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Theaters in the Round: Community Voices and Citizen Science on a Sphere

In his November 2019 letter, MSU Museum director Mark Auslander reflects on varied ways in which the Museum works to nurture creative connections with public stakeholders across the arts and sciences. These partnerships allow us, together, to tell challenging and thought-provoking stories about where we have been and where we may be heading. Our most exciting partnership is just beginning, centered on the brand new Science On a Sphere system from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), enabling dramatic co-curated explorations of biospheres and social geographies, at local and global levels.

October brought exciting developments to the MSU Museum: a new name for the elephant bird, an award for our exhibition “Finding our Voice,” a poetry walk linking the University’s two museums, a performance-roundtable on “Music and Healing,” and the installation of the new Science On a Sphere system from the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). These moments help remind us that museums are no longer simply institutions devoted to the dissemination of specialist knowledge “out” to the public. Rather, museums are increasingly dynamic sites of creative exchange and mutual discovery, where scholars and members of the public partner together to create new kinds of knowledge and to nourish new bonds of community.

From left to right: Denice Blair (MSU Museum Education Manger), Chong-Anna Canfora (MSU Museum Development Director), David Mittleman (Grewal Law), Amanda Smith (Sister Survivor), Mark Auslander (MSU Museum Director), Mary Worrall (MSU Museum Curator), Elena Cram (Sister Survivor)

On October 4, the Museum team along with sister survivors Amanda Smith and Elena Cram, accepted the Peninsulas Award from the Michigan Museum Association, for the MSU Museum’s exhibition, “Finding our Voice: Sister Survivors Speak.” The award specifically noted the Museum’s partnership with the Survivors and Allies Advisory Council in creating a trauma-informed installation that helps give voice to those who had in so many respects, been betrayed over the years by those in authority, especially at MSU. Amanda and Elena both spoke honestly about the challenges of placing trust in a university unit, and about their growing appreciation of the healing power of art. Elena’s remarkable three-part tapestry, “Emergence,” chronicles the healing journeys of many sister survivors, highlighting moments of numbness, the painful return of emotional intensity, and the gradual achievement of psychic re-integration. This award, now on display in the Museum’s Entry Hall, honors her and her fellow sister survivor artists, Alexandra Bourque and Jordyn Fishman, as well as the many sister survivors and allies who generously served as community co-curators during the 2018-19 exhibition development process.

Poetry, in Motion
October 14 and 15 saw the visit to campus of the noted Chilean poet and human rights scholar-activist Marjorie Agosin. Marjorie participated in events at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum (MSU Broad) and the MSU Museum, exploring two linked exhibitions highlighting art and historical trauma in Latin America: At the Broad, “The Edge of Things: Dissident Art under Repressive Regimes” (curated by Carla Acevedo Yates, now at the MCA Chicago) and at the MSU Museum, “Between Absence and Presence: The Arpilleras Movement in Chile,” featuring loaned works from Marjorie’s famous collection of fabric art, created by the mothers of persons “disappeared” by security forces during the dictatorship period.

My favorite part of Marjorie’s visit was a poetry walk held between the two Museums, organized with the Center for Poetry at the Residential College in the Arts and Humanities (RCAH). Faculty and students joined with community poets as we strolled in the gentle rain, stopping every few minutes as each person shared a poem that seemed appropriate to that specific locale. In front of Roxy Paine’s towering metal tree in the Broad sculpture garden, RCAH’s Guillermo Delgado shared haikus written earlier that day by incarcerated men, with whom he and his students have been working with in the Ionia State Prison, creating zines (handmade magazines) chronicling the inmates’ dreams for the future. The poems we shared, in English and Spanish, celebrated love, loss, memory, and hope—especially the necessity of hope in the dark times. There is something utterly remarkable about sharing poetry aloud with other people gathered in a circle outdoors, reveling together in unexpected gifts of language. The walk seemed a fitting way to commemorate those who had been lost during the terrible events chronicled in the two exhibitions, and to honor the power of art to light a candle, time and again, against the darkness.

Amanda Cormier performing at the MSU Museum during the “Music and Healing: Finding Our Voice” event photograph by Pearl Yee Wong

Amanda Cormier performing at the MSU Museum during “Music and Healing: Finding Our Voice”

Play On
Two evenings later, we gathered in the Museum’s Entry Hall to celebrate the return to campus of Sister Survivor Amanda Cormier, who reflected with others on the healing power of music in the shadow of individual and collective trauma. Amanda performed her painfully beautiful song “Sometimes,” composed earlier this year for the opening of “Finding our Voice.” (The song is now accessible to visitors at a listening station in the exhibit’s second gallery, adjacent to the ribbon-adorned trees.) When a student here at MSU, Amanda had been a member of the Women’s Chamber Ensemble and had studied under Professor Sandra Snow. Professor Snow, members of the ensemble, and students in musicologist Marcie Ray’s classes welcomed Amanda back to campus with a series of vocal performances exploring women’s voices of resilience and courage. We also heard from GRAMMY nominated musician Isaac Kalumbu, who has been working to return reggae to gender-conscious roots, and enlisting music in the struggle against domestic violence. Music therapist Bob Huffman (University of Michigan hospitals) shared the music he quietly performs for persons receiving chemotherapy infusions in the cancer center, a poignant reminder of how the ancient art of music can sustain patients and loved ones during the most perilous of journeys.

elephant bird jury right to left: Pam Rasmussen, Jackie Kraft, Laura Abraczinskas An Elephant Bird by any other Name
On a lighter note, we are pleased to announce the winner of our Elephant Bird naming contest. As a reminder, the bird is our new articulated skeleton cast of the largest bird that ever existed, a creature that went extinct on the island of Madagascar about one thousand years ago. Three names had been selected by our jury (Jackie Kraft, Laura Abraczinskas, and Pam Rasmussen) as finalists from all those suggested by the public: Vorombe (the Malagasy term for big bird), Pachy-o (from the ancient Greek term for thick-boned), and The Roc, celebrating the mythic giant bird that may have been inspired by reports of the Elephant Bird.

