Marcos at the Montshire

Executive Director Marcos Stafne shares his thoughts, talks, and experiences about the Museum. You can also follow Marcos on Twitter @MarcosStafne.

How Does Technology Improve our Lives?

Every morning when I wake up, I put my glasses on to start my day. Without my glasses, I wouldn’t be able to see what time it is, read signs, recognize faces from a distance, or even drive. My black-framed spectacles are more than a fashion accessory; they are a technology or tool that helps me to live my life in the fullest way possible—but I don’t always think of my glasses as a form of technology, they’re just…well...my glasses. I rarely think about them…until I can’t find them.

Marcos Stafne at Human Plus exhibitionWhile technology plays an integral role in our daily lives, it often goes unnoticed. Stop for a second and think about this: If you’re reading this now, you’re using technology.

Ask yourself: What kind of technology am I using to read this? Did I have this device 5 years ago? 15 years ago? 30 years ago? How is technology changing my ability to read this article?

Are you holding these words in your hand? Is the computerized device you’re using to read this sitting on your lap or on a table? Are you scrolling through this article using your fingers, or a mouse?

How is your body interacting with the piece of technology you’re using? Are you sitting upright or slouched on your couch?

Humans have constantly been adapting their abilities by creating inventive tools to make our lives easier or better. We don’t always think about technology in our everyday life, but being mindful of our interaction with tech can lead to a deeper appreciation of our own ingenuity. The Montshire is hosting Human Plus: Real Lives + Real Engineering, an exhibition that showcases how technologies are developed to help people accomplish their goals. Developed by the New York Hall of Science and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry, and funded by the National Science Foundation, visiting this exhibition is a great way to engage with the conversation of engineering and adaptive technology.

Macos Stafne at Human Plus exhibitionThe activities in Human Plus require you to think about the engineering process by asking what people need, imagining possible solutions, creating prototypes, testing with users, and repeating the process. In sum, how do tools help humans, and how do we develop better tools and technologies to extend our abilities? These tools can be as simple as a ramp (one of our favorite simple machines), or as complicated as technologies that allow people to control computers with the simple flick of the eyes.

The stories behind the innovators featured in the Human Plus exhibition are inspiring. From Eric Weihenmayer, an outdoor adventurer who is blind and works with scientists, inventors, and people with disabilities to innovate new technologies to break barriers, to Carrie Krischke, a veteran who works closely with engineers at DEKA Research and Development to help develop new prosthetics, to Elaine Houston, an engineer at the Quality of Life Technology Center who developed a power wheelchair with robotic arms to allow people with severe disabilities more independence, the exhibition showcases the fruitful intersection of passion, engineering, and human ingenuity.

We all use technology to make our lives better to varying degrees. As you visit the Montshire in the coming months and experience the Human Plus exhibition, take a moment to think about how you interact with technology. Are there aspects of our lives that could be improved through a new innovation in tech? We hope that this exhibition sparks your curiosity and conversations, and get’s you working towards the next great breakthrough.  

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Montshire Turns 40—A look at our founding

As we’ve been preparing for a celebration of the Montshire’s 40th anniversary, I’ve been digging deep into old scrapbooks to gain a better understanding of our founding. I’m a nut for learning about the history of museums, so spending hours deep in the stacks of the Montshire’s staff library has been a complete joy—especially when you find that one right scrapbook which helps you put it all together. High up on a shelf (it helps to be 6’3”), I found a treasure trove of old documents and photos that dated back to 1969—a time when “I Heard it Through the Grapevine”, “Everyday People”, and “Come Together” were at the top of the music charts.

How did the Upper Valley come to have a science museum that spreads over 100 acres? The establishment of the Montshire speaks volumes about what was going on in the sciences in the late 60’s and early 70’s and the ingenuity of the surrounding community to manifest such an endeavor with incredibly limited resources.

