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Collections August 2018: Touchable Taxidermy

A bat, a gopher. and an ermine in a display caseA bat. A gopher. An ermine. This month we welcome these new additions to a special part of the Museum’s holdings: Our Education Collection. When we talk about our Collections, we often talk about the distinction between different kinds of objects, like our geology specimens or anthropological artifacts. Another significant line we draw is less about the nature of an item and more about the purpose such an item serves in the life of the Museum. In our primary Collections we include materials that are actively preserved and protected, whether they present a unique avenue of research or are simply too fragile to be handled without damage. Regardless of their condition, an important criteria for these “museum quality” items is that they are accompanied by sufficient data  (e.g. field notes/locality, age, history of object, collector id, etc.) to form the basis for scientific research.

In contrast, the Education Collection consists of those specimens and artifacts that can engage more directly with the general public. Though we may have limited information about these individual specimens and artifacts, they can still support experiential learning through our programs, pop-ups and workshops. They include stones you can heft, furs you can feel, and jaws you can manipulate, all to gain a more hands-on and tactile observation of the natural world. When we are given the opportunity to accept a specimen donation, we gather as much information as we can about it to help us determine whether it belongs in the general Collections or in our Education Collection. If we expect items to be handled on a regular basis, we also consider whether they are safe to touch. Traces of arsenic from dated taxidermy processes sometimes linger in mounts and dioramas, for example.  

When we were offered the specimens featured in this month’s Close-Up, we knew they were great candidates for our Education Collections because they already had a history of being handled. Gifted by a local teacher for the visually impaired, the donation included several small mammals, a bird skeleton and nest, and a red fox. In this context they have been used as an opportunity for blind and visually impaired students to gain a greater understanding of animals through touch. While these specimens were collected in various locations across the West Coast, we can trace their origin as instructional materials to the Palo Alto Unified School District.

The use of taxidermy in visually impaired education and programming has a long-standing presence in natural history museums. As early as 1913, the Sunderland Museum in the United Kingdom offered programs and classes for blind and visually impaired children and adults to touch animal specimens as well as historical and anthropological artifacts. Pictures of these programs are publicly available through the Tyne & Wear Archives and Museums’ Seeing through Touch photo collection. Similarly, in the digital collections of the American Museum of Natural History, a collection of photographs taken between 1914 and 1927 documents public school class visits for blind and visually impaired students. In these photos of what were mostly called “sight conservation classes,” you can see students clustered around a hippopotamus or handling globes of the Earth and Moon.  

Today, teachers still use taxidermy to educate visually impaired students. Several decades-old specimens populate the library at the California School for the Blind, for example, where children can still explore them. These specimens range from a racoon to a coyote to a small pig, though a constant favorite is the bear. While they currently serve as an informal opportunity for students to gain experiential knowledge of animal traits, in previous years they have been used in formal classroom settings.  

Stop by the Museum this month to get a feel for this Close-Up and the unique history these specimens represent.

August 2018: Reflecting and Looking Forward

Group of children checking out the tidepoolAs many of you know, I will leave my position as Executive Director in late August to join my husband in the Pacific Northwest, where he has started an incredible new job opportunity. It is a bittersweet time for me as I prepare to leave this special museum and our wonderful community. As I reach the end of my tenure here, I have reflected on the many accomplishments our great team of staff, Board and volunteers has achieved since I took the lead in February 2015.

We have expanded and strengthened our public and school programs, created more dynamic gallery experiences, and renewed efforts for better management of the Museum’s collections. Behind the scenes, we have established a strong operational infrastructure to support our expanded efforts. We have experienced increases in attendance, membership and giving – all while building a more financially resilient organization. I am so proud of the work we have accomplished together and of the Museum we are becoming.

During the past eight months, our staff and Board have worked together to craft a strategic plan to lead the Museum for the next three years. This plan will guide the organization in its priorities, activities and initiatives through the year 2021. It includes key strategic goals, the measurable objectives and tasks to accomplish them, and a comprehensive financial model with which to realize them.

Our Museum has made tremendous strides in the last three years and this new strategic plan outlines an equally ambitious set of goals for the next three years. These goals center on: science education and stewardship, visitor experiences and audience diversification, collections care and accessibility, community partnerships, organizational sustainability, and facility revitalizations. These strategic themes attest to our commitment to engage diverse audiences in meaningful interactions with nature and science that educate and inspire.

The Museum’s new plan reflects the creativity and mission-driven dedication of many individuals. I am so thankful to the community members, staff and Board who contributed their perspectives and ideas during the process. Together, our hopes for the Museum and our community have brought the plan to life. I am confident that, through the collaboration of our talented staff, Board and community partners, the goals we now aspire to achieve will in time become milestones of which we will be deeply proud.

In the coming weeks, we will formally announce the plan and make it available to all.  I hope you will embrace it with us and support the Museum as it continues to strengthen and thrive in the future.

Thank you,

Heather Moffat McCoy

Marisa Gomez: Public Programs Manager

Marisa Gomez, Public Programs ManagerMeet Marisa: author, certified naturalist, seasoned trivia host, and procurer of art-friendly plant materials. Marisa has elevated the Museum by wearing many hats over the years, but we now know her as our Education Coordinator – a role she’s held since 2016.

If you’ve enjoyed the Museum’s social media posts, then you’ve already seen Marisa’s handiwork at play. As the voice of our social media, she keeps our digital community abreast of the Museum’s many events, and helps others to forge connections with nature before they even walk through our doors.

She also leads the Museum’s onsite school programs, coordinates group visits, helps orchestrate our public programs, and specializes in immersing our visitors in the culture and stewardship practices of the native people of Santa Cruz, the Amah Mutsun.

Marisa first joined our team as a volunteer in 2013, shortly after earning her B.A. in creative writing from San Jose State University. She came to the Museum to learn the area, meet new people and conduct research for her writing. She soon discovered her passion for teaching others about the traditions of Santa Cruz’s native people when she became a docent.

Today, Marisa is a certified naturalist under the University of California’s Naturalist Program. She helps to educate the Museum’s team of docents, and strives to help others learn and make use of traditional knowledge bestowed by native cultures of Santa Cruz.

“I’m most proud of our new program series, Amah Mutsun: Then and Now,” she said. “By visiting areas of cultural significance and using native plants to create pieces of art, we connect our community with the native people of this amazing place we call home in a way that empowers and amplifies the voices of the Amah Mutsun.”

Her expertise extends beyond natural history, though, and well into the world of trivia. As occasional trivia host to Santa Cruz’s Red Room, 99 Bottles and the Museum over the past five years, Marisa has generated thousands of trivia questions spanning a variety of subjects.

She’s especially fascinated by the connections people form with plants, be they for art, tool use or nourishment. Marisa aims to forge those connections through our many workshops, where visitors can get their hands dirty by extracting natural dyes, weaving baskets, or printing unique images of local algae, among other activities.

“When people rely on something,” she said, “they’re more likely to care about it. And stewardship starts with that initial connection. The greater the connection, the more likely you are to protect it when it’s threatened.”

This post was updated on April 15, 2020 to list Marisa’s current title.