Stepping Out of the Past (and Over the Finish Line)

by Dr. Alton Dooley, WSC Executive Director

Western Science Center has an ambitious exhibit rotation schedule in which, between our two rotating exhibit galleries, we open five new exhibits each year. When we had our first meetings with the MSJC students back in January, we pointed out to them that even though we’d be working on the exhibit the entire year we would have four other exhibit openings before the hominin exhibit opened.

Such a rapid pace means that many of our exhibits are completed “just in time”, and Stepping Out of the Past is no exception. Because of the way the exhibit comes together, it often looks like nothing is happening until, suddenly, the exhibit is finished. I know some of the MSJC folks who haven’t worked extensively on exhibits are a bit unnerved, since we’re only two days away from opening, but we’re right where we need to be.

That’s not to say there isn’t a ton of activity right now! Most of our text and figure panels went to the printers last week, and are scheduled to arrive sometime today. All of the major structures have been completed, although all are still undergoing touch-up work. The layout of cases and panels in the exhibit hall have been finalized. We have a small army of WSC staff and volunteers and MSJC students and faculty working to complete these over the next two days. As an example, here’s what I’ve been doing on the exhibit over the last week (and note that other staff members are doing far more than I am on the exhibit):

  • Last-minute edits to some of the text panels
  • Writing iPad interactive displays on cave art, and on the migration of Homo erectus out of Africa
  • Working with several other people to install the sandbox specimens
  • Writing the identification guide for the sandbox
  • Making molds and casts of stone tools
  • Painting 3D prints of Homo naledi specimens
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Working on the sandbox.

I actually expect all of those tasks to be completed today except the installation of the sandbox specimens, and that should be completed tomorrow. Some of the wall panels will be installed today, with the remainder tomorrow, and specimens will move into the cases tomorrow. Friday will be cleaning, final touch-ups, and preparation for our opening reception for WSC members Friday night. We’re almost finished!

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The Search for Inspiration

by J.M Sandlin, Museum Intern

Last April I wrote my first blog post for the Western Science Center. In it I confessed the excitement and uncertainty I felt about building a hominin exhibit from scratch. The post’s title, “All In,” reflected not only my personal commitment to the project, but also the enthusiastic participation of my fellow student-interns. Now that preparations for the exhibition are well underway, I’d like to talk a little about the research and brain-storming that has enabled us to achieve this stage of development.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the exhibit’s basic trajectory had been selected prior to any student involvement. Our job, then, was twofold: first, to reconstruct the long and complicated evolutionary journey from tree-dwellers to builders of skyscrapers and space stations; and second, to come up with engaging and visually appealing ways in which to present that information to the general public.

To date, our modus operandi has been more or less as follows. Under the joint supervision of college and museum officials, each student-intern has taken on one or more hominin species as personal research projects. At regular intervals, we have present the fruits of our labor to the entire exhibition team, offering insights and suggestions to be discussed by the group writ large.

Of course not all scientific study takes place in labs, libraries, or in the virtual halls of the World Wide Web. A couple of months ago, for example, most of the exhibit team took a road trip to the Museum of Man in San Diego. It’s the perfect place to get an overview of hominin evolution as well as some ideas about display possibilities.

In crafting an exhibit, however, it’s not our objective to emulate the work of others. Rather, we’re actively striving to gather as much information as we can from the best and brightest sources, then share that knowledge in ways that make sense for local audiences. It’s a balancing act which every museum, large or small, must engage with to a certain extent. But though the road ahead remains fairly long, I’m increasingly confident we’ll be able to offer the public something that’s simultaneously worthwhile and complementary to other California museums.

Wish us luck!

 

Between a Rock & a Hard Place: Lithic Tools

by Rebecca Byrnes, Museum Intern

My section of the exhibit, as stated in my previous entry, will focus on Homo habilis as well as Homo erectus, and I’ve chosen to have one of the most prominent features in the exhibit to be about stone tool making.

I first learned about stone tool creation in my archaeology courses this semester. Though I’d heard brief descriptions of lithic (stone) tools, I’d never been introduced to how they’re manufactured. In archaeology class I watched a video featuring Bruce Bradley, one of the best specialists on lithic manufacturing. The tools needed for the job are simple- a hammer stone or antler, and a type of stone that breaks in a particular pattern.  I was amazed to hear of the very specific cone-shaped breakage found when hitting a piece of obsidian. This shape of breakage is termed as being “conchoidal.” Bradley was able to predict exactly what the flake would look like, which was a feat I thought impossible.

Often when we hear of hominins making stone tools, we believe that it’s a relatively easy process. We figure you bang on a bit of stone for a while and when it looks about right, you go off and slay some large animal. I must admit that I also believed this before studying anthropology, but this is definitely not the case.

