Museums

Tour of Pittsburgh

Jana had some friend’s visiting her and she managed to see quite a bit of Pittsburgh along the way.

Her first trip to the zoo on Sunday yielded a chance meeting with an elephant:

Jana's first trip to the zoo!

Monday was her first encounter with the dinosaurs, minerals and bug rooms and bug folk at the Natural History Museum:

first trip to the museum for Jana!

Today was a stroll around Phipps, which I had no idea so much work was being done that it seems twice as large as it used to be!
First trip to Phipps!

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VIP Opening of DC2 or where I met Prince William

Deb on the screen and in the "fishbowl" labI made HRH Prince William laugh. How you ask? I was approached by one of the Directors of the museum two weeks ago. My presence was being requested to man the SPA in the new Darwin Center for the VIP opening day, “are you available to work that day? We have some very important VIP’s coming and we would like you to be there.” Even though I would officially be on maternity leave, I would make an exception and come back for this. I didn’t know who I would being seeing that day, I was only told to provide a brief biography of myself and describe the work I would be doing. Later that week, the afternoon session of the VIP day was then referred to as “the Royal bit.” There were rehearsals and walk throughs scheduled and even a debriefing on Royal protocol followed by yet another run through. I was told the Prince would have three minutes scheduled at the SPA to talk to me. He would know information about me and was going to ask questions.

HRH Prince William opens the Darwin CenterI made HRH Prince William laugh. How you ask? It was with the answer to one of his questions. Having asked me how I liked being on display, I said it wasn’t so bad, especially when children ask questions. He then asked what sort of questions are asked and I was honest, the number one question when you’re sitting there poking pins through insects and surrounding them with brace pins is, “are you torturing them? are you hurting them?” and he laughed a genuine surprised sort of laugh and then asked about what sort of more serious questions are asked. To which I explained about amateurs and beginners looking for advice on collecting and preparation techniques. It was a fun experience.

I stayed in the SPA for the rest of the evening, entertaining questions from other VIP guests. These included Trustees of the museum and who had very different questions and concerns than what the public would ask. Certainly, the whole issue of, “You’re not going to get much actual work done in there with people interrupting you all the time,” seemed at the forefront of their minds. I also fielded many completely irrelevant questions such as, “Judging from your accent, you’re not from around here are you?” and of course, despite my trying to camouflage it, “So when’s the baby due? Are you having in it in the UK?”

Without the promised break in visitors, I was famished by the end and was hovered over the remaining hors d’oeuvres as the Director of the Museum, with tears of pride in his eyes, toasted everyone involved after the guests had left. Again, a fantastic way to spend one of my last days at work.

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Spain: Barcelona – Museu de Xocalata

Thick like chocolate pudding thickNow this is my kind of museum, where the admission ticket is a bar of dark chocolate!

I enjoyed eating my dark xocolata as I explored the exhibits showing the cultural and natural history of the Theobroma cacao. Of looking at and reading about the technology for processing the bean. And seeing art inspired by this glorious plant. I finished my visit with a cup of spiced, thick and bitter “drinking” chocolate that was a recipe used in the ancient America’s. It required a spoon to consume, but was fantastic!

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Happy 200th Birthday Darwin!

Today is Charles Darwin’s 200th birthday and there are all sorts of Darwin-centric events happening at the museum today, this week, really all this year as it is also the 150th anniversary of the publication of “On the Origin of Species.” The “nature live” lecture today was on Darwin’s life and achievements and there was promise of birthday cake. There were so many people there, they were turning people away at the door. Which included me. No cake for me. They should have known the promise of cake would have drawn out a larger crowd.

I’m a biologist, a naturalist, an entomologist, a taxonomist, it should be no mystery to anyone how Darwin inspires me. I’m fortunate to work at a place that houses his collections, that celebrates all these fields, that supports people whose livelihoods and passions are fueled by Darwin’s unifying law of biology. Yes, I said it is a law of science, it is one of those ideas that are so unifying, so observable, so proven that it is a fact of reality, and evolution by means of natural selection is one of them and it drives research and advances in many fields in biology.

So here’s to you and your brilliance (and to be fair, Wallace’s brilliance as well)! I enjoy seeing your statue watching over the halls of the Natural History Museum.

Keeping an eye on natural history

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Filming at the Museum

“Making It Part of the Collection”

Several months ago I agreed to be a part of an exhibit demonstrating beetle pinning. One of the many “fish bowl” windows looking in on staff in the new building will be into a preparation room/lab where insect pinning and plant pressing is slated to occur. When no one is in the room, say on weekends or something, there will be videos, photos and displays as a public offer.

My kitA couple months ago I met up with the film crew to talk about what a scientific preparator does. This involved me demonstrating pinning and pointing of beetles, labeling, talking about sorting accessions, a little bit about collecting and how a person ends up with such an odd job anyway. I talked and demoed for about forty minutes.

Last week I received “the script” or basically highlights of what I do distilled down to a dozen or so sentences that when read out loud would last about one minute thirty seconds. This wasn’t the verbatim script to be used, but included language and terms to make sure I said for clarity and to match up with what will presumably be on other related exhibit materials. For insect pest management purposes I also sent three drawers of specimens (aka more props) to be frozen for a week before being allowed in the new building.

