allocate ‘me’ time

This does not need much of an explanation, self-maintenance is important! Take some time to do something for yourself, this could be a day of Netflix in bed or a laptop free day. Allocate time, put it in your calendar so that you do not feel bad because it is a scheduled appointment but with yourself!

Visualise your break!

My wonderful editor added this one in and I am so glad she did! Plan and schedule when your holidays will begin and every now and then look at photos, or make some plans. This might give you something to look forward to and boost your spirits to get you through the last stretch. Please, leave your laptop at home when the day finally comes- do not feel guilted into working on your break!

Seek help if it is needed

If your fatigue is overwhelming and you feel like you are drowning and struggling to come up for air, please seek help. There are many services offered by universities to support student mental health. There is a list of health care providers on the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) that is particularly useful!  

almostthereIt is okay to be tired after a long and productive year, you are not alone and you are not lazy. Sometimes that’s all you need to hear to make the finish line seem just a little closer. You can do it, we will do it together.