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.

Science and Sustainability

One of the most impactful discoveries in science over the past century is the discovery that the Earth’s climate is changing on a catastrophic scale due to the release of man-made greenhouse gasses. This topic has been on everyone’s mind recently, thanks to the efforts of activist Greta Thunberg and many others. It got me thinking about how science – which helped the world realise there is a major problem – could do a lot better in terms of being environmentally-friendly. I also came across this article, which discussed the issue with plastic waste in certain fields.

Since this is a platform for young scientists, and young people are often open to change and trying out new things, I thought it would be a good place to open up the discussion about what we can do to reduce the environmental impact of our science. I know that most of us, as postgrads and young researchers, don’t necessarily have the power or authority to implement changes on the large scale as needed – and may require participating in some of the more destructive habits like travel to build our careers – but we can start by raising these topics and making suggestions! I’d also like to remind everyone that no-one is perfect when it comes to being carbon-neutral, but it’s important that we all try our best for the sake of the planet!

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polar ice cracking (credit: By Christopher Michel – https://www.flickr.com/photos/cmichel67/19626661335/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41618273),

Since I’m an astronomer, I will be drawing from this white paper titled ‘Astronomy in a Low Carbon Future’, which was prepared for Canada’s long-term planning in astronomy. Because of this, not all of this advice will be applicable in other fields. I’m looking forward to reading the comments on how some of these strategies could be adapted to other fields and how other fields have their own challenges and possibilities. 

One of the first, most impactful ways for science to reduce its carbon budget is to reduce travel. Between conferences and fieldwork, travel is an important and valuable part of science. However, air travel produces excessive amounts of carbon dioxide. Travel can be reduced by moving to remote meetings, conferences and even – in some cases – fieldwork. I recently took part in a meeting with and presented my work to some important collaborators in North Carolina without having to leave Cape Town, since the conference organisers wholeheartedly embraced remote participation through Zoom and Google Slides. It also made my participation possible, since I do not have much funding for travel and would not have been able to physically attend the conference otherwise. Although I missed out on the informal discussions, I was still able to confidently present my work and discuss some collaborative research that will form part of my Masters.

Another way that astronomy, in particular, is able to reduce travel is through remote observing. One of my fellow Masters’ students here at the South African Astronomical Observatory regularly controls a telescope in Sutherland from Cape Town and collects her astronomical data without having to travel. Remote observing is slowly becoming more common, which is excellent for reducing the amount of travel that observational astronomers have to do. 

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1.9m telescope in Sutherland which is remotely operable (Credit: SAAO)

An easy substitution that will reduce waste and greenhouse gas emissions is through catering at events. Switching to meals that are vegetarian for the most part will help cut down on overall meat consumption. The other plus-side to this is that it will make everyone who already eats vegetarian food a lot happier since their meals won’t be a sad, salad-based afterthought. 

Since the electricity supply in South Africa is currently a coal-based disaster, this is an area that gives me very little hope when it comes to powering scientific equipment and instrumentation. Unfortunately, massive telescopes like MeerKAT and the upcoming SKA require a lot of power. I can only hope that these telescopes will be powered through the abundant Karoo sunshine, rather than more coal. But, with Eskom’s current crisis and the relatively cheap price of coal, that seems less and less likely. As a student, I don’t have any insight into how the climate effects of this might be mitigated, but it is something that I would like to raise when I get the opportunity to do so.

Lastly, I think it’s important that – as scientists – we take part in political processes to counter climate change. Since none of our major political parties seems to take climate change as seriously as they should, we should make our voices heard by supporting activist groups that have the expertise necessary to put climate change on the government’s agenda. On a smaller scale, we can support organisations on our own campuses that advocate for the fight against climate change. Although individual efforts are important, this is a global problem that requires governmental and institutional interventions to prevent the catastrophic effects that will hit countries like South Africa the hardest.