A few days ago I received the call sheet which outlined a dress code for the people being filmed. No bright colors as they might flash hot on film, no stripes or patterns, no black, but to wear something you would ordinarily wear to work.

Yesterday morning porters arrived in my bay and packed up my kit, or basically most of my bay, to take to DC2 (Darwin Center phase 2), the new building that will be housing the botany and most of the entomology collections and staff soon. I was to be filmed there to make it look like I was working in the lab. So, not only did my microscope, tools, points and glue go, but also books and even desk lamps (as the labs don’t yet have lamps in them) to populate the desk as props.

Trying to point while looking at a video screenThis morning, I arrived early, I didn’t want to chance being late with public transport falling apart this week due to all the snow. Which was fine, this gave me over an hour to take care of a few things before the start. I would be the first to be filmed today, all three of us with activities that fit into the “Making it Part of the Collection” theme. Me, preparing insects, another woman preparing genitalia slides, and some one from botany showing how plant specimens are pressed and prepared.

There was the hair and make up girl who, after plastering on a good deal of foundation, actually came up to me between shots to touch up, blot and powder my nose. First, they filmed me walking in and working through everything quietly without me talking to get an “over all” shot. After that they broke down each tiny motion into a shot filmed from multiple angles. A lot of, “so, can you place those specimens back in the vial and pour them out into the tray again?” or, “can you do that with your left hand so it fits in the screen better?” There was also the, “we’ll film your hands while you are doing things, then we’ll film your face while you’re talking explaining what you’re doing while you pretend to do these things.” The woman filming was very excitable. You would think she captured the money shot for a porno once the macro lens was on and an inch away from and focused on the tiny weevil I was pointing.

Almost five hours of filming for what will be a video under two minutes.

I really enjoyed myself. I’m looking forward to seeing the finished product and how all these strange scenes will be cut together to tell a cohesive story. I will be seeing a preview and blooper reel to comment on before anything gets put in the exhibit. I hope I don’t sound like an idiot.

(I took a few photos from this day, stay tuned!)

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Ice Sculpting at NHM

Ice carving festival at the museumWhat a sight today, two sights really. The first, seeing the museum being evacuated for some as yet unknown emergency, mobs and mobs of people spilling out the doors. It is unknown by me, as this evacuation occurred about ten minutes before I usually leave for the night, so I took my bag and just never went back in (I wouldn’t have made my train had I waited outside to be left back in). Anyway, I did wander around the outside of the museum to see the second neat sight of the day, where the First Ever Ice Sculpting Festival was going on. I watched for a few minutes as the chainsaws whirred and sent clouds of ice crystals into the air. The weather was certainly well suited for it today, Brrrr! It would have been cool to get in on the the ice sculpting classes offered over the weekend.

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How Many People Have Seen This?

Me in museum video promoting scienceThere I am, in a still photograph, in a promotional video about the numbers of specimens and the science done in the museum. It’s in the main lobby and runs every few minutes. I honestly don’t know when I was photographed for this. The only time I was in front of a camera was with a film crew putting together a “pilot video” trying to pitch an idea of documentary for the BBC showing what goes on behind the scenes in the museum and associated weird jobs. This must be from then. I was pinning and pointing beetles for the segment. I think this was about a year ago too. And, no, I haven’t heard any news about the proposed documentary since.

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NHM at Christmas

NHM at Christmas

Ice rink and holiday fayre outside the museumThe Natural History Museum during the holidays is all decked out and looking lovely. I particularly love the fairy lights that are wrapped around the branches of the enormous Plane trees. Out front, there has been the Christmas Fayre and the ice rink set up since November (the other morning there was a Dalek on the ice!). I love working in this building. This is the view I walk by every evening leaving work. I haven’t been feeling terribly festive this year, but when I see this, I can’t help but smile and fill with warm holiday thoughts.

We are staying in the UK for the holidays this year and it really doesn’t feel like Christmas. We have been all Bah Humbugs. Since we went home the past two years, we don’t have many decorations to put up. So we haven’t decorated. The big thing though, that my brain is having a hard time processing: no snow. I look around and it really looks and feels like spring in Pittsburgh.

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NHM During Half Term

British Natural History Museum during half termThis is a sight I won’t see at home. It’s half term in the U.K. and that brings people and their families into the city in incredible numbers. It’s days like this when you can’t deny that the Natural History Museum gets up to 15,000 visitors in a single day (free admission too). There is literally wall to wall throngs of people. Everywhere. Every corner. I hesitate to leave the department on days like this, just getting to the loo or making it out for lunch is a harrowing obstacle course. It will be this packed all this week and possibly next week, as it seems schools stagger their half term breaks. My friend and I seemingly had the Carnegie to ourselves in April visiting the newly remodeled dinosaur hall.

An interesting connection to the museum back home: taking center stage in the main hall greeting every visitor to the museum is a cast of the Diplodocus carnegii skeleton whose original is housed in the Carnegie. The BM has it’s own Dippy.

The cast was given as a gift by Andrew Carnegie, after meeting with King Edward VII who was fascinated by the fossil animal. Carnegie arranged for a cast to be created at his own expense, at a cost of £2000, copying the original. The pieces were sent to London in 36 crates. The new exhibit was unveiled in May 1905. It created a bit of a stir as the original skeleton had yet to be articulated and mounted back home. Nicknamed “Dippy,” the news of the new exhibit spread. Carnegie eventually paid to have additional copies made for display in most major European capitals, making Dippy the most-seen dinosaur skeleton in the world.

