Archive for March 23rd, 2010

Behind the scenes: Curator of Cultural Interpretation, part II

by Terry Burton, Digital Media Coordinator

This is the second part of a recent interview with Katie Bowell, the Museum’s Curator of Cultural Interpretation.

More to Explore: Tell us a little bit about your background.

Katie Bowell: I did my undergraduate in Canada at the University Guelph, and I wanted to be a zoologist, I wanted to be a researcher and work in a lab, until I actually got to be a researcher and work in a lab and learned that I was really, really bad at it. It’s a long process. Usually, you think of a question and then it’s a long time until you get the answer, and it’s a lot of work, and the people who can do it and do it well, that’s fabulous, but I wasn’t good at it. What I found I really liked doing was, once someone had figured out the answer to a question, I liked getting to tell people about that answer. And so about halfway through my degree in zoology, I also decided to get a degree in English, because I figured that if I wanted to tell people about stuff, I probably needed to be a good writer, a good communicator, and that seemed a way to do it.

And so I graduated, and then I couldn’t get a job anywhere. Finally I found a job at this little tiny butterfly conservatory. And I had never worked with insects, and I was terrified of insects, petrified. My mom used to tell the joke that I would never, ever walk around outside in my bare feet because the ants would get me. But I had to pay rent so I started this job as an interpreter of insects, and I got to practice what I thought I might be good at, which was interpreting and sharing information. And I actually discovered that insects were really cool, and I loved it and stayed there and became their director of education and interpretation. But I got a little tired of some of the things about the job, mainly that I was always dirty and sweaty, and there were cockroaches, and so it was fun but it was  gross. So I decided, maybe I can work in a museum, because it’s clean and air conditioned and they still have animals, they’re not alive, so it’s not quite as fun, but they have fewer cockroaches, so I thought that was a good way to go.

The University of Colorado in Boulder has a natural history museum and a very good Museum Studies program that I got accepted to, with a Zoology focus, because I was very sure I was going to work in a natural history museum. I did that for two years and ended up with a really cool thesis that looked at intersections of animals and people. I looked at art installations, fine art installations, in zoos and aquariums, and what happened when you had these human-created pieces that were side-by-side with animals, how were visitors responding to it? It was a really fun study and got me interested in this intersection of content. And then someone was smiling down on me and the clouds parted, because just as I was graduating this job opened and I applied.

MtE: How will your work feed into the new museum?

KB: I think my work is going to play into the new museum in a couple of ways. One of the really exciting things we’re planning for is really highlighting those interconnections. Like the way that the processes of the river affect how people were farming here, and affect what organisms are living there and where the cottonwoods are found and why Camp Collins was first established here. We really are helping people see these connections and that really is my big focus, that every story is a part of a larger story. I think that as an interpreter, the more connections you can highlight, the more you can help connect current visitors to what you’re talking about, and the more likely they are to remember what you’re sharing with them and get excited about it. And so I’m really excited to get to continue to develop those.

We’re also continuing to work with Natural Areas, they’re going to have a space within the new museum, a dedicated visitor’s center, and I’m helping them develop that. As well we’re going to have all the outdoor experiences around the museum and the opportunity to interpret there. So that’s what I see myself doing now with it, but I’m sure that more things will pop up.

MtE: What are you looking forward to in the new museum?

KB: A window [in her office]. Well, this is the second museum I’ve ever worked in, and both of those were buildings where we had to squeeze our experiences into those spaces. With this new museum, I am so excited that we get to plan out exactly what we want, and we’re going to have room for it. And I think that that can do a lot for the visitor experience that we end up having. I am most excited for everyone else to get to see this brand-new museum, full of really neat things. And it’s really dorky, but I’m excited to watch their reactions to it. One of the things that I do here, at least a little bit, is visitor evaluations, visitor studies. I’m really curious as to how people use our spaces, how they interact with what we have on the floor, what they think about what we’re doing, because we’re a community museum, we exist for our visitors. So I’m so excited to see them seeing our new museum. I think that’s really going to be cool.

March 2010

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