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Real + Virtual: New Horizons for Engagement with Nature

At the Monday morning session “Real + Virtual: New Horizons for Engagement with Nature,” participants learned about ways to use both “real” hands-on natural history specimens and “virtual” digital collections with the public. Session leader Cindy Lincoln of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (NCMNS), Raleigh, was joined by presenters Steve Turner, also of NCMNS; Bruce J. MacFadden of the Florida Museum of Natural History/University of Florida, Gainesville; Amy Bolton of the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH), Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Richard A. Kissel of the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, New Haven, Connecticut; and Cynthia Spratley and Steve Fields of the Museum of York County, Rock Hill, South Carolina.

MacFadden described iDigBio, a U.S.-wide initiative to digitize collections in nonfederal natural history museums. Specimens are available both to researchers and to “downstream users,” including fossil clubs and K–12 teachers and students.

Bolton discussed her work on NMNH’s new exhibition Q?rius, which has 32 cabinets with objects visitors can take out and explore. All objects are digitized, and audiences can access information about them by scanning QR codes on the objects, accessing touchscreens in the exhibition, or using the internet at home.

Kissel outlined the difference between object-based learning (where audiences can explore single specimens, as in discovery rooms) and collections-based learning (where they have access to a collection of thousands of examples of a single type of specimen). Collections-based learning allows learners to see patterns and draw larger conclusions, and Kissel believes museums need to provide more of these types of experiences. Digitization can be one way to do this.

Fields described the Museum of York County’s Naturalist Center, where visitors can interact with and handle specimens. He said that when visitors have access to specimens, they have more “aha! moments” and meaningful experiences because they are in charge of their own learning.

After the presentations, session attendees moved around the room to discuss the topic in more detail with the panelists at small tables.