The radio museum in Howth

This could have been a post about a walk on the Cliffs of Howth, a small seaside town north of Dublin. Yesterday was a beautiful day, with a brisk wind and light cirrus clouds–a great day for a cliff walk if you don’t stand too close to the edge and if you watch your footing on the muddy track and wet rocks.

Pat and EmilyBut before we began the walk, we happened upon a wonderful small museum about the development of radio: Ye Olde Hurdy-Gurdy Museum of Vintage Radio. It’s in the Martelo Tower above the harbor, at one end of the cliff walk. Pat Herbert, the founder, is passionate about what he’s learned about radio, and communications in general, drawing everyone else into it. Susan adds:

Pat played a tape on which a group of amateur radio enthusiasts had recorded a conversation with the Space Shuttle Columbia during the few minutes it was over Ireland in 1983, 20 years prior to its tragic crash over Texas. One of the astronauts at the time was an amateur radio enthusiast, and Irish amateur radio people had spent hours trying to contact him. A visitor to the museum gave Pat the tape, which he owned only because his brother had been one of the 1983 radio buffs. The entire visit was like that, just one story after another… He had many stories, mostly directed at Emily. And, typically, at about 1:00, announced that it was about time for a cup of tea and biscuits. So we sat around and talked for a good while.

Howth cliffPat said that not many school groups come to the museum. That’s a shame, because the exhibits could be fascinating to young people as well as to those who lived through some of the times presented there. I think especially of young people in transition year programs (age ~15), who are doing new media projects, such as at the Suas Foundation’s excellent Bridge to College (B2C) programme . The museum would introduce interesting technologies as well as add an historical perspective.

Susan and EmilyWhen we did manage to set off on the hike we had a wonderful windy time, circling a good part of the Howth peninsula with grand views of the Ireland’s Eye and the Dublin harbor, and then making it up to the Ben of Howth. Eventually returned to the port in time for early dinner at The Oar House.


Barsana Monastery church I’m attaching a couple of photos from Romania, where we went in September. One is a wooden church in the Maramureş style. It’s part of the Barsana Monastery. Another was one of many hitchhikers we picked up. Our old Dacia wasn’t much as a car, but it beats walking or horse-drawn cart when you’re tired. We had learned enough Romanian to figure out that the man is 82, has 9 children, and knows the woman who works in the post office and runs our B&B. We also saw what may be the oldest, and is certainly the longest-running Unitarian Church (in Cluj-Napoca). I spent an hour with the pastor, learning about their history and the church building and furnishings.

In Maramures, we saw Elie Wiesel’s home/museum. As you friend in Botizamay know, Maramureş was one of the worst holocaust sites, with over 20,000 Jews from Sighetu-Marmaţiei alone sent to Auschwitz. Later, Communists in Romania sent tens of thousands of “Saxons” (ethnic Germans) to work and die on the Danube canal construction. Roma people managed to be persecuted throughout, and still suffer from prejudices today (although projects such as Şanse Egale are working to improve opportunities).

We also saw the museum sometimes called the “Museum of Suppressed Thought”, which made me aware that my imagination is limited in conceiving all the ways people can oppress one another, and all the different ethnic prejudices that can be realized. Maramureş and Transylvania in general have seen more than their fair share. That’s especially disturbing to think about in a country which is otherwise so beautiful, friendly, and welcoming.

I gave a talk on Dewey, Hull House, and Paseo Boricua at the Philosophy of Pragmatism: Salient Inquiries conference at Babeş-Bolyai University in Cluj-Napoca. I’d certainly value any comments or suggestions on the draft.

Planetariums: education or entertainment?

As you know, two of the major functions of museums are education and entertainment. David Leake, who is director of the Staerkel Planetarium (and a former student), asked an interesting question about planetariums, which are akin to museums, or include museums, depending on how you look at it:

Why do some planetariums focus on education while others focus on entertainment?

Before reading what he found, you have to know that astronomers study circles. The objects–stars, planets, galaxies, etc–are roughly circular and so are the ways they move in orbits. Diameter then becomes a very important thing to know. So, for example the sun is 100 times the diameter of the earth and as a result 1 million times as massive.

It turns out that planetariums are also circular. As their diameter doubles, their volume and hence cost go up 8-fold. Dave found that planetariums smaller than 75 feet in diameter are low-budget operations, which focus on education. They open up as needed, host school groups, and have programs designed to teach. Above 75 feet they shift to a focus on entertainment. There are high-interest shows (Harry Potter recently) with stiff admission charges.

Dave’s study (a masters thesis) is so beautiful, not only because it provides a plausible and empirically-supported account of a major divide in the field, but also because the account itself (in terms of diameter) is so well-suited to the object of study.

The closest analogy I can come up with for other types of museums is that museums for young people focus on both education and entertainment. They’re all about exploring what’s new, especially through all the senses. As the audience ages the museums gradually shift the emphasis to preserving artifacts. There’s less attention to employing all the senses, and more on conveying the needed information. Is that because the older folks become more conscious of preservation? Or have their senses dulled, so they just want to get the answer in the least amount of time?

Connecting learning and life

Bruce, B. C. (2003, Summer). Connecting learning and life. Frontiers!: Official publication of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, p. 7.

