Most students don’t normally find themselves in laboratories painting faux toads and casting molds of vegetables for credit, but the story is different for students in an increasingly popular museum methods course. In addition to reproducing objects like these, students get to learn about broader exhibit design and even practice writing display labels.
Museum Methods 406, titled “Special Problems in Museum Methods,” is a class more than a quarter of a century old that has become a University favorite of many University students, from freshmen anthropology majors to postdoctoral students. Whether participants are interested in museum work as a potential career or just taking the class for filler credits, the course is popular as a means of understanding a distinct art-science hybrid.
John Klausmeyer, the senior exhibit preparator for the University of Michigan Museum of Natural History, has been the course’s instructor since 1986. Though he initially planned to be a medical illustrator, after taking the original museum methods course himself he decided to pursue museum work.
“(Museum work is) a mix of using art to teach science. And medical illustration is kind of the same; you’re using art to teach medicine,” Klausmeyer said in a phone interview.
In the mid-’80s, he was offered the chance to take over the instruction of the course and jumped at the opportunity. He said his diverse training helps him connect with the many different kinds of students who take the class.
“My background in biology, anatomy and design really has come into use here,” Klausmeyer said.
Naomi Lewandowski, a 2011 graduate of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program and former student of Klausmeyer, described the course’s structure.
“There are two major components of the class, and one is the projects that we did, and the other is just learning about how museums work and what they involve,” Lewandowski said in a phone interview.
Lewandowski discovered the course through her work as a docent at the Museum of Natural History, and was grouped with a wide variety of students.
“There were a few other docents, and then some random kids, mostly people who are interested in museums — (anthropology) majors or people with museum studies minors and MFA students,” Lewandowski said.
One of the notable elements of the course is the high level of hands-on activity.
“A lot of the class is just the basics in doing molding and casting of the kind of objects you might have in a natural history exhibit,” Klausmeyer said.
“It took us weeks to get it perfectly right. It totally opened my eyes to how much work these guys actually put into the stuff in the museum,” Lewandowski said.
Klausmeyer explained that the hands-on work is imperative to understanding a typical career in the field.
“We do a cast of a fossil vertebrate, and I have them do a fruit or a vegetable just to get experience using fresh biological materials,” Klausmeyer said. “There’s also a paper they write on aspects of educational design theory, and with that, they work with our person here who’s in charge of the educational programs.”
In relation to exhibit design, Klausmeyer explained that the most important aspect involves deciding the specific story that is being conveyed to visitors.
“With us, that’s very much determined through being the public face of U of M science, especially as it relates to natural history.” Klausmeyer said. “But mostly, it’s what’s the story we’re telling, and then working with the faculty and curators who are involved in that.”
The course also grants students behind-the-scenes access to the inner workings of the Museum of Natural History. Even as a docent, Lewandowski was enlightened by the inside view that the course offered.
“It was really cool — so we got to see all these specimens of birds and fish and mammals, and it was really extraordinary. I had no idea that all that stuff was there,” Lewandowski said.
To ensure a high level of individual attention from Klausmeyer, the popular class is capped at 12 students, making it somewhat difficult to get into. In addition, there are no prerequisites for the course, so the range of student makeup is vast.
“I think that’s one of the reasons why it’s popular — it’s a chance for people that are freshmen and sophomores to meet grad students in a situation where they’re on the same level,” Klausmeyer said.
Lewandowski said she isn’t surprised by the popularity of the course.
“Bringing things to life that you normally wouldn’t get to see in front of you, getting a more in-depth view of that, is something that would appeal to a lot of people,” Lewandowski said.
Since the class is meant to suit a wide variety of skill sets, the projects are structured so that a large range of students can succeed.
“Very often, we’ll have people in the class who have never painted before, and they do really, really well,” Klausmeyer said.
He noted that one of the most rewarding components of the class is witnessing the progress of those students who are less familiar with the coursework to begin with.
“They always start out very unsure of themselves, and watching them get excited as the semester goes by, that makes it worth it for me. The ones who are shaky at first, but then get better and better — that makes my day when that happens.”
Students who do well in the class leave with some of the portfolio pieces necessary for pursuing museum work. Klausmeyer noted that undergraduate students who want to pursue museum studies further are now able to do so thanks to the minor program, which was established in 2009.
“I would say, maybe if not every year, every other year, at least one person from the class gets into museum work as a career,” Klausmeyer said.