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GeoBear

Taste Testing cheddar made in Cheddar, UKI am helping a friend’s 10 year old daughter with a class project, their GeoBear project. Basically, it’s like the gnome from Amelie, only a little stuffed bear. The bear will feature in a series of photos and I’ll be sending post cards to the class room. In theory, I think I am supposed to send the bear along to someone else who may be traveling further. However, we travel a lot, and if the bear sticks with us, he’ll be getting around.

This past weekend while a couple of friends of ours were visiting from the U.S., the GeoBear got off to a good start on its world traveling adventure. We were in Cheddar where we taste tested cheddar cheese made in Cheddar and matured in caves there. We had an amazing fun caving adventure. Climbed Cheddar Gorge. Had a fly-by of Stonehenge. Not to mention a day around London, hitting the highlights of Trafalgar Square, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben and the Parliament, boat trip on the Thames, tour of the Tower of London, and seeing the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum (whew!)

It’s only the beginning for this bear, keep an eye on the photo stream for further adventures and travels!

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Netherlands: Amsterdam, Artis

Mark is working today so I’m up to my old tricks and entertaining myself in the city for the day. I had all these grand designs for visiting places, including the Troppenmuseum (the Tropical Museum), the Hortus (the botanical gardens) and possibly making it to Artis, the zoo. Since there wasn’t a deluge pouring from the sky, I thought I would start with the out of doors attraction and headed straight for Artis.

The walk was fabulous. Chilly, but at least sunny. It was nice to see the canals by daylight. Amsterdam is a city of concentric half circles of canals with radiating branches throughout. A watery spider web outlined with cobbled roads and impossibly narrow and slanting buildings. Every single road had a bicycle lane, I have never seen so my bicyclists, or bicycles, period. The city caters to and is designed for bikes. Crossing intersections, it’s not the motorists to look out for, it’s the people on bikes who will run into you.

I ended up spending my entire day there. It is not just a zoo. Inside its grounds is the University run Zoological Museum, the Aquarium, a Planetarium and an Insectarium (I kept thinking of the “orphanarium” from Futurama when I saw this!) complete with an enormous butterfly house, I’m talking thousands of butterflies, a photographer’s paradise. With so much on offer, it’s easy to see how I spent so much time here. After seeing some of my photos of butterflies, Mark actually said this is a place he’d like to go (this from a person who does not like museums or zoos). But there was so much else to do, maybe next time. Photos forthcoming, at some point, we are months behind in processing photos.

I found a “New York” bagel shop for lunch and was sat in a window seat with a latte for a session of people watching. I kept seeing the twins of a close friend’s mother, I don’t think they’re Dutch, but the resemblance was uncanny.

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England: Tring

In our effort to have more but smaller adventures around England I suggested Tring. I had been wanting to go to the museum at Tring for quite some time now.  Once the private museum of the Rothschild’s, it is located in the grounds of the former Rothschild family home of Tring Park.  The building was constructed in 1889 specifically to house The 2nd Baron Rothschild’s collection of mounted specimens and first opened to the public in 1892.  It became part of the Natural History Museum in 1937, and if you’re an ornithologist employed by the museum this is where you would work as the bird collections are housed here.

It is a place that appeals to me because of the nature of the exhibits.  Here, you won’t find computer screens flashing and blinking or otherwise detracting from the displays.  What you do find are classic collections of articulated skeletons and taxodermically prepared skins of mammals and birds.  They are carefully arranged in related groups in Victorian era wood and glass cabinets.   I can’t think of a better way to capture the imagination of a visitor, to spark curiosity about a group of organisms, than to have actual specimens illustrating the incredible diversity of life right in front of you.  Well, visiting a zoo or seeing wildlife in their natural habitats undisturbed would be better.  But, for most people and for young people, the specimens can be powerful tools in exciting the imagination.

What was the impetus for this visit, however, was an article I read on the Blaschka glass marine animals, of which there was going to be a small special exhibit gallery devoted to them.    The Blaschka’s were a father son team who created glass models of natural history objects.  The accuracy and attention to detail of the organisms they crafted even impresses scientists who study the animals in real life.  They are more famous for their flowers, which are housed at Harvard’s Botanical Museum.  But they created hundreds of marine animals in glass as well.

This is a clear mix of science and art, as any scientific preparation of a specimen is, in my humble opinion.

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My Life With Bugs

I realized that I’ve been asked quite a bit about my job recently and have sent out many an email explaining what it is I actually do, that this would make an excellent post. I often feel I get the strangest reactions to this, I do have an odd job.

I am knackered. With just a few weeks of my working full time under my belt, I’m starting to get used to the commute. It is rough though. I’ll be able to last, I think, to the end of the year doing this…

I am excited about the new job though, it’s going to be a lot more challenging than what I was doing. In recent weeks I’ve been training someone new as a preparator. It really is an art pinning and pointing insects for a collection. It takes patience and a good eye. We recently had an open house with heaps of artistically arranged spectacular collections on display. That is all well and good to ogle and “Ooooh!” and “Aaaaah!” at. However, in active scientific collections used for research, specimens need to be prepared in a way that helps best preserve and conserve them. It’s an art, but with a practical side to it. I’ll still be involved in the insect preparation on the side.

