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Harold Closter, Priscilla Grew

Harold Closter, director of Smithsonian Affiliations, and Priscilla Grew, professor and director, University of Nebraska State Museum, in front of the “Titanoboa: Monster Snake” exhibit on display through Sept. 7 in Elephant Hall.

Harold Closter, director of Smithsonian Affiliations, presented a Certificate of Affiliation to Priscilla Grew, professor and director, University of Nebraska State Museum on Feb. 22. The museum joins 184 museums, educational and cultural organizations as an affiliate, bringing with it experience, resources and research opportunities.

Helping celebrate this affiliation is the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit featuring “Titanoboa: Monster Snake,” which will be on display in the museum’s Elephant Hall through Sept. 7. Following is an interview with Grew and Closter shortly before the certificate presentation.

Keller: How did this collaboration begin?

Grew: Actually, this collaboration with the Smithsonian is long-standing. It began with a research collection of scarab beetles from the Smithsonian on loan to our Entomology Department, which has world specialists in that area. That collaboration is over 10 years old. This opportunity came last spring with our vice-chancellor for research joining the affiliates program.

Keller: I understand the university had someone working in Florida with the Smithsonian.

Grew: Yes, and with the Titanoboa project, our curator, Jason Head, assistant professor at UNL, was one of the researchers who discovered the giant snake Titanoboa. He worked with John Block from the University of Florida, who was brought to Lincoln for the presentation by our Friends group to present the research about the Titanoboa discovery. We’re thrilled that the partnership and the affiliation can kick off with a research-based joint exhibit with the Smithsonian.

Closter: A Smithsonian researcher was also part of the team in Columbia where they discovered the Titanoboa. The Smithsonian produced a cable network television program on the Titanoboa.

Keller: Is that available to the general public?

Grew: Yes, the Smithsonian channel DVD will be available in our museum gift shop.

Closter: … and also available if you subscribe to a cable provider that offers the Smithsonian channel. We hope everyone does!

Grew: It is also going to be available on NetFlix.

Keller: How does the Smithsonian choose its affiliations?

Closter: We look very hard at the applying museums to ensure that they conduct themselves professionally, with the highest standards in the museum field, that there is an opportunity for long-term collaboration, that they are capable of taking care of our outputs and providing appropriate security in good environmental conditions. It’s a very rigorous application process.

Keller: How does this collaboration affect the community, the university and the state of Nebraska?

Closter: We hope that through collaborative research and collaborative education, we are making the public more aware of the important work that is going on in this museum, the important work that is going on at the Smithsonian and the way that work is relevant to the daily lives of people in the local community, nationally and around the world.

Grew: The Smithsonian is a very prestigious name to many people who may not be familiar with our own museum, and may not realize that they have a “Smithsonian-style” museum right here in Lincoln. This is the result of investments by Nebraskans since we were founded over 140 years ago. I think having the Smithsonian name associated with our museum will help our Friends group to offer Smithsonian Affiliate memberships that will not only raise the museum’s visibility, but will be a great source of pride for Nebraskans that they have the Smithsonian affiliation right here in Lincoln.

Keller: Are there opportunities for UNL’s OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) program through this affiliation?

Grew: We are having an OLLI Titanoboa event in March. Jason Head will be giving a talk and a gallery tour, followed by a dinner at the Student Union. This will be organized by the vice president of the Friends group, Diane Pratt.

Keller: How might existing programs, such as the Ashfall Fossil Beds, help the museum find a greater audience and perhaps additional research opportunities?

Closter: First of all, the museum here has acquired some very sophisticated distance learning equipment. We are looking forward to collaborating on distance learning. We can have conversations back and forth between scientists, as well as between educators and museum staff. We can reach practically every school child in Nebraska through the University of Nebraska State Museum. The challenge is for us to come up with creative programming that draws on the strengths of both of our organizations. Additionally, and this is a baby step, the opportunities made available by 3D printing mean that you can send an exact replica of something from one point to another as long as the people have the right equipment on the other side. This is just a very small experiment that we just conducted to create a 3D print of the Ashfall site to see if it worked. In the next couple of years, as the technology becomes more available and more affordable, we’ll see unlimited opportunities for education by museums being able to exchange 3D files, print out items and work together.

Grew: For example, schools are beginning to get the educational kits that we rent from the museums containing replicas of fossils. 3D printing will make these much more accessible and affordable for schools. We are able to tell the students how fossil evidence can give clues as to how the animals lived and what they ate. We can learn alongside the Smithsonian with this new and exciting technology. Being at the annual meeting in June will provide additional opportunities for exchanging ideas and technology.

Keller: How do museums promote growth in education and enrich all of our lives?

Grew: I think that people are aware of biodiversity today and the complexity of the world around us. There are a lot of news reports about the state of our environment and the various ecosystems. We have to realize that all the animals and plants we see today come from a very deep earth history. All the things we can learn from the earth’s past, such as climatic changes or changes in the environment, can give us a sense of what led to today’s world and are portrayed in our museum.

Closter: Museums, for a long time, have demonstrated a special way of learning. Schools are starting to look to museums as models for invigorating the educational curriculum. In a museum, hands-on learning has been a staple for many, many years. Self-directed learning, problem solving and team-based learning – all the things that people are talking about as 21st century learning skills – have been part of the standard model for museums for a long time. We’re seeing the growing convergence between schools and museums who want to take this model and bring it back into the classroom. As one great museum director once said: “Nobody fails museum.” It’s a place where you can follow your own curiosity and learn at your own pace. I think there’s a lot that museums can do to enhance and work with the educational system.

Keller: This affiliation seems to follow the mission of the Smithsonian as first written in 1846: “For the increase and diffusion of knowledge.”

Closter: Absolutely. This is the 21st century version of the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

Grew: Nebraskans can be very proud we now have three museums that are affiliates: the Durham Museum, the Strategic Air and Space Museum and now the University of Nebraska State Museum.

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