Take a Tour: Exploring Geospatial Technology in Museums

April 15, 2020
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Greetings from my shelter in place. Most of us are stuck inside now, right during spring break! So much for our planned expeditions. After my last article on geospatial technologies(GST) and conflict resolution, which was pretty heavy, I thought I’d lighten things up with some desktop travel.

Let’s start with a StoryMap trip to the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson. I’ve had the opportunity to go there several times and it is a different place every season. It offers exhibits of animals, plants and geologic wonders. Have a great visit!

Now that you’re back, I’ll start by saying that for brevity, I will use “museums” as a broad term for art and aviation museums, arboretums, aquariums, zoos, planetariums, botanical gardens and many others. These are publicly accessible places which have multiple missions. We’ll explore how GST is involved in all aspects of museum management.

Mapping the front end

We are all explorers, so the first thing we need when we visit a new place is…a map! Every museum I have visited offers a map. Some, like the ASDM above, offer both hard copies and mobile apps. These lead us on missions of discovery, covering the globe in a building or a few acres. What we might never see in a lifetime we can experience in a day, or even a few hours. Of course, we can’t see everything in one trip, and…we get hungry! The visitor map is our first glimpse into the museum, and thus world, it interprets.

This is why we love museums, even if we have to visit them from home. They show us things we have never seen before and expand our consciousness and awareness. None of us will ever see a dinosaur except as a skeleton, and few of us will ever see a springbok in South Africa or swim with sharks.

Mapping multiple missions

In the early days, museums were static places: halls of curiosity, displaying strange animals and exotic artifacts with little context. Today they are scientific institutions with a public face. They still inspire curiosity and wonder, but have deeper missions as well. These are not only places for public enjoyment and enlightenment, but also institutions of research, education and conservation.

All of these missions are intertwined. Generally, museums are self-supported, so they rely on the public for funding. When implemented properly, it is a wonderful cycle: exhibits and interpretive programs promote awareness and engagement of current and future generations. This engagement leads to financial support for the “behind the curtain” missions of research, conservation and preservation. These efforts then enable museums to expand and maintain their collection and add more context.

Education, outreach and awareness

To promote this engagement, museums offer many public programs, especially for school groups. But, who is coming to these programs? Are all demographics being reached? The New England Aquarium  used zip code information to map school visitation in the Boston area. This led to further outreach to bring in students from underserved communities.

People need plants, and plants need water.

Museums, by their very nature, take specimens from their native environment and put them into enclosed spaces. Therefore, all specimens have vulnerability, with some at more risk than others.

Behind the exhibits, talented, dedicated staff and volunteers maintain the proper conditions for preservation. In aquariums, different species need different levels of salinity and turbidity in their water. At botanical gardens, plants have varying needs for water, soil and fertilizer. Ancient baskets must have certain humidity and temperature levels to keep them viable.

Therefore, facilities management is a key component of museum operations. The Memphis Zoo needed to map all of its facilities and utilities, and like most museums, they were operating on a tight budget. Their GIS program began as a tool for mapping conservation efforts of threatened species. With a now-mature GIS system in place, the zoo was able to bring in local college students who were looking for projects. Beyond basic mapping, the zoo also used these data to analyze energy usage to plan and develop a greener museum. This also led to wonderful educational experiences and inspired empowerment.

Research leads to outreach; outreach leads to stewardship.

Hands-on engagement like this leads to a sense of stewardship, and along with educational programs, citizen science is a key component of stewardship. Chicago’s Alder Planetarium launched balloons with cameras to capture light pollution in the city. These images then were integrated into the planetarium’s GIS to develop a program for mitigating light pollution in the vast metropolis, while also offering content for their public programs.

In a similar vein, the Center for Ocean Life, associated with the New England Aquarium, worked with local stakeholders to develop mapping tools for shellfish aquaculture development. Brooke Hodges, their GIS specialist, has used GST to minimize by-catch of endangered right whales and sea turtles by doing spatial analysis of possible rope-free fishing areas that would still be economically viable.

From drawers to dinosaurs

One of the great powers of GST is scalability. The Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix AZ, for example, a die-hard volunteer maps each individual plant with sub-cm RTK GPS, and also maintains a global-scale database cataloging from where their exhibits come. GIS specialist Veronica Nixon, like many in the museum field, is a one-person operation, who works with botanists and researchers to integrate multiple databases into their GIS.

Dan Cole at the Smithsonian is also a one-person shop, but he has mentored over 50 volunteers and students over his 30 years there. Unlike many museums, which generally have a single theme, the Smithsonian has scores of programs, ranging from paleontology to aviation history, and each have their own GIS programs, some of which embrace GST more than others.

Among the heavy duty users are the National Zoo and the comparative planetary geology program. As Dan says, the Smithsonian Institution operates like a university. GIS projects range from mapping the original provenience of individual specimens to creating over 40 public-facing maps for the Ocean Hall.

Maintaining engagement

As we have discovered, much of the work of museums is beyond the public eye. Several museums have opened up their previously hidden sides to the public. The Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University and the Burke Museum at the University of Washington recently renovated their spaces to allow the public to view the curation activities, from restoring historic paintings to mounting taxidermic tigers. This again encourages stewardship and engagement from the public.

How do we map it?

Museums have collections that date back centuries. The Smithsonian has over 150 million items in their collections, for which only two million have accurately georeferenced proveniences.  Their various programs have been using a tool developed by Tulane University, Geolocate, a "platform for georeferencing natural history collections data." Site records can be parsed to find locational information, like “the west side of Mt. Jumbo,” and create geographic coordinates with a report that includes the locational margin of error.

Although the Smithsonian does not maintain a central database, programs are encouraged to use EMu, a suite of database tools for collections management. Not only does Emu develop software, they encourage and enable collaboration within their user community.

The Missouri Botanical Garden’s Tropicos portal “… links over 1.33M scientific names with over 4.87M specimens and over 685K digital images. The data includes over 150K references from over 52.6K publications offered as a free service to the world’s scientific community.”

Tropicos also offers searchable maps for the curious public, and drills down to images of individual herbarium specimens for researchers. Again, this is an illustration of how GST can be used for informing multiple audiences and fulfilling multiple missions.

Museums give us the world.

These are but a few examples of the amazing work going on in museums. The people who work there, whether volunteer docents or experienced scientists, have a true dedication to their goals of entertainment, education, research and conservation.

All of the stories above show the power of GST in enabling the integrated missions of museums, and the importance of collaboration. A GIS program that began as a research effort, as at the Memphis Zoo, morphed into a facilities management tool that provides more efficient use of limited resources.  

Above all, modern museums are places where people meet the world, and where people share the world together. Although we are social distancing, we can still experience the world virtually. When this crisis is over, take time to visit a local museum and see your world in a few hours. (Or if you are botany geek like my wife, it may take a few days.) And if you can, drop a few dollars in the donation box. 

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