The rest of my time, I’ll be involved with curation activities. I’ll be in charge of getting beetles that have been “accessioned” by the museum, which are housed separately and are unorganized, and putting them in order. These are collections of beetles that have either been donated, are from staff field work, or from research projects that haven’t been integrated into the main collection. I’m a generalist. I’ll be making sense of them and getting them into the main collection so that they are somewhere accessible where they can be identified, used and studied by the experts.

Museum collections, whether it’s bugs, plants or dinosaur bones, are like libraries. If the books are not where they’re supposed to be, organized in a rational manner, no one can find them to read them and get information from them. The characters used to identify the family, genus and species are chapters, pages and individual words in these books. So, basically, I’ll be cleaning up old stacks of beetles (identifying to family, etc.) and putting them where they belong in the drawers in the right order (curation) or putting certain groups in front of the eyes of specialists. It’s a much more challenging job than it sounds, I’ll be learning quite a lot about beetles in the process (as most of my training is in lepidoptera).

The commute is going to be rough, but I’m excited about the work. It’s all about the right trade offs. I feel they have been working so hard to get me hired full time, it’s hard to say no to the job, I’m really quite flattered. And it’s set for 6-9 months, depending if we’re here beyond the end of the year. They know about our situation and are being very accommodating with my contract.

And paid time off! This is such a novel idea for me! I have a pile of days of pto (if it were a one year contract I would *start* with 27 pto days). All those years of working at my former position, I never had any sort of benefits. I am almost beside myself with the idea :) This example really driving home the stereotype of stingy benefits for Americans in the US. In fact, this coming Friday I’ll be taking off for a holiday, it feels so strange. I wonder how many of my coworkers will get it.

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Happy National Insect Week!

It’s National Insect Week in the UK this week. For our part, there will be an open house on Thursday and Friday afternoon from 12:30-4:30. Come see what entomologists at the Natural History Museum are up to and do. I’ll be there preparing crowd pleasing large and colorful beetles, talking about preparation, the importance of well prepared specimens in active scientific collections to preserve and conserve the condition of the specimens as best as possible and the exciting world of field work.

Happy National Insect Week everybody!

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England: Duxford Imperial War Museum

And now for something completely different. Suzanne’s husband made the suggestion for today’s adventure. It’s a place he remembers fondly visiting in his youth, the Duxford Imperial War Museum. I honestly never would have thought to look for a place like this, but I was impressed.

There were huge hangars full of displays of airplanes. One for British aircraft and one for American.  Once inside, some part of me did not find the heavy cables suspending some of these enormous crafts from the ceiling terribly confidence inspiring.  And my first thought standing at eye level with the helicopter blades went something like this, “if that helicopter were to start up for no apparent reason right now, we would lose our heads.” Just to give a glimpse into the inner workings of my brain.

One of the first Concorde’s was open for visitor’s to walk through, so I can officially say I’ve been on the Concorde. I also found it a bit disconcerting to be allowed to walk under and so close to the planes. How strange to be poking my head into these nooks, inches from engines, when my life’s experience with aircraft has kept these areas verboten.

Entering the doors to another hangar, the strong smells of solvents, oil and paint waft over you. There were three or four hangars dedicated to the restoration of planes. The signs reading, “Please do not disturb the engineers more than necessary” as I’m sure they get riddled with questions about the plane they are working on, what they are doing or about the tools and equipment they are surrounded by. Can someone tell me why so many aircraft are painted bright yellow?

Even the very last hangar, which was at the end of a mile long row of hangars, that contained the land combat vehicles was fascinating. The place was packed with vehicles. It was the kind of exhibit that reminded me of the more old school museum exhibits where there are huge numbers of actual specimens to look at. There were no flashing screens or buttons to push. Just specimens. These just happened to be combat vehicles arranged in chronological order and by what war. Each made to look like the setting they were used in. Pale golden sand spread beneath the similarly golden paint for Northern African vehicles; Jungle scenes and mud for Pacific conflicts. The “Normandy Experience” was a bit much though.

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England: Tour of London

We powered ourselves into the day with Eggs Benedict for breakfast.  After having my confidence shaken in my flawless hollandaise having failed catastrophically multiple times in a row, I’m back on the hollandaise saddle using a whisk and smaller batches (*whew* we’ve gone a couple weeks without this sauce of the gods, I can’t exist without it!).

We got a pretty late start but still managed to do and see quite a lot today.  We hopped on the train from Beaconsfield for a day in and around London.  I actually didn’t have my camera in tow today.  I figured that since most of the places we were going to I have well covered from previous trips into the city.  We started off in Trafalgar Square, walked down towards the Parliament building, Big Ben and Westminster Abbey.  The usual sorts of sites for Suzanne’s benefit as this was her first time to  England and London.

We enjoyed hilarious commentary of the abbreviated city cruise, opting to hop out at the Tower of London where we treated to an excellent tour guide.  Honestly, our group slowly grew to about 150 people!  as individuals glommed on to listen to the Beefeater barking at the top of his lungs.

