Building the Museum: Engaging Children with the Natural World

The museum in the author's basement, circa 1977.  Copyright, Richard Telford
The museum in the author’s basement, circa 1978. Copyright, Richard Telford

By Richard Telford

In the late 1970s, unbeknownst to our parents, my brother Will and I used a can of white, oil-based exterior house stain to paint on the short wall of our cellar what my brother, four years my senior, had calculated to be a life-sized silhouette of an Ankylosaurus, an herbivorous dinosaur dating to the Late Cretaceous period.  My mother’s first awareness of something being afoot came with her discovery of the stain-drenched brushes soaking in the bathroom sink shortly before dinner guests were to arrive.  To their credit, our parents could see the spirit of discovery in such endeavors, despite the inconveniences they might bring.  The Ankylosaurus a la Sherwin Williams was, in reality, just one of a number of acts of scientific discovery that took place in our cellar, some being more illustrious than others.

Another view of the cellar museum in the author's childhood home.  Copyright, Richard Telford
Another view of the cellar museum in the author’s childhood home, circa 1978. Copyright, Richard Telford

I wince even now, more than three decades later, when I think about the host of frogs that took the one-way trip—despite our earnest intentions and efforts otherwise—to the subterranean aquarium we set up in several old fish tanks, or the formaldehyde-saturated dogfish shark (Squalus acanthias) that circulated for years around our cellar in its thick, two-ply plastic bag, never to be dissected—my intended but later abandoned state science fair project.  In spite of such false starts and misguided efforts along the way, our cellar was a thriving classroom, both for ourselves and for other neighborhood children.  The creation of our life-sized Ankylosaurus was not an isolated endeavor; instead, it was the visual centerpiece of a much larger undertaking—the creation of our own cellar-housed science museum.

A small sampling of the collection of seashells sent to the author's family in the late 1970s.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford
A small sampling of the collection of seashells sent to the author’s family in the late 1970s. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

Several fortuitous events augmented our museum’s collection.  The first was a brief visit from a second cousin of my father’s who had a two-day layover in New York before leaving for a long stay in Germany.  Several months after her visit, she sent a large package from Germany to thank us for our hospitality and to encourage our interest in natural history, which had been evident to her during her stay.  The package contained a dilapidated box packed tightly with a museum-caliber collection of seashells.  For each specimen, there was a small, typed paper label containing its respective binomial nomenclature identification.  How this collection was acquired, we never knew, as we never heard from its sender again, but it took its place among our growing holdings.

The author, right, and his brother, at the Ontario Science Centre, 1977.  Copyright, Richard Telford
The author, right, and his brother, at the Ontario Science Centre, 1977. Copyright, Richard Telford

My brother and I were likewise fortunate enough growing up to have been taken to numerous science museums and centers.  During this period, most museum gift stores offered for sale Kodachrome slide sets of their collections and of related phenomena.  We had acquired quite a few of these sets over the years, and many were displayed in our museum on an inexpensive light board or projected through our Kodak Carousel projector on a contraband bed sheet stapled to a floor joist.  There was also a plaster cast of a latter Triassic Period Coelophysis footprint, made by us at Connecticut’s Dinosaur State Park.  The remaining tables featured local specimens of all things natural, mostly dead or inanimate, but some living as well.  We rounded things out with an Edmund Astroscan telescope, a four-vaned solar radiometer (which can still be bought at Edmund Scientific for $11.95), and an assortment of items from our kitchen junk drawer.  Our displays were laid out on simple plywood tables our father had made to serve as platforms for our model trains.  Signboards and related posters lined the walls. Thus, our museum at 73 High Ridge Road was born.

To the trained curator, the organization of our collections was nebulous at best.  A diorama with assorted sandbox dinosaurs—a staple of my childhood—might be flanked by a set of NASA Landsat image slides on one side and a lethargic pickerel frog (Rana palustris) housed in a mesh-covered fishtank on the other.  But that, truly, was the beauty of it. When children build the museum, no matter what the scale or whom the intended audience, they are not hemmed in by the strictures of the adult world.  Nor should they be.  For children, building the museum is an act of exploration, of engagement; it is a natural manifestation of their innate sense of wonder.  In the compulsive drive to deliver to children of all ages what we now loosely term “a 21st century education,” i.e. an unfettered immersion in the newest instructional technologies that cannot and does not consider the whole child, it is precisely these impulses in children—to explore, to engage, to wonder—that we must take great care not to dull down or blot out.  The risk of doing so is terribly real, and the evidence of this unintended result of our best educational intentions is soberingly apparent and has been aptly illustrated in insightful works such as Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods, David Sobel’s Beyond Ecophobia, and Mary Rivkin’s The Great Outdoors: Restoring Children’s Right to Play Outside. These innate impulses must be fostered, honed, and celebrated.  For a child, building the museum, whatever shape it may take, can achieve these ends.

A collection of small shells bought by the author and his daughter for three dollars at a tag sale.  Copyright 2014, Richard Telford
A collection of small shells bought by the author and his daughter for three dollars at a tag sale. Copyright 2014, Richard Telford

In Gertrude Chandler Warner’s 1949 book Surprise Island, the sequel to her classic The Boxcar Children, the protagonists, the four Alden children, build a museum filled with bird nests, seashells, dried seaweeds, and paper cut-outs of the natural phenomena they observe on the island where they are spending the summer.  While reading this part of the book with my five-year-old daughter, I told her about the museum of my childhood, and she promptly asked if we, too, could build a museum.  Over several months we have collected a variety of items destined for our museum: robin egg fragments, a dragonfly wing, abandoned bird nests, assorted shells we have collected along the Connecticut and New York shorelines, and a host of other items. We too have had some fortuitous finds, such as a vintage, divided candy box filled with small seashells organized by species; this we bought at a tag sale for three dollars, and we will divide its contents into small grab bags for each of the children in my daughter’s first grade class.  This is important, as our museum represents something of an evolution.  Ours will go on the road to my daughter’s classroom, and perhaps, as my daughter gets older and my two young sons enter school, it will keep evolving and growing, as good museums do.

By the time my mother sold the house of our childhood in 2003, the last remnants of white trim stain had long ago sloughed off the damp north wall of our cellar, leaving no physical trace of our Ankylosaurus or the museum for which it had been the centerpiece.  The legacy of that museum, however, is a vibrant, living one that, through my own children, may well outlive its creators.  It is too easy these days to blindly place the proverbial eggs of our children’s future in the technology basket.  It is likewise too easy to despair over the disconnection from the natural world that so many children experience now, and to accept that disconnection as a necessary by-product of our present age.  As David Sobel has noted, we must allow children “to love the Earth before we ask them to save it.”  Building the museum is a great way to begin doing so.

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