Museum collections make connections

Op-ed appeared in Idaho State Journal, July 14, 2017

By Dr. Leif Tapanila, IMNH Director

You all know the Kevin Bacon game. Try to find a connection between Kevin Bacon and any actor in less than six moves. Turns out that 98 percent of all the 2.3 million people who have acted or directed in Hollywood can be connected to Bacon in four moves or less.

If that sounds astounding, Samuel L. Jackson is even closer to the center of Hollywood. By the way, you can find out more than you ever wanted to know on this topic at the website, “Oracle of Bacon.” I wonder how many links it takes to connect Kevin Bacon to “Napoleon Dynamite” star Jon Heder?

Games reach popularity especially when there’s a surprising nugget of truth revealed. Connections are everywhere. The Bacon game is a simple and fun example of how easily people and their activities can be linked, especially when we don’t place limits on the timing or cause of the relationship.

We are all connected in some way with other people, of the present and the past, and we are all linked by the common history of our planet. We can’t deny that the linkages help craft, define, and unite us. That’s a nice thought on a warm summer day.

Making connections: That is what we do at the Idaho Museum of Natural History. For over 80 years we have collected more than 700,000 artifacts from Idaho and the Intermountain West. Only a small fraction of our specimens are on display in the galleries at any one time — we have to protect our objects from the elements.

Fellow paleontologist and Director of the Smithsonian, Kirk Johnson, wisely pointed out that historic objects are like memories.

We often think of photographs as memories, but let’s extend that idea to all objects. It might be a pottery fragment, a bison skull, or a sage leaf, each one contains a story of its past.

The story can be decoded by knowing where and when it was collected, how old it is, what shape it has, or what it is made of. It follows, then, that a museum is a place that protects memories. We take care of 700,000 memories. Pretty cool.

Thinking of artifacts as memories is powerful because we value our personal memory as a means to make informed decisions about the future. We should treat historic artifacts no differently.

Ancient fossils, stone projectiles, and historic plant specimens allow researchers to monitor change over time, understand how complex ecosystems behave, and provide an expectation for their behavior in the future.

Of course, each object has a relationship with other objects in the collection. Maybe they were fossils collected in the same age of rocks, or perhaps they are insects collected in the same field year after year. The stories can be connected in a surprising number of ways to tell us more about our world. I smell Bacon!

Hopefully you’re seeing the connection I’m trying to make here. It’s the job of researchers and curators to decode stories and make the connections among our various historic artifacts. We then share those stories with the public through our education programs, gallery exhibits, and written publications.

Even better, we make our collections accessible online through the Virtual Museum of Idaho website (virtual.imnh.isu.edu), which now contains over 70,000 artifacts chiefly from Idaho.

This number grows weekly as our team, which includes six NASA-sponsored high school students, scans and uploads more 3D virtual models online. Just imagine if you could create a system that could organize all of our objects’ stories and automatically find the connections among each specimen? We’re working on it. Stay tuned.

The relevance of a museum always comes down to the quality of its collections and the ability of its staff to shed light on the stories contained within. Our museum is the premier institution for natural history in Idaho and we work every day to safeguard and share the memories of our past.

We hope to connect with you this year through upcoming exhibits on the impact of Bison on the West, Idaho’s legacy to the world as the birthplace of the Incredible Horse, and come see our current exhibit that lets you Be the Dinosaur. And don’t forget to participate in our monthly programs, Saturday Family Fun Day, In My Backyard and After Dark events.

For dates and times, see our website (imnh.isu.edu) or follow us on Facebook. We’re open Tuesday to Sunday.

In case you’re wondering. It only takes two steps from Bacon to Heder!

Dr. Leif Tapanila is director of the Idaho Museum of Natural History and Professor of Geosciences at Idaho State University in Pocatello.

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