We hopped back on the city cruise ferry and hit the underground for a peek at the neon lit Piccadilly Circus, not terribly exciting.  After an unsuccessful jaunt through that side of town to find a branch of a particular bank we made our way to South Kensington for brief stop at Natural History museum.  We had enough time to for me to share this remarkable building that I work in and to spend some time in my favorite exhibits.  The old-school mineral hall and the Victorian era displays of birds, my favorite being the hummingbird display that is almost impossible to photograph.  If you want to see its awesomeness, you’ll just have to go there for your self.

We capped the day with dinner at the one thousand year old pub and free house Royal Standard that just happens to be a few miles from where we live and is one of our favorite places to eat (excellent food and atmosphere!).

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Tour Of Pittsburgh: Day One

The next few days I played tour guide for a friend for their first trip to this city.  The tour of Pittsburgh started off with the West End Overlook. This, IMHO, is the superior overlook in and of the city. You get that incredible “head on” view of The Point and the three rivers. You get a better sense of how close nit the down town area is relative to other cities due to the topography of the region. And, well, it’s just prettier. It also happens to right up the hill from my childhood home in the West End (well, Elliott really), where my parents still live. I took my friend to my old street and home and briefly chatted with my dad. I ruminated over how I used to know every single neighbor. Childhood and family friends have mostly moved away. It’s not the same cul de sac of my youth.

I continued the tour with the classic explosive view you get from the Fort Pitt Bridge, I went a little out of the way to make sure we drove through the tunnel for that stunning view. We drove into Oakland where we strolled through the Nationality Rooms of the Cathedral of Learning. Pausing to admire the Gothic style architecture in the main hall, my teacher friend and I compared the differences in education systems between the U.S. and the U.K. We had rather different experiences in University.

We walked through South Oakland to indulge in a favorite of mine for lunch. Burritos at Mad Mex. This was the first trip of many on this trip home. I never get tired of my favorite: the chick pea chili burrito with sour cream and guac. I know everything on the menu is good. But I always get that burrito. Anytime I order anything else, I always wish I had just gone with the chick pea chili burrito. I make a fairly spot on facsimile, having teased apart and experimented with the recipe a dozen years ago or so. If only I could find tomatillos here! But there is always something so much better about getting the dish there. Maybe it’s the ambiance or the sangria, but to me, that is the ultimate comfort food. A trip home would not be complete without it.

After lunch we visited more of my old stomping grounds and went to the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. I was interested in seeing the renovations that had closed down a significant chunk of exhibits for two years. To be honest, I was disappointed with the new exhibit and space. In an institution where space is at a premium to every department, there seemed to be a lot of it wasted.

After a brief visit to our home. Have I mentioned how I love to tell people what we payed for our awesome house with its hard wood floors, slate roof, 3/4″ inch thick plaster walls, so much sweeter in the context of U.K. housing prices. Dinner was a trip into Station Square for a little fondue. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know the Melting Pot is a chain. But it appeals to me in so many ways. I love being able to have a little bit of a lot of different dishes and the “Big Night Out” sampler with a group of friends is an excellent way to do that.

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Book In My Reading Queue

I’m looking forward to a book I recently ordered, it should be here on Monday.  It’s “Store Room No.1: The Secret History of the Natural History Museum” by Richard Fortey.  It’s primarily a collection of stories and anecdotes of the hidden treasures and characters who have worked at the British Museum of Natural History over time.  A sort of alternative history of this museum.  I think it’s par for the course to have unusual people and stories associated with museums.  Taxonomy does lend itself to people with a penchant for weird passions.  A graduate student I once worked with had been working on a “behind the scenes” narrative of the history and people of the bug rooms I formerly worked in.  I wonder what happened to that project.
Anyway, it’s in my queue and I expect it will be a really enjoyable read with stories I can empathize and sympathize with.

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Germany: A Second day in Saarbrucken

Heron in the Franco-Deutsh GardensThere was so much to see in Saarbrucken that I decided on a second day in the city. First stop, the Franco-German Gardens. This is a botanical garden near the border between the two countries. It was built as a symbol cooperation. There is a large lake with protected islands for waterfowl. There are heaps of trails leading through landscaped tree and flower gardens. I’m sure it’s much more impressive than this grey December day in the spring.

Headstones in GardensInside the gardens on the far end is a strange memorial. A memorial containing the headstones of military and civilian, French and German victims from French-German conflicts in the 1880’s. What is particularly odd, is that they only moved the headstones, and not the graves. There is only one woman’s headstone here. She was a local to the Saarbrucken region and worked to help the injured on both sides. It’s tucked in a thick patch of pines creating a dark and quiet space. Fresh flowers were on one stone, a lit candle on another. This place is meaningful to somebody today.

I walked the several miles from the gardens into town. I decided to go to the Saarland Art museum, where there was a spectacular special exhibition of Picasso works. It’s amazing how just a few strokes, a few lines on his sketches can communicate so much. On the other hand, there were crayon or finger painted primitive pieces that looked like what is stuck to refrigerators of parents of toddlers everywhere.

Deb with the prizesWe won a prize at dinner tonight! Actually, Mark made the winning roll of the dice. 6-6-5. Out of everyone in the restaurant (which admittedly weren’t very many), but still, we won! And we won a bottle of locally produced Riesling, my favorite type of wine and a little chocolate egg with a creepy toy inside.

