“It’s kind of like Antiques Roadshow, but Jurassic,” is how Fred Venne describes the Beneski Museum of Natural History’s annual Identify It Day, an annual November event where visitors bring in their own rocks and fossils to be examined by an expert panel. But Identify It Day is just one example of the Beneski’s extensive outreach to local families, school groups, and, these days, summer camps. “The Beneski is the best kept secret in the Valley,” said Venne, of this admission-free institution: “And connecting with the public is a way of giving back to the community that hosts the College.” We met on the upper floor of the museum—which, Venne joked, boasts a great view of “the elephant in the room.”
Q: What is the process behind getting groups into the museum?
A: It's actually mostly word of mouth, but a very specific kind. We do a lot of work with area K-12 and preschool and develop workshops for the teachers. We bring the teachers in, and they are trained around some aspect of the museum. We provide the resources for them to be able to take the materials from here and bring them back to their classrooms. They then, in turn, bring their classes into the museum. Those kids that are in the museum, whether it's preschoolers, middle schoolers or high schoolers from the local community, they go back home and they connect with their parents. They’ll bring their parents into the museum on the weekend. So suddenly we've kind of amplified little by little. Ten years ago, we had maybe 13,000 people visiting us per year, but now our yearly foot traffic has tripled.
Q: Can you describe a memorable experience you’ve had with a community member?
A: There are so many people that come into the museum, but one of the fun themes is the 4- and 5-year-olds. They come with an incredible amount of knowledge with respect to dinosaurs in particular. And their knowledge and willingness to share that knowledge is really quite fun. As we get older, we tend to have most of our divergent learning abilities taught out of us. But at 4 or 5, it's still there. And if you connect with a 4 or 5-year-old during their visit, you can reconnect with your ability to think divergently again. And that's an amazing opportunity that the museum affords us all the time.
Q: What’s the strangest question you’ve been asked?
A: I guess the best answer is that there is no strange question in a science museum. That's the reality. When someone comes in with a question, it helps me to identify where they are relative to the collections. And from that point, it's my role to help scaffold them a little bit, to move them onto what I think are important takeaways from our collection. Every question is important. Every question, as strange or odd as it might be, is coming from a place of interest.