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It’s Alive! Teaching with a Living Collection

People have a natural wonder and curiosity about other living things. Docents working with live plants and animals have infinite opportunities to excite and inform visitors of all ages. A few special interpretative approaches and techniques will capture the audience as well as make their experience more enjoyable.

At the High Desert Museum, successful docents who work with the Museum’s animals have the following characteristics in common: enthusiasm. the kind which is obvious and contagious: substantive knowledge, enough to be confident about the subject; patience and some knowledge of the stages of learning in order to know how to present information and get children involved in their own learning; an abundance of ideas and action elements in order to hold the audience’s interest; and the ability to add a final touch of mystery and drama, making the experience more fun for everyone.

The first step in developing an interpretative program for a living collection is to identify the goals for the presentation. What will the audience experience, feel, and learn? While the answers may vary greatly depending on the setting of the interpretation, the presentation should encourage the audience to have fun, be involved, appreciate the animal or plant, and explore the topic further afterwards.

A key to successful interpretation is to involve the audience in the presentation. There are many ways to accomplish this. Interpreting with live animals, or in a natural setting with live plants, encourages involvement because the audience is usually curious and interested. Storytelling, using “open” questions (those that do not have predetermined, “right” answers) or telling stories about personal experiences are all excellent ways to accomplish the goals of interpretation. They certainly make the program more fun.

Props that can be touched, examined, and explored, such as bones, skulls, feathers, skins, and so forth allow visitors to become directly involved and engaged, while satisfying tactile desires. In some circumstances, it may be possible for the audience to actually touch the animal, or to come up for a close look.

One other idea that comes to mind is not yet a part of the regular interpretation at The High Desert Museum, but is used in special situations. It is to offer a presentation that allows the audience to really “get into” the subject matter, using microscopes, hand lenses, collecting trays, small dishes, and eye droppers.

Audiences of all ages are fascinated to sec the abundance and diversity of living things in a small sampling of pond water, or in the moist soil under a log. Simple sampling techniques at an exhibit can involve the audience in counting, describing, or recording the movements of and the interactions among animals in a natural setting.

Rachel Carson said, in The Sense of Wonder, “The lasting pleasures of contact with the natural world are not reserved for scientists but are available to anyone who will place himself under the influence of earth, sea and sky and their amazing life.”

Docents interpreting living collections have an opportunity to experience every presentation in new and exciting ways. The goals of the presentation will be accomplished if the docent treats the collection, whatever its form, with respect, a sense of awe, wonder and enthusiasm; participates in the touching, exploring and questioning along with the audience; and truly enjoys the privilege of sharing the collection and special information about it with visitors.

Ann Wheeler received a M.S.T. in Education from the University of Chicago in 1979. She was a classroom teacher for nine years and an Environmental Specialist for three years. She received a J.D. in 1986 from Northwestern School of Law at Lewis & Clark College. She has served as Education Specialist at the High Desert Museum, in Bend, OR, since 1988.

Wheeler, Ann, “It’s Alive! Teaching with a Living Collection,”  The Docent Educator 1:1 (Autumn 1991): 13.

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