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Germany: Saarbrucken

George slaying the dragonToday I hopped on the train and headed to the capital of the state of Saar, Saarbrucken. I started by heading to Rathaus St. Johann, the old town hall. Outside above the entrance is the oddly out of place bronze figure of St. George slaying the dragon. A symbol of England. Perhaps their presence represents the battle between good and evil. The facade is decorated with sandstone statues representing trades of the region, a miner, a smelter, a farmer, a brewer. The sandstone has that wonderful red color. This was an excellent place to start as well, since there was a tourism office right inside, complete with guides and maps in English. Making my exploration much less complicated.

Saarbrucken castle ruins in blueI walked along the pedestrian shopping street, which was well over a mile long in this city, all the way to the far square. Another holiday festival was going on and I indulged in another crepe. From here, I crossed the Saar river and made my way up the hill to the shlossplatz, the castle square and the Saarland Regional History museum. This square was constructed to have buildings erected that looked similar to the palace but without distracting from the castle. Inside the museum, I was led underground where the remnants of the castle walls, corridors and rooms remain. On one side the museum contained posters of WWII propaganda. Everywhere else I was taking photos and was left alone. The moment I tried taking shots of these posters depicting England as a small vulnerable island surrounded by U-boats, or London being bombed, I was quickly told that photography was not permitted.

Miserly Baker on castle wallThis castle plaza is on a bluff overlooking the city below, with a tall castle wall. On this castle wall is an odd gargoyle, the Miserly Baker. It is said that the miserly baker refused to help the poor in times of need. He would insult them and encouraged young women to offer him their bodies in exchange for bread. When the margravine (the wife of the military governor) heard this rumor she dressed up as a beggar to put him to the test. The baker fell for the disguise and was put in the stocks as punishment and died several days later. An effigy of his head was carved of stone and placed on the Old Bridge to serve as a drain pipe gargoyle and as a warning for several centuries. This castle wall was moved 16 meters when the modern motorway was built along the river below.

That evening we enjoyed a dinner at hotel restaurant which featured two wines from the region as well as a fabulous dessert. It was an apple tart topped with the most amazing vanilla ice cream, it tasted like it was topped with creme brulee. And was encircled in pureed peaches and plums.

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Newly Employed at BMNH!!

Well, that was fast. Wasn’t it just a couple of weeks ago when I was quickly poached from Botany by the Entomology department as a volunteer?

Yesterday was my first day as an official employee of the Entomology department at the British Museum of Natural History! It’s for temporary contract work (sounds familiar) working in the coleoptera collection which is located in the main museum building (lepidoptera is in a separate much further away building). I’ll be involved in the usual sorts of bug work, beetle prep, sample sorting, curation (there is a new building going up right next to the museum that will house both bot. and ento. in short order).

From day one that I was in those rooms someone was trying to figure out how to get me hired. Each day I was in I had someone new peering over my shoulder, commenting on how unique and well done my insect preparation was. I’ve given credit where credit is due. I’m a product of my training! I’ll just say the Carnegie way is making waves. When approached about the position I asked, “do you want to see a copy of my resume?” the response, “I don’t need to, I’ve seen your work.” The new people I’ve been working with and meeting have been extremely enthusiastic and not short on praise. It feels great to be back doing work that I genuinely enjoy and have missed.

Commuting into London is a bit surreal.  I find myself saying almost in disbelief, “I commute into London!”  on the same line of thought when we randomly exclaim to one another as if we forgot, “We live in England!”   We’ve lived here a year, you would think we would be over that teeny detail by now.   Anyway, two trains, the underground, some walking and (on average) two hours door to door.  It’s not as bad as it sounds.  With a good book and cuppa in hand it makes it seem much shorter than what it actually is.   When everything is on time, no train delays, no problems on the Circle line, it works beautifully and cuts almost half an hour off.  But the days where everything is running perfectly happen as often as not.

Today was a perfect commute day.  Even coming home I was on the single Bourne End train of the night, one that goes straight to Bourne End from Paddington.  It’s a fast train, it even runs on the special “fast track” commuter train rails and makes two stops (one at Slough, then at Maidenhead) before turning off toward home.  That translates into: I can safely doze off and not miss my stop when it’s the end of the line, ha!

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Austria: Leoben and Salzburg

Mur River and LeobenI spent one last morning walking around this lovely area. Mark would finish up around noon so I needed to stay close to town. It was sunny and clear, and I headed out on one of the closer trails. It is actually the bike trail (route #2) that goes on for miles and miles in both directions but follows along and stays close to the river Mur.

I also bought my yarn for my “scarves made from yarn from countries we visited” project. I found a great little yarn shop. Everything was on sale. Actually it was an “Everything Must Go” sort of sale. Apparently the owner had recently died and the executors of the estate were selling everything off to close down the shop. I bought four skeins of variegated microfiber yarn. I can possibly attempt a hat. A hat! I know! It’s not a rectangle, but I think I’ll give it a go.

Mark picked me up and we were on our way back to Salzburg, where we were flying out later that night. We had a few hours to kill before getting to the airport.