And the winner is…The Roc!

In time “The Roc” will move from behind our front desk into a new exhibition space upstairs in the Hall of Animal Diversity and Adaptation. Several visitors have suggested that Duane “The Rock” Johnson himself would be the most appropriate person to cut the ribbon for the new exhibit. Needless to say, if anyone has any connections to The Rock, please do let us know!

Science, All Together
In an exciting finale to the month of October, the team from NOAA installed our new Science On a Sphere system, an initiative generously supported by a challenge grant from the MSU Federal Credit Union, supplemented by gifts from many Museum friends and supporters. This sophisticated platform presents the illusion of a globe spinning in space, allowing visitors to view in three dimensions all manner of natural and cultural phenomena across the world including hurricanes, oceans currents, deep sea organisms, animal migration routes, Facebook friendships, and global supply chains.

NOAA initially developed Science On a Sphere to disseminate complex scientific datasets about climate and geophysical phenomena—gathered from NASA, NOAA, and other remote sensing platforms—to the general public in a dynamic and accessible fashion. Our intention at the MSU Museum is also to use the system as a platform, in the spirt of the activities described above, to celebrate the collaborative production of knowledge, in ways that bind together specialists and members of the public. We are especially intrigued by ways that the Sphere can highlight data gathered by citizen scientists the world over and encourage informed conversation about our changing biosphere.

I’m especially interested in how the Sphere might link to “iNaturalist,” a versatile social media platform that links citizen scientists to expert natural scientists all over the world. Through the iNaturalist app, individuals everywhere can photograph plants and animals to be provisionally identified by the system’s artificial intelligence. Once uploaded to the system, the images can be more definitively identified by specialists, and contribute to the growing body of knowledge about the global web of life. iNaturalist allows concerned citizens to pool their observations about local environmental crises or perils, and to brainstorm about creative science-informed public policy interventions.

Science On a Sphere Group Photograph From left to right: (front row) Mark Auslander (MSU Museum), Teresa Goforth (MSU Museum), Nick VanAcker (MSU Museum), Elesha Newberry (MSU Museum), Stephanie Palagyi (MSU Museum) (middle row) Dylan Mooney (Superior Electric), Amanda Tickner (MSU Libraries), Terence O’Neil (MSU Libraries), Christine Lockwood (IPF) (back row) Keith Searight (NOAA), Ian McGinnis (NOAA), Sunny Wang (MSU Museum), Mike Secord (MSU Museum), Jason Brown (IT Services), Ian O’Brien (IPF), Denice Blair (MSU Museum), Mike McEwan (IPF), Guy Halsey (IPF) photograph by Pearl Yee Wong

Science On a Sphere Group Photograph From left to right: (front row) Mark Auslander (MSU Museum), Teresa Goforth (MSU Museum), Nick VanAcker (MSU Museum), Elesha Newberry (MSU Museum), Stephanie Palagyi (MSU Museum) (middle row) Dylan Mooney (Superior Electric), Amanda Tickner (MSU Libraries), Terence O’Neil (MSU Libraries), Christine Lockwood (IPF) (back row) Keith Searight (NOAA), Ian McGinnis (NOAA), Sunny Wang (MSU Museum), Mike Secord (MSU Museum), Jason Brown (IT Services), Ian O’Brien (IPF), Denice Blair (MSU Museum), Mike McEwan (IPF), Guy Halsey (IPF) photograph by Pearl Yee Wong

Working with students and community partners, we hope to project on the Sphere important data gathered by citizen scientists through iNaturalist and other digital platforms, to illustrate everything from changing bird migration patterns to emerging micro-ecosystems in Wilderness-Urban Interfaces (otherwise known as “WUIs”). Schoolchildren recording observations of weather and insect activity can learn to upload this data in a form that will allow the Museum team to relate their local data to larger datasets that help model regional and global climate change impacts. The Museum may help organize “bioblitzes” in which hundreds of citizen scientists do detailed observations of flora and fauna in the Lansing area on a specific date, and then share the gathered data on Science On a Sphere in relationship to bioblitz datasets gathered by residents of other cities around the world.

Setting Sail
During the months of November and December, we’ll be taking our new Science On a Sphere system on a “shakedown cruise,” as we learn more about its capabilities and explore how to create innovative three dimensional immersive visualizations, showcasing scientific discoveries by MSU researchers as well as the findings of citizen scientists. We’ll also experiment with new forms of digital kinetic art that might be created specifically for the Sphere and dynamic ways to showcase our scientific and historical collections on the Sphere. In January, we’ll start to offer regular public programs on the Sphere, rather like planetarium shows, except that instead of looking upwards towards a curved dome simulating the night sky, viewers will gaze at a spinning sphere, as if we ourselves are floating in space, looking down at the rotating blue marble of the Earth below us.

The system allows for some self-guided tours: visitors can select from several dozen datasets to track everything from sea turtle migration routes to projected sea level rise patterns. Stop by the Museum anytime to join in the fun. Please share your ideas about what new programs might be developed for Science On a Sphere, as we collaboratively chart a new course forward.