Original Montshire floorplan

Many parents and young adults that I meet at the Montshire (those born and raised in the Upper Valley) barely remember a time when the Museum didn’t exist. There’s a great understanding that the Museum has evolved over the years. I’ve heard numerous stories about the old “bowling alley days” when the Museum was located in the former Goflside Bowling Lanes on Lyme Road in Hanover—and I’ve even found a hand drawn floor plan for the original Montshire by A.A. Titcomb.

In a decade’s time, and under the Museum’s second leader, the incomparable David Goudy, the Museum went from a former bowling alley to a purpose built building. For many folks in the Upper Valley, the Museum has constantly been a growing, ever-expanding resource, but the vision of the Montshire started many years before our doors ever opened.

Before there was a Montshire Museum of Science, there was a Dartmouth College Museum with numerous natural history collections located in Wilson Hall on the Dartmouth Campus. The former Museum Director (and founding Montshire Director), Dr. Robert Chaffee, along with other concerned community members, saw a growing need to address contemporary science issues on a local level.

The late 60’s marked a time when our nation was waking up to the harsh realities of industrialization on our planet’s sustainability. One of the treasures that I found in a large scrapbook from our founding contained notes from a meeting in 1969 with concerned community members who thought opening a bi-state regional science center might be a solution. “It won’t be long before the environment in which human beings can exist will be gone” says a quote from a typewritten transcript of the meeting.  “Disappearance and pollution are tied together with a myriad of interlocking connections. No one knows when the connection to man will be reached.” This meeting led to a four year planning process that concluded with a proposal for the museum in 1973. In his original plan, Chaffee set forth an educational agenda to introduce and excite Upper Valley residents about the world around them utilizing real objects from the local region.  

The Museum was officially established in 1974, and within two years an incredibly dedicated team helped to transform the former bowling alley into a science museum. The evening before the Museum opened, Walter Paine, Founding Chairman of the Board of Trustees said:

“The basic thrust of this museum is simple and direct. Stimulate curiosity about the world around us and you create the desire for knowledge. Satisfy this desire and you begin to build common understanding and that sense of having a personal stake, which moves people to respect and protect their natural heritage.”

The first year of the Montshire was a complete success. The Museum served over 11,000 people and paved the way for the next 40 years. In a note in the 1977 Montshire Newsletter (celebrating the Montshire’s first birthday), Chaffee reflected:

“We never thought we would be able to have the Museum in shape for opening day. The Trustees were working day and night painting the walls and ceiling, and exhibits. If it hadn’t been for the help of several volunteers and Museum staff members, the only exhibit visitors to the Museum on opening day would have seen, would be me sitting on a pyramid of cardboard boxes.”

The founders of the Museum cared about our community and were passionate about cultivating a sense of curiosity that would lead to making our world a better place. This vision has been stewarded and expanded throughout the past four decades and continues to grow. We’re still thinking about how to impact the world, and we know that awakening the minds of visitors, encouraging a lifelong interest in science, and developing critical thinking skills are steps on the path to a brighter tomorrow.

Throughout this year, we’ll be celebrating our past by looking towards the future. Our 40th year will feature four exciting exhibitions that engage minds in engineering, tinkering, dinosaurs, music, and more, as well as two exciting community ventures that will be revealed during our celebration on January 10, 2016.

We’re also looking forward by working on a new strategic planning process that takes us into 2020. A survey to gather community input, and listening sessions with various community stakeholders will keep our community at the core as we start to think about next 40 years.

I’ve “heard it through the grapevine” that a community of “everyday people” “came together” to create a Museum that encourages people of all ages to experience the joy of science. I am honored to be part of such an incredible institution and I hope you will join me in celebrating Montshire's 40th year.

 

Learn more about our Community Celebration on January 10, 2016
Participate in our community survey

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Homo naledi comes to the Upper Valley

Dr. Lee Berger with Museum visitors

Through a series of fortuitous events, the Montshire was one of the first U.S. institutions to receive casts of a skull, hand, and foot of the newly discovered human ancestor, Homo naledi. Paleoanthropologist Dr. Lee Berger of the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa shared the excitement of this scientific achievement with our Museum community through a special presentation of the casts and a meet-and-greet with the scientists who helped bring this discovery to light. 