View from square up to castle in SalzburgWe parked in what turned out to be the coolest parking garage we have ever been in. It was carved in to the mountain side. Much like the Troglodite caves we visited in Turkey. There were several levels along with long cave tunnels leading to both sides of the mountain. The cave tunnels were lined with elaborate display cases for the shops, restaurants and theaters of the town. We spent some time in the Haus de Natur, the unexpectedly large natural history museum. The ground floor dominated by dozens of well kept aquariums exhibiting living fish, sharks and corals from around the world.

Over our amazing dinner, one of the most spectacularly prepared meals we have had in a long time from a randomly picked restaurant, we were thinking we should have tacked on an extra day just for exploring Salzburg. It is a gorgeous city. The shopping district was full of stuff we wanted to buy and we weren’t being harangued and harassed to buy anything. And actually we did buy something, I walked away with a new light weight coat and Mark a suit. This is the hometown of Mozart. We’re not classical music buffs, far from it. But how cool would it be to take the funicular up to the castle on the mountaintop where concerts are performed. We’ll have to visit here again.

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Being an ex-pat’s wife and Volunteering

From all accounts from what we’ve heard and in books we’ve read, if you’re the spouse of an expat who has their work provided work visa, don’t expect to work and get lots of hobbies.

My plan originally, was to find a place where I could work part time, not really for the extra income, but mostly for human interaction. Moving to another city, let alone another country where you know no one can get a bit isolating. This had been looking like a promising idea.

I had talked to someone a the local enormous garden center, who explained how desperate they were for people in the afternoons. Most of the weekday employees are mums, who leave when the kids get out of school. “Perfect!” I had thought, I was only looking for a few hours and afternoons would have worked out just right. A few days after submitting an application I received a letter stating plainly, “We have no available open positions at this time.”

I’ve also looked into “bar birding” aka being a bar tender and waitress at local pubs. Most places are looking for folks to work evenings and weekends only. No thank you. I would like to be home during the same hours as Mark, my favorite person to spend time with and coincidentally one of the few people I know here.

I also had the plan in mind to volunteer at the British Museum of Natural History. In theory, working in a department where I could utilize my training, knowledge and skills (i.e. entomology, botany or the scientific library). Positions weren’t listed on the website, I applied and waited to hear about an opening in any of those departments.

Well, it’s taken months, my application getting lost in the shuffle, waiting for my police vetting to be cleared and arranging a start date. But I started a volunteer position today at the BMNH in the Botany Department’s herbarium.

Today was an excellent day, in addition to starting work I had some behind the scenes tours of all the Botany department rooms, part of the Entomology department and also the Darwin Center. In the special collections room I saw Sloane’s type specimen, that original specimen that was used to describe the species, of chocolate, cocoa (Theobroma cacao). In another several hundred year old book of pressed flora, the collector had also pressed insects, flattened with the flower parts were butterflies, beetles and even a praying mantis. I got to see jars of samples of fishes that Darwin collected, his handwriting on the labels. In the largest glass jar, in the 13C temperature controlled basement room full of large glass jars of specimens, a Coelocanth. The was a jar of preserved echidnas from the first Australian collecting expedition. I even saw the 8.62 meter long giant squid specimen in a special made tank. It was accidentally caught by fishermen off the Falkland Islands and is in amazing condition.

Here’s to volunteering at the museum!

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Turkey: Cappadocia

Camel shaped rock formationToday’s first stop was Imagination Valley. Here we scrabbled all over the eroded rock formations and looked for shapes in the rocks. The first huge obvious rock formation was in the shape of a camel. There were penguins, seals, an eagle here and cat there. The rocks were just fun to climb all over. Of course Martin was off like a shot, before we knew it, we saw him across the ravine. How he gets so far so fast away from us at every site we visit is a mystery to me as I leisurely stroll and languidly drape myself over the rocks.

Lunch was at a restaurant that happened to be in, you guessed it, a cave. It started with a lentil soup, followed by a bean dish, the main course was a meat dish. The meat is cooked in a ceramic pot that has been sealed with bread dough over the top. (It does have a special name but I’m having a hard time finding it).

Climbing up the foot holdsDown the road we stopped at another carved out hide out that belonged to St. Simon. Here he lived a simple life, eating little and having little to no personal possessions, living in isolation, in his sacrifice trying to get closer to god. The bed and pillow were even carved out of stone. Mark shimmied up the chimney like stairs with foot holds in the wall.

We visited another open air museum at Zelve. There are two valleys here that are connected by carved out stairs and tunnels which we clambered through the dark. Fortunately we came prepared, we actually packed our headlamp. This valley was inhabited by a large population of Greeks until the 1922 “population exchange” when Greeks and Turks were “repatriated” to their own countries. This is all a nice way of saying the Christians were kicked out and the Muslims were brought back home. It was later inhabited by Muslims, and there is a small stone Mosque carved out near the entrance.

Martin with polish onyx eggWe made a quick stop at a jewelers that gave a demonstration of carving local onyx. The difference between marble, alabaster and onyx was explained, onyx is opaque whereas no light passes through the marble. Locally acquired onyx is carved into boxes and keepsakes. The craftsman quickly used a diamond tipped lathe to carve out and polish an egg shape within seconds before our eyes. Mark admired the machining skill done with such precision in two dimensions at once. We were corralled into the shop, where we were harangued a bit. It was amusing watching Mark try to explain the concept of “bling bling” to a woman who spoke little English but had asked about a word that describes jewelery she asked, “you know, two words together, like ‘tickle tickle’ or ‘giggle giggle’?”

