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Science Communication in America’s National Museum


The command module of Apollo 11, Edison’s first light bulb and the most intact Tyrannosaurus Rex ever unearthed are amongst the 137.7 million items on display in the Smithsonian Institutions 19 museums; making it the largest conglomerate of museums anywhere in the world. At its center, in the heart of the National Mall in Washington DC, is the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). With an annual footfall of 8 million visitors, the century old NMNH is the most visited museum in North America and behind the polished public area, situates the worlds largest research facility dedicated to the study of natural and cultural history. On the second floor of this iconic Washington building, at the west side of the rotunda - sits the live insect zoo and butterfly pavilion; where I spent the 12 weeks of my PhD internship.

The Project

“Live arthropod care and management” was the official title of the Internship scheme I enrolled in. The initial scope was to help the department look after the live exhibits and assist in the delivery of key public programs such as the live tarantula feeding and insect handling. The intern role was surprisingly vital to the insect zoo, providing an extra team member to a department, which usually relies on volunteers. Additionally, the Smithsonian encouraged me to develop my education and outreach skills by allowing me to create my own project to engage 5 -10 year olds in entomology – a demographic which historically had poor coverage in the insect zoo. This was achieved by creating a ‘hands on’ activity aimed at children. A final element of my internship was learning to discuss my own PhD project in a public setting and helping the Smithsonian encourage a teenage audience to get inspired by the possibilities of further education and a career in science through the Smithsonian’s ‘expert is in’ program.

Delivering the Assignments

Work started early each day - arriving at the museum to prepare it for opening by cleaning, feeding and watering several hundred tarantulas, scorpions, stick insects and hissing cockroaches. By opening I was in the butterfly pavilion; an indoor tropical garden filled with 400 live butterflies to begin my daily public engagement. There, I was encouraged to approach the public, ask them questions, provide answers to their questions and discuss the exhibits with them. Each day I dedicated time to my two projects – one was an activity for children where they classified insects based on their wing numbers, sizes and shapes using a microscope and mounted insect specimens. Near the end of this project I discovered the challenges of museum bureaucracy - with damaged educational specimens and tight regulations regarding bringing in new specimens, this project was unfortunately abandoned after the planning and design phase, agonizingly close to assembly. The other project: to encourage teens to engage in science through my own experience involved attending workshops that were aimed at training scientists to work with the public, gathering resources and finally, assembling a stall where I stood to discuss both my work and experiences as a PhD student to the general public

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