In my archaeology lab class I had the unique opportunity to try to manufacture my own tool. I was given a brick and some sand along with a plethora of raw materials. I selected for myself some shell, bone, and rock as I had recently seen a picture of bone beads and stone projectile points and felt inspired.

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I sat down and considered my approach. I concluded that my first step would be to break the rock into a more manageable piece. So I hit it with a rock. The rock shattered, leaving me flabbergasted and having to now pick up the shards of its remains. I then began the shaping portion, something I assumed would be rather easy.

It wasn’t.

I tried sanding it and using a small hammer stone to break off smaller bits, to no avail.

“Well, I didn’t want a projectile point anyway,” I said in a defeated tone, placing the rock down and picking up bone. So I sat there for the remainder of class sanding a little piece of bone against a brick. By the end of two classes I had a piece of bone exactly the same size as before with a slightly smooth edge and a brick that had been substantially sanded down.

What I’m trying to describe here is that it’s simply marvelous to stop and consider the complex stone tools found at some of these sites. The hand axes found with H. erectus specimens are so amazing when you take into consideration the skills needed to complete such a difficult task. This is why I want to make lithics such a prominent piece of the exhibit. I hope that through the design of the exhibit the museum is able to illustrate how astonishing and impressive tool making really is in a way that sticks with the visitors.

An Educator’s Perspective

by Brett Dooley, MSJC Professional Development Coordinator

The students and scientists involved with this exhibit have already shared their experiences. I come with a slightly different perspective, which I’d like to share. I am married to Alton, and thus have been around museums and discussing exhibits with him for over 15 years, but this is the first time I have been “in the trenches” for an exhibit design. I am a teacher, having taught elementary, middle, high school, and currently community college, and I have a research interest in geoscience education. The perspective I bring is a focus through these lenses. What I see in this collaboration are the myriad ways all of the participants are benefiting from the project, along with a few ways it could be even better.

Since I’m married to the big guy, I’ll start with what he and Erik seem to be getting out of this. In these two you have a tremendous amount of knowledge but not in the same fields. What links them are the ties between physical anthropology and vertebrate paleontology, most significantly surrounding evolution. The excitement and enthusiasm they bring presents itself through series of positive feedback discourses, which are rather amusing to watch. One of them will make a comment, which sparks an idea in the other, who then rambles off on a somewhat relevant tangent, both of them with richer notions of exhibit design or content for the conversation.

Meanwhile, the students, along with the benefits derived from conducting their independent research, have the opportunity to witness these conversations. At times they ask questions or make comments, but generally they sit back and listen. This is, however, not simple, passive learning. What the students have the opportunity to witness is the true nature of science!

IMG_4495Science, for all the stereotypes that scientists are socially awkward, is a field that relies heavily on communication, collaboration, and creativity. People think artists are creative and scientists are logical. Well, okay, scientists tend to be logical, but the field also involves a great deal of innate curiosity and creativity. How else could one come to understand all of the new discoveries and constantly think of new questions and new problems to solve? The students are seeing an exhibit come together, and doing extensive research about a few species of hominins, but more significantly, they are experiencing science. They are seeing, some for the first time, that they are not alone or strange for their love or passion for learning about long extinct organisms. They are getting to see the tangible rewards for and value in the research they are doing, knowing the children and adults in their community will benefit from what they are doing.

This semester has been exciting. I look forward to its continuation in the summer and fall, to observing the various interactions, and even adding my two cents every now and then.

An Anthropological Christmas

by Erik Ozolins, Professor of Anthropology at Mt. San Jacinto College

Last month was Christmas in July (well, March, but the temperature made it feel like July). When I got to campus at Mt. San Jacinto College, there was an email from UPS that our Bone Clones order of the 30 casts I had ordered with the grant funds would be arriving. After checking with our warehouse folks, I ran to lunch, returning to find a large box in the middle of my office. Since we were meeting with a journalist from the Press Enterprise at the Western Science Center later that day, I decided to bring the box to the WSC so we could all look at the casts that we will be using in the exhibit. I barely managed to fit the large box into the back seat of my Civic and headed off to the WSC.

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A very large box of casts.

At the WSC, Brett Dooley and I opened up the box, pulling out all of the individual cast boxes, reading each label enthusiastically.  The time of the interview arrived and we went to the office to greet the journalist and photographer. Brett, Dr. Alton Dooley, Darla Radford (WSC Collections Manager), Brittney (WSC Marketing & Events Associate), and Becky Byrnes (one of the student interns) spent the next half hour speaking to the journalist and photographer, unwrapping each of the boxes and laying out the skulls and other casts on a table in the WSC receiving bay.

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Intern Rebecca Byrnes and Collections Manager Darla Radford lay out the casts.