I’m happy to report that the specimens are now on view in our second floor gallery—with great thanks to our nimble Montshire team, which had two days to prepare this fantastic display. We thought it only right to share our new gift with the public as soon as possible. In fact, Berger and team have made it clear that the Homo naledi discovery and research have resulted from a team effort, made possible by broadly sharing the findings—you can even print copies of Homo naledi specimens using data posted on MorphoSource and a 3D printer.

There are many resources available to learn more about how Homo naledi came to light. This discovery serves as a good reminder that science can be an adventure. As with any new scientific discovery, it makes us stop and think and question. 

Science is an ADVENTURE. When Berger entered the Museum November 17, I heard squeals of delight coming from several young visitors who had left school early to meet him. In their eyes, this paleoanthropologist was a true celebrity. Berger was surprised that so many middle school students had prepared really challenging questions. Even more surprising were some of our youngest visitors, who drew pictures of Homo naledi, and asked questions about hominid tool use. My personal observation was that these students were inspired by the adventurous story of the discovery, including dangerous cave exploration under the Earth’s surface. When Berger spoke, he emphasized that the future of scientific discovery rests in the hands of our kids. If we can get kids excited about science at an early age, who knows where their interest will take them. The six female anthropologists/spelunkers who tirelessly moved bones up a dangerous passageway volunteered for the work in the name of scientific discovery. Berger revealed that the folks who needed to do this work required a specific height and physical build, and the six women who were chosen for the work weren’t chosen because they were women, but because they were the best people for the job. They took big risks to achieve incredible scientific rewards—and that type of adventurous spirit is what’s needed to help move our world forward in a positive direction. 

Scientific discoveries make us THINK deeply. At the Montshire, we believe that the act of discovery is “doing science” through hands-on experimentation and inquiry. Berger and team actively dug, climbed, analyzed, experimented, and tested the skeletal remains that were found in a seemingly inaccessible cave. Once the findings were released, the adventure continued. Now that we know these beings existed, what does that mean about the history of our planet? And what does that mean for us today?  Young visitors viewing fossil casts

Thinking about prehistoric times flexes the muscles of our imagination. How would Homo naledi have existed in a tough geological environment? What did they eat? Did Homo naledi have rituals? Did they care for their dead? Through further active research, scientists hopefully will unveil some of these mysteries, but the thinking part—the postulation of our past—helps us in the present to be open to questions about the future: How would life develop on other planets? How would we survive on a planet with few resources? If an alien being were to observe human cultures, would those cultures define us as a complex organism in the vast realm of space? These are all big questions that require thought, imagination, and the rigor of scientific processes to help us keep pushing for answers. 

Serious science can be fun. Popular media can influence our image of what it means to be a scientist. From coat-wearing investigators on CSI, to rough-and-tumble, cranky paleontologists in Jurassic World, to the quirky physicists on Big Bang Theory—there are a lot of stereotypes of what it means to be a scientist, and they can lead to a less-than-ideal perception of the personalities of scientists. I’m a firm believer that we’re all everyday scientists, and those who choose science as a career—guess what—they’re pretty much everyday people too.  

On the morning of our Homo naledi event, I joined Lee Berger for breakfast at a local restaurant. Before our eggs were served, Berger was so excited to show me the casts that he brought from South Africa, that he pulled them out of his bag and put the naledi skull on our table. There was serious geek-out delight as we dined with casts of skeletal remnants scattered about the table (I should mention that these very clean casts are fairly sturdy—and a cast is a replica, not an actual skeleton). The excitement was palpable, silly, and fun. The disequilibrium of having these casts out on a breakfast table conjured many great questions, and helped Berger tell his tales of discovery in a much more casual, approachable way.

Every experience at the Montshire provides visitors the opportunity to dig deeper into the world around us. Our hands-on exhibits and programs provide a spark of adventure in a safe and friendly atmosphere. Those adventures, large and small, help everyone to think a little more about how we exist in this world—and we can derive great joy from experiencing science. As for me, I am in a unique position to see our community engage with science on a daily basis, and it truly brings me joy. From soap bubbles to aerodynamics to our prehistoric ancestry, our Museum is a laboratory for adventurous discovery, thinking and questioning, and fun. 

