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.

Am I a good or bad postgraduate student?

Over the years since I started my postgraduate career, I have come across a lot of different kinds of people. I have seen students who spend all day from 6 am to 9pm (or even later) at the office; those who disappear from campus for weeks in a row; those who spend all of their time in the lab doing experiments; those who are in the office every day with Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and their email (to make themselves feel better) tabs opened; and those who come occasionally for tea time and leave immediately after lunch. People are different and depending on what research you are doing, there are different expectations for each one of us.

Those doing theoretical/computational research do not necessarily have to be on campus every day (if they have a really good internet connection at home); as compared to those who have experimental work and are required to be in the lab to get experiments done. Like I said, people are different and we do different research, therefore, there are different expectations for each one of us. It is not fair or right to expect all of us to have the same work schedule. Some people work better at home than others. Just like Sesethu mentioned in her July blog post, all fields matter and we shouldn’t look down on others because they appear to not be putting as much effort into their studies like we do.

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I am one of those people who do experimental research and is expected to be on campus most of the time doing “experiments” but strangely enough, I fall under the “occasionally showing on campus for tea and leave after lunch” group. In the beginning, everyone would comment on how scarce I was and that I must be working really hard in the lab doing “experiments”. I would laugh and agree with them to make myself feel better that I am working very hard and being a good student. Unfortunately for me, this lie caught up with me and now everyone is shocked to see me on campus after 3pm. Is there such a thing as being a “good” postgraduate student? Well, I googled it and to my surprise, there wasn’t much on the topic but I did find something worth reading.

I am particularly happy with this one set of slides I found by Dr Sherry Beaumont. Nowhere does it say that I need to be in the office all day every day to be a good postgraduate student (which is fantastic news for me since I struggle with that). The slides give pointers on what the definition of a successful graduate student, what the characteristics of a good graduate student are and how to be a good graduate student. It is very consoling to me that I can say I follow some of the tips given but I still need to work very hard on this “being a good postgraduate student” thing.

I decided to change my search from “how to be a good postgraduate student” to “how to be a successful postgraduate student”. This search, on the other hand, yielded many results, I literally could not choose which page to open first. Since I like things summarized for me, I decided to go with a post by The Grad Student Way.  They published a post on 10 ways to be a successful PhD student; while choosing the right University is one of the most important things to consider, it is also important to stay passionate about your PhD. It is also very important to learn as much as we can, network, communicate, work hard, preserve, stay productive, read and publish. The last two are very important; you can never read enough, there are so many published papers out there for us to learn from and the best way to show all of your hard work is through publishing.

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If the journey to a Masters or PhD degree is not straightforward, how are we expected to behave in a certain way? There is no such thing as a good postgraduate; as long as you put in effort, dedication, commitment and stay passionate then you will conquer the bumpy road towards the red gown. Let us continue soldiering on to become successful postgraduates students, I mean, why be good if you can be successful?