The National Museum of Natural History is truly a kid-centered museum. The walls are covered in bright colors and interactive displays. A large whale hangs high up over the heads of visitors while a giant polar bear looks on from the periphery. The length of a giant squid takes up nearly half of a gallery space. As we were shown around the museum, kids bustled around us shouting things like “I wanna see the shark!” and asking questions like “Do whales live in the ocean?”
A large polar bear looks on from the Oceans Hall
What struck me at the museum was that the NMNH not only provided scientific information, but sought to inform the choices of the public. Many panels told visitors explicit steps that they could take in order to preserve our world as seen below. The photo below shows such a panel in the Oceans Gallery. This approach was even seen in the museum’s cafeteria where trash cans were labeled as “compost,” “recycle,” and “landfill.” I like museums that provide practical information in addition to more abstract and general information.
Panel in the Oceans Hall that provided visitors with practical steps to protect our earth
In many instances, the museum used great visual resources to help drive these points home. I was drawn to an oyster exhibit found in the Oceans Hall. A brightly colored panel with great graphs told the story of the Chesapeake Bay’s dwindling oyster population. As this is the main focus of my museum, I knew most of the information. However, actual oysters were utilized in the small exhibit that helped teach a subject that many kids might not be familiar with. These approaches seemed to be successful since the museum was packed full of families with young children and school tour groups.
Oyster exhibit in the Oceans Hall
The object I selected was an oyster can from a company in Wicomico County, Maryland that is on view in the “Cultural Expressions” exhibition. At first glance, this item seems unrelated to African-American history. However, I selected it because I know exactly how it fits in with the rest of the museum’s objects.
Many African-Americans were involved in the recovery of oysters, bringing them back to oyster packing facilities, the shucking of oysters, cleaning, and ultimately packaging into cans such as this one. I work part-time at Annapolis Maritime Museum, which is located in the former building of McNasby’s Oyster Company. Here, I learned about the involvement of African-Americans in this process. At the McNasby location and locations such as H.B. Kennerly, African-American men would head out on boats around 4-5am, use hand-tongs to grab oysters off the bottom of the bay, and would unload later at the building. Inside the building, both African-American women and men would clean, shuck, and package the oysters for consumption.
I actually was able to speak to former employees of McNasby’s one day at the museum. I was told that many African-Americans were specifically involved at McNasby’s because it was one of the few jobs that they could earn decent wages.
Here’s a great photo I found from Annapolis Maritime’s collection. I was hoping to find a photo they have on the exhibit floor of two men using hand tongs as icicles are forming on the side of the boat, but I don’t think it is available online.
Prior to working at Annapolis Maritime, I was pretty clueless about oysters in general. But I certainly didn’t know how hard watermen worked to harvest oysters. All of this work would take place in the winter months during harsh and cold conditions. Oysters, if harvested in the warmer months, take on a gritty taste because they are in the midst of reproducing.
I’m interested to see how the museum highlights African-American watermen. I am curious if they will focus on watermen simply in the Chesapeake Bay or if they will branch out and speak to other locations. Regardless, I’m glad that the contributions of African-American watermen are recognized.