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Our Town: A Hub of Science & Art

With the opening of our new exhibition, The Outside Story, Artwork by Adelaide Tyrol, the Upper Valley is having a fantastic arts moment this season. Just a few nights ago I had the pleasure of seeing Northern Stages’ brilliant production of Our Town in their new home at the Barrette Center for the Arts— a new jewel in the Upper Valley Community. For those not too familiar with Our Town, or who haven't thought about Thorton Wilder's snapshot of small town life since high school, the play takes place in fictional New Hampshire town called Grover’s Corners. In my imagination, Grover’s Corners might lie somewhere over the river between Cornish and Plainfield. 

The female protagonist of the play, Emily Webb, has a rather famous monologue towards the end where she exclaims to the Stage Manager (the narrator of the play), "Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” To which he simply replies, “No. The saints and poets, maybe they do some.”

Now, I’m not saying that our great American playwright got it wrong, but I would argue that he might have added artists and scientists too—their chief business is to realize life, while they live it. 

Before I stepped into the imaginary world of Grover’s Corners that evening, I experienced real-world science and art experiences in Windsor and Lebanon that afternoon. In Windsor, I had the extreme pleasure of supporting our engineering community at the 16th Annual Model Engineering show, hosted by the American Precision Museum. These engineers from all over New England showcased the best of how craftsmanship and artistic ingenuity can communicate the beauty of mechanics. Whether it was Jim Reda, an enthusiast who built a scanner to decode “turn of the century” piano rolls into audible music while building a new music archive, or Don Fitzpatrick who was inspired to build a three pendulum rotary Harmonograph off of some plans found in a novelty book, to the burgeoning Clermont Maker Space working with kids of all ages to tinker and make—science and art were coming alive around every corner. Marcos Stafne drawing a fox

Later that afternoon I traveled to AVA Gallery in Lebanon to study a new exhibition from the Vermont Glass Guild. I’m facilitating a program at AVA on November 5th utilizing an inquiry methodology called Visual Thinking Strategies or VTS. VTS is a system developed by researcher Abigail Housen, in conjunction with Philip Yenawine, the previous director of education for the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. This viewer-centered approach revolves around three questions that a facilitator continually asks: What’s going on with this picture? What about this picture made you say that? What more can we find? The hard part for the facilitator is that there are no wrong answers—it’s all about the group constructing meaning from a work of art or object and using their language to verbalize what their senses are indicating. 

Places like the Montshire are a fantastic laboratory for exercising this method. What’s going on with this bubble? What about this bubble made me say that? What more can I find? What’s going on with these ants? What about these ants made me say that? What more can I find? The possibilities are endless. 

As I look around the community, I ask the same questions:

What’s going on with this area? I see a group who is engaged and supportive in their cultural resources.

What about this area made me say this? How hard everyone works to make sure that our community truly has the resources it needs. 

What more can I find? Well, this is where you help me. What more is out there that the Montshire can be doing? As we approach our 40th year, a celebration of the joy of science, we’ll continually return to these questions. How is our role changing as we mature as an institution, what more could we be doing, how do we figure this out together?  

Great and tough questions—but questions that artists and scientists (and maybe poets and saints) have been working on for some time. “Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it—every, every minute?” We may not be able to notice everything all the time, but the Montshire is a center that helps people of all ages to develop these skills, and a community hub for us to appreciate together, these precious mysteries of the world.

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A Community of Everyday Scientists: Notes from the 2015 Montshire Corporation meeting

Marcos StafneThis has been a big year for the Montshire. We successfully hosted four exhibits that included owls, ants, caterpillars and prehistoric mammals. We found our way to schools all over the Vermont and New Hampshire, and they found their way to us in record numbers. We renovated the first floor (creating new exhibition space), redeveloped our Bubbles exhibit, built an exhibit about light, and tinkered around with a Tinkering Lab. We completed a major fundraising campaign to enhance our permanent exhibits collection, increased access to low-income community members through our Warm Welcome Program, and hired a new executive director. That’s a busy year. We have big things planned for the year ahead as well, including a super special anniversary. 