Tim Sheridan, the journalist, asked us questions about the items or about our history with the museum or anthropology, but invariably two or three of us would start talking about some aspect of the specific cast we were uncovering, from the Shanidar Neandertal’s eye injury (after much discussion we seem to have decided to have a side display devoted to Shanidar 1), to the oldest fossil we are likely to be exhibiting, Aegyptopithecus zeuxis, dating to around 33-35 million years ago. It was thrilling to see the excitement of all involved. After the photographer left, Alton took the journalist on a tour of the exhibit space where we continued to answer questions for the article.

Little by little the exhibit is moving forward. The excitement of that day provided a boost of energy that should help us keep going when the exhibit opening seems so very far away. Looking at the actual items that will be in the exhibit was a tangible connection to the exhibit opening in November.

Creating Exhibit Panels: #TeamConglomerate or #TeamSeparateSpecies?

by Rebecca Byrnes, Museum Intern

I am absolutely loving the opportunity to have a role in creating a museum exhibit. At the same time, one of the most annoying things about creating an exhibit is wading through the countless facts about your specimen to choose a couple that will really appeal to the visitor. You will spend hours researching a hominin and realize that there are arguments everywhere. I don’t know why I assumed that all scientists came to conclusions about a specimen and stuck with them, but the fact is, they don’t.

Scathing articles are written and teams appear. Are you team conglomerate or team separate species? It’s both hilarious and terrifying how willing I’ve become to argue over the finer points of my group of hominin. While this is great for an anthropology major to know, it’s quite overwhelming for anyone who hears me ranting.

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For example, one task I was given by my professor was to write up a draft of what I felt should go on the panels next to the display cases, so I set about writing down everything I knew about Homo habilis and Homo erectus, complete with sources. I didn’t even consider what it must have sounded like to someone who has never even encountered the idea of hominin before. Not until my siblings came home, that is.

My siblings walked up to my computer desk and asked excitedly if I was doing “museum stuff.”

“Indeed I am!” I responded with glee, happy to have someone to share my research with. They paused, staring at my word document. I watched their faces, expecting to see surprise and wonderment. Instead, I was horrified to watch their eyes glaze over as I realized they skipped over two paragraphs.

My siblings turned to me with a confused look and said, “you used words I didn’t understand to talk about things I don’t understand.” The glass shattered. Of course these fourth graders don’t know what the zygomatic bone is and why it’s important that Homo habilis has a less convex one. Ok, well, I could reword that. I told them that I would change that part.

“Yes but it’s still a lot of reading,” one of my siblings said.

“I wouldn’t stand there and read this much in a museum,” said another. I swiveled my chair around, defeated, and began the painful task of deciding which of my precious paragraphs was going to get slashed.

Knowing all of this information is great, it truly is. I enjoy the ability to discuss early hominins and have interesting facts to tell. I guess the point of the story is that though I may find something to be fascinating, the visitor might not. When I’m at a museum I always love to read the panels to the side. Everything on it is interesting and explained in a way that makes sense, and I appreciate it. Without this internship I would have never even considered that there was more that they wanted to say but couldn’t. That’s why I think this blog is such a wonderful idea! On here I’ll be sharing interesting stories, tidbits, and articles that couldn’t make it into the museum though I so desperately wanted them to. I hope you enjoy reading further posts on here as I share more of my ramblings with you.

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Rebecca holding a Bones Clones cast.

From the Navy to the Museum

by Bo Chesire, Museum Intern

After 8 years in the Navy the only things I wanted were not to shave, not get a hair cut, and go to college. But as far as what I wanted to go to college for, I really didn’t know. I had spent my time in the Navy as a Hospital Corpsman (the seafarer’s term for medic) and I was quite good at my job and definitely enjoyed helping people.

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Bo Chesire, Museum Intern, during his military service.

I had previously taken a lot of biology classes and even a little anatomy and physiology. However, in those classes, they seemed to skim over human evolution and I had some questions about how we became us. So while searching the college catalog before my separation from the Navy, I found a class titled “Physical Anthropology”. I reasoned that it would benefit me as an aspiring physician’s assistant to understand our evolutionary heritage. So I signed up.

Within the first week of classes I knew that anthropology was going to be my major. I love how inclusive the the discipline is, combining our evolutionary heritage, linguistic ability, culture, and tying it all together with the evidence from archaeology. As a study, it is all encompassing and has a little something for everyone.

That first semester I got to know Professor Ozolins and Professor Ford well. They were really helpful in guiding me and giving me valuable advice for the next stage in my education. When I received an email from Professor Ozolins over winter break about a potential internship with the Western Science Center, I knew I needed to be a part of it.

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Bo holding a “hobbit” skull.

