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.

All In

by J. M. Sandlin, Museum Intern

I’m not exactly your typical community college student. With a time-yellowed bachelor’s degree from UCLA and at least two distinct careers under my belt, I tend to think of (and often describe) myself as an old dog in search of new tricks. Sometimes I find what I’m looking for–worthwhile sources of amusement and edification–in the varied curriculum of Mt. San Jacinto College.

MSJC is a mid-sized school with a laid-back atmosphere and more than a few genuinely caring educators. In early January I received an email from longtime MSJC faculty member Pam Ford, informing me of an upcoming opportunity to assist in the development of an exhibit at the Western Science Center. I couldn’t have been more delighted with the idea! For me, as a devotee of all things old and obscure, good museums are among life’s enduring pleasures. And the Western Science Center is rightly called a beacon of light in the Inland Empire’s small community of museums.

With Pam’s email duly read and responded to, I soon found myself seated loftily (if somewhat uncomfortably) atop the exhibition bandwagon, headed, along with my fellow student-interns, to the promised land of cool stuff. The view from that vantage point, however, was not at all what I had expected. For in front of us, stretching as far as the mind’s eye could see, lay a nicely tilled but otherwise unsown intellectual landscape. Suddenly it dawned on me–we were starting this thing from scratch!

The overarching theme had been determined for us: it was to be an exhibit about the evolution of humankind. Just about everything else, though, was up for grabs. We needed a title. We needed artifacts to display. We needed access to the latest research. In short, we needed a plan!

At first, the unfamiliar, unpronounceable, polysyllabic science-speak made my head spin. I’m a businessman-cum-historian. What did I know about science? What, realistically, could I hope to contribute to a scientific exhibition? For answers, I turned to MSJC Professor Erik Ozolins, the college’s front man for this endeavor, and WSC director, Dr. Alton Dooley.

Professor Ozolins and Dr. Dooley, presiding jointly (and somewhat intimidatingly) over the preliminary exhibition meeting, looked down WSC’s elongated conference table and addressed us would-be student-interns with kindness and reassurance. You can do it, they admonished us; you can help bring this exhibit to life!

That was exactly what I needed to hear. Yes, we’d be starting from scratch. And yes, the road ahead was likely to be a bumpy one. But come what may, from that day forward, I was all in.

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.