Pinks, rose, goldenrodIn the early evening we went on a long hike in the “Red Valley” to watch the sunset as we descended into the “Rose Valley” Here we saw the brightly colored multi layered strata. A thick band of yellow blazed across the vibrant pinks that dominated this valley. All this contrasted beautifully with the blue sky and fluffy white clouds, the dark greens of the scrub vegetation. At the far end of the hike we encountered the largest cave church carved out of the soft tuff yet. On the way down we watched a few dung beetles doing their thing outside the holes they’ve dug. On our way out, the wind was whipping through the valley, pushing against us as we walked the the higher ridges.

That night a few of us needed to make a supply run, either to an eczane or market. It had been pouring down rain, torrential rain. As soon as it let up a little we ventured out. It turned out to be more of a brisk run in the rain. The sound track playing in my mind was, “run lola run” music as we went from place to place looking for directions to an eczane, then eczane to eczane trying to find one that was open, then on to a super market. There was a bit of mad giggling as we ran. It was a bit ridiculous. As we started back up the hill to the hotel, it turns out there was a market just a block or two away that we could have gone to. But, a run in the rain after days of walking and hiking about is just what we needed.

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Turkey: Cappadocia

Fairy Chimneys product of local geologyFirst stop today, the famous site of the Three Fairy Chimneys. These “fairy chimneys” are also a product of the geology unique to this region. The thick layers of easily eroded Tuff topped by the less easily erodible basalt results in tapering towers of Tuff with hats of Basalt. Is some places they look rather mushroom like, pale stems of Tuff with caps of darker Basalt.

We made our way to the Göreme Open Air Museum, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has half a dozen cave churches and a number of monasteries hand cut into the Tuff. Several well preserved byzantine style churches have walls with colorful Secco’s. Secco’s differ from Fresco’s in that fresco painting involves painting on wet plaster. Secco painting is on dry plaster. The primary color was red ocher made from the iron rich clay deposits found in the area. The colors were mixed with albumin from eggs to set the color.

Multiple arches carved into stoneMost of the carved out dwellings we visited had been inhabited until the 1930’s, there was a thirty year period where these places were not protected from looters and vandalism. An interesting bit of vandalism is in the form of all the eyes of Christian secco’s having been scratched out. Muslim’s were responsible for this. Fearing that only Allah had eyes to see into these places that were later used as mosques, also that whole idea of no living things allowed to be depicted in mosques led to scratching out of faces.

Forming a bowl with local Cappadocian clayOur next stop was a visit to a ceramics making place, Kaya Seramik Evi, which was located in a cave. Here the master potters throw clay found in the region, both the red iron rich clay and a smoother porcelain like clay. They painstakingly paint and glaze their plates in traditional Hittite and Iznik styles. The potters are all in the family, passing the trade down for several generations, they even have developed a personal family decorating style, pointillist in it’s detail.

After a tour and demonstration of a hand throwing style on a foot powered wheel a volunteer was needed to try their hand at the wheel. I did not hesitate. I’m glad I had the opportunity to throw and feel this clay. Having taken a number of pottery wheel throwing classes, using a variety of clays, it was interesting to compare the the feel and texture to what I was familiar with.

Deb's hands on local Cappadocian clayThe Cappodocian clay was finer than the clay I have the most experience with. It was not quite as smooth and fine as porcelain, but was similarly soft and malleable as porcelain. I really enjoyed myself. I wouldn’t say it was my best work, but it was really fun to do. Mark and I ended up purchasing one of the small family design plates. I think this is a unique souvenir, I will always think of how the clay felt in my hands every time I look at the plate.

We drove on, visiting a set of cave homes where people lived in up to the 1950’s. Here these rooms were still furnished as the people had lived there. I think Mark and I could live comfortably in carved out cave rooms. Think of how nice the temperature regulation is, maintaining the same temperature inside year round, feeling refreshingly cool in the summer and pleasantly warm in winter.

Whirling DirvishesAfter dinner at the hotel most of us, meaning everyone but Mark, went out to a Turkish culture night, hosted in a cave restaurant. This involved traditional music and dancing of Turkey and all the alcohol you could drink. The night started out with the whirling dervishes. Their white long robes symbolizes the white cloth the dead are wrapped and buried in, the spinning is a prayer bringing them closer to Allah. Photos were not allowed during the actual performance, I can imagine cameras and flashes would be really distracting. It was also performed in darkness, the white robes illuminated by black lights only. They had a brief bit of whirling afterwards in the bright light for photos.

Turkish bride escorted inThe rest of the evening was filled with dances and costumes representing different regions and aspects of Turkish culture. There was also a bride and henna ceremony, starting with the bride making an entrance on a donkey. There was quite a bit of audience participation dancing including a weaving dance that led everyone in the room outside and around a bonfire. The belly dancing had an interesting twist. Rather than it being all about objectifying this really hot women, she picked out a half dozen male volunteers for an impromptu lesson. The men then were the center of attention for the show, including Scott, who was a really good sport about it all. The place turned into a Turkish disco for a bit before we needed to go which was fun too. Yeah, Mark would have hated this :)

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Travel: Turkey

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