On January 10, 1976, the Montshire opened its doors in Hanover, New Hampshire, and the Upper Valley community has never been the same. Thirteen years later we moved across the beautiful Connecticut River to Norwich, Vermont, and have been growing ever since. There are many things that make the Montshire unique, but what has stood out throughout the last 40 years is the joyful experience we bring to science learning and engagement. For our 40th anniversary, we plan to celebrate “The Joy of Science” with a yearlong series of events and activities that acknowledges our past, but more importantly, look toward the future.

What exactly is the joy of science? As I’ve talked to many community members, it’s clear that so many people value the museum as a family destination, a community anchor, and a great learning environment; but when I’ve asked people about their personal interests in science, I’ve gotten some weird stares. “Science…well, I’m not exactly a ‘science person’, I’m more of a culture person, or a history person, or a finance person.” We need all these types of people as part of our museum family, but I’d like for all of you to think about what it means to be a science person…because believe it or not, time and time again, I see random acts of science being demonstrated by everyone—especially when it comes to telling me how to adjust to life in the Upper Valley. 

Here’s a great example: I'm in the market for a new car. As many of you know I've moved up from Brooklyn and currently have a 2007 Jetta. While my car is perfectly adequate for city driving, it has some trouble getting up and down the hills of the Upper Valley. 

As a bit of context, I’ve only owned 4 cars in my life. My first two cars, a 1985 Dodge Daytona and a 1990 Pontiac Firebird, weren’t exactly well-informed decisions. And in Florida, in the 90s (remember I’m from the land of Miami Vice and the Daytona 500), your car needed to just get you places—in style—and I mean a 1990 Black Pontiac Firebird was a ridiculously hot car. My other two cars have been Jettas. These cars are perfectly adequate for New York City. They’re dependable, are good in bumper-to-bumper traffic, and if someone hits you, you don’t really care, because the car’s not that great looking to begin with. 

What I've found amazing is that people have many opinions about what I should drive and are feel free to voice them—even if I haven’t asked. When I've talked to people about getting a new car, the feedback is mixed: 

“You need 4-wheel drive…it doesn't matter if you have 4-wheel or front-wheel, it's all about snow tires…who cares about snow tires, just know that you’re going to get stranded a couple of times a year… …get an SUV, get a station wagon, get a sedan…how far are you driving? Get an electric car, or a hybrid car…have you heard about this thing called Advanced Transit?”

In Vermont and New Hampshire, we have to take our surroundings into consideration. We make daily observations, and evaluate our circumstances to figure out what will work best. We share our ideas, openly and loudly, especially if we think it will help a fellow human being. It’s fun, we like talking about these things, and more importantly, it’s science. I never thought of myself as a "car person" but now I can tell you I've heard and read everything about a Subaru Forrester, Nissan Rogue, Jeep Liberty, Rav4, Honda CRV and more. My next step is to test out all of these cars over and over again and see what works best for my needs, and whether they match my hypothesis.

Everyday scientists are always welcome at the Montshire Museum. In the year ahead, we have some exciting opportunities for you to experience the joy of science. Opening Saturday, October 17, The Outside Story: Artwork by Adelaide Tyrol, captures the essence of observation and communication. Tyrol transforms her observations into images that engage us with a deeper understanding of the world around us. On January 30, Human Plus: Real Lives + Real Engineering exhibition opens, which showcases what happens when engineers and people with physical challenges work together to create solutions that extend human abilities. 

We’re also building on the success of our Tinkering Lab, and in June we’re planning something big. If you’ve had a fun time in our Lab, you’ll have a blast building alongside friends and family in our expanded Tinkering Loft, a much larger space where everyone can design, build, and create with 2500 square feet of hands-on, interactive, challenge-based tinkering activities. 

It’s clear to me that we live in a community of everyday scientists, so please help me in spreading the word, and gathering support for great science education, for everyone, everyday.     

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