For me this is an opportunity to give back to the school and program that has been a major part of a very important transition in my life. I know many people who have left military service and not thrived; I can attribute my own success to the fun and interesting people at MSJC. I also hope this exhibit will serve to educate a large portion of the population that might not know about the story of human evolution. Trust me; it’s a fascinating one, and you won’t want to miss it.

Interns, Grants, and Casts – Oh My!

by Erik Ozolins, Professor of Anthropology at Mt. San Jacinto College

After Alton and I talked about doing an exhibit based on the collections in my lab at MSJC, I assumed that nothing would come of it, but after several more conversations, the initial discussions had a definite possibility of being put into action.  I quickly realized that the five or six month exhibit that Alton was talking about would keep the teaching collection out of the hands of the students for much too long, so I decided to write an internal grant through the college. I figured that this project would meet two critical components of MSJC’s mission: student classroom instruction and community outreach.  After the casts would be used in the exhibit, the Anthropology department could use the casts in our classes at the San Jacinto Campus and the San Gorgonio and Temecula Centers, as those collections were much smaller.

During Spring 2015 I wrote the budget request proposal.  I figured we would need about 25 to 30 casts and so I asked for around $8500 – and the proposal was funded in July! This was both exhilarating and terrifying. This meant that I had to actually help put together a museum exhibit, something that I have never done before!

As Alton and I talked over the summer and into the beginning of the Fall semester, we both independently came up with the idea of including students in the project.  At the college we have a course/program called Cooperative Work Experience (which is essentially an occupational internship). Alton and the WSC would be the employer for the students and I would serve as the faculty advisor. The other full time Anthropology professor at MSJC, Pam Ford, and I identified the possible Anthropology majors at the college who might be interested in the project. I sent an email to them all, hoping to get interest from maybe four to five students, and ending up with one or two students joining us on the exhibit journey. Within a couple of days, I had already received interest from about eight students – eventually rising to 14 students expressing interest in the project. In late January, 11 of the students met with Alton, Darla Radford (the Collections Manager at the WSC) and I, and ultimately seven students signed up for the internship.

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Professor Erik Ozolins discussing the exhibit with prospective interns.

For the last two months the student interns have been researching different hominin species and participating in meetings with us every few weeks to discuss and brainstorm the exhibit. It has been fascinating for me, and I believe for Alton as well, to see what the students come up with. Many of their ideas are progressing in terms of development, and we shall see whether they end up in the finished exhibit. Stay tuned and expect to hear from the students themselves as they participate in the development of this blog as well.

The Exhibit Begins

by Dr. Alton Dooley, WSC Executive Director

This blog is the story of a museum exhibit, from conception to execution. Like many other large projects, this one has surprisingly modest beginnings.

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Patrick Henry Community College students examine hominid replicas

In the fall of 2014 I was the newly hired Director of the Western Science Center, trying to learn as much as possible about my new position and surroundings as quickly as I could. Besides the day-to-day work of overseeing the museum’s budget and operations, I was meeting the vast numbers of people that make a museum successful – staff, board members, volunteers, donors, visitors, etc. At the same time, I was starting to think about what exhibits we were going to be running over the next two years.

One of the people I met early on was Erik Ozolins. Erik is an anthropology professor at Mt. San Jacinto College with several connections to WSC. Besides being married to WSC educator Margaret Ozolins, Erik is a frequent volunteer at our events and is one of the organizers of the joint WSC/MSJC lecture series. As soon as I was able, I took Erik up on an invitation to give me a tour of the MSJC Menifee campus.

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Professor Erik Ozolins (left) & Dr. Alton Dooely (right)

At Erik’s office, he showed me a cabinet filled with cast replicas of a huge range of primate skulls. Even though I don’t do research on humans, most of the skulls were familiar to me. In my previous job at the Virginia Museum of Natural History, I collaborated with my wife Brett Dooley, who was then a biology and geology professor at Patrick Henry Community College, to develop museum short courses to teach human evolution to high school and college students using many of the exact same casts. Erik, of course, was using the skulls for exactly the same purpose in a classroom setting.

As we looked at Erik’s collection, I made some comment along the lines of wishing the museum had access to such an impressive array of casts, because they could be turned into a compelling exhibit on human history. Erik suggested that it might be possible to work out an arrangement for the museum to borrow casts from the college for an exhibit, especially if MSJC students could be involved in the project in some way. And, just like that, an exhibit concept was born.

In future posts we’ll be describing the twists and turns of this exhibit as it develops from many different points of view, including WSC and MSJC staff, as well as the MSJC students involved in the project. The project is ongoing, so we don’t yet know all the twists and turns it may take; in fact, we don’t yet have a final exhibit title for “Insert Exhibit Name Here”! But we hope you’ll follow along with us as we see how it evolves.