Frisky and Blossom are long gone now, and I wouldn’t recognize them if they showed up today. But they taught me more about life than many people I’ve known. They were de-scented skunks who lived at the Fort Worth Children’s Museum (now the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History). I met them when my mother enrolled me, as a three-year-old, in the Frisky and Blossom Club held at the Museum.

The Frisky and Blossom Club was the first class of what later became the Museum School, now one of the largest museum school programs in the world, having served over 200,000 children. It was one of the first museum preschools to be accredited by the National Association for the Education of Young Children. But in 1950, the Club had only five members, Ben Hulsey, his younger brother Price, Gary Rall, Doug Wiley, and me.

Mr. and Mrs. Bigelow ran the Frisky and Blossom Club out of an old house on Summit St. We started in the summer of 1950, and came several times a week. There were outdoor benches where we sat for activities. We played with Frisky and Blossom, learned about rocks and fossils, and other artifacts the Museum offered. We also talked about things we liked to do and the Bigelows helped us connect those interests to each other’s and to the larger worlds of science and nature.

Museum School

Zeiss projectorLater, I took other classes from the Museum School. These included Insects, Rocks & Fossils, and Astronomy. I joined the Astronomy Club, run by Mary Charlie Noble, the namesake of the Noble Planetarium. I still have my notebook from the Astronomy Club. It has issues of Sky and Telescope from 1956, diagrams of constellations, and notes from our classes. It also describes our wonderful field trips, in which we sat on a hillside watching for meteors, or studying the Milky Way (a stupendous sight available to anyone on earth to see in the days before we polluted the skies). I also participated in a program to spot enemy aircraft, presumably Russian bombers that had somehow missed being seen on their way to Fort Worth. I don’t know whether I helped save the Nation, but I remember being excited about a chance to contribute, and learning how to identify planes by their sound and silhouette. I still have a book Astronomy, which I won for spotting the most planes.

Although my writing in that notebook seems primitive compared to that of the nine- and ten-year-olds I see today, it recalls for me the joy I felt in expanding my imagination. I listed distances of planets, not because I was to be tested on it, or because it was good preparation for middle school, but because the Museum classes had awakened my senses. They concocted a living organism out of the natural curiosity of a child, knowledgeable and caring adults, interesting books, charts, and images, and the clear Texas skies.

What emerged from the Astronomy Club can be said about the other activities as well. I’ll never forget searching for insects in the Fort Worth Botanical Gardens or making boxes for mounting them. I can still identify insects by their order and was interested to read about the recent discovery of a new order, Mantophasmatodea. In fact, a characteristic of all the experiences I had at the Museum School is that they didn’t stop when the class or club ended. Instead of covering a topic and moving on, the Museum School caused me to open up, to seek to extend and enhance those experiences.

Another characteristic of these experiences was that they were never just, say “rocks & fossils” or “insects.” Through the insects class, I learned about cigar boxes (to hold the mounted insects), carbon tetrachloride (now banned as unsafe!), painting and homasote, the Greek language, flowers in the Botanical Gardens, diseases, history, and much more. Through “rocks & fossils” I learned about plaster of paris, two-D and three-D representations, dinosaurs, evolution, geology, oil exploration, and the age of the Earth. In contrast to some of the formal instruction I had received, this was a living process, a statistically unpredictable one, in which each experience led to learning and in turn to new experiences.

What It Meant to Me

It’s impossible to identify all the ways the Museum School affected me. The fact that I married Susan, who was working then at the Boston Children’s Museum, seems too obvious to say. Perhaps it’s all the little things, reading a biography of Roy Chapman Andrews as a teenager and fantasizing about exploring the world, loving to canoe and to hike in the mountains to this day, choosing to major in biology in college, being a regular reader of Scientific American, Natural History, Smithsonian, and National Geographic, participating in Science for the People, wanting to share a love of science with my children.

The most pervasive effect for me is how it has shaped the way I think about learning and life. In school we sometimes experience learning as a negation of life (“sit down and finish your workbooks!” “that doesn’t belong in the classroom!” “what were you doing instead of your homework?”). The testing mania of today only exacerbates that tendency.

When learning is separated from life, it becomes sterile: How many hours did all of us spend doing calculations in math classes and how many of us feel confident in math, care about it, spend time thinking about it? If the sterile approach helped develop people with a lifelong passion for learning, critical social engagement, and caring for others, I’d reconsider my views about it, but from where I stand those qualities emerge in spite of the sterility of much of formal instruction. Much of my work today is aimed at making learning come alive by connecting it to what matters in each learner’s ordinary experience.

The Museum School taught me a lot about the world. To this day, I can tell you the difference between diplodocus, diptera, and dipper (and I’m probably less afraid of skunks than I should be!). But more importantly, it taught me that the process of learning and growing is both challenging and energizing. The energizing aspect comes because the learning is connected to things the child cares about. That caring in turn is what makes it possible to for the child invest deeply in what would otherwise be daunting tasks. In the end, the learning becomes deeply embedded.

I mentioned above the joy I felt in expanding my imagination. I think many of us identify museum learning with joy, or simply with fun or play. In so doing, we risk conceiving it as un-serious, as inconsequential, as peripheral to real learning that can be organized into the scope and sequence of a curriculum or assessed on a standardized test. But my experiences with Frisky and Blossom, and yes, the people, too, taught me that joy means being connected to what matters, to being deeply engaged in life, and that joy in one’s experiences is the only real source for lifelong learning.