Exploring the Earth Museum

As part of our Year Nine Museum studies course, we were joined this week by Janet Owen, founder of the Earth Museum, who introduced us to her very unusual and exciting virtual museum project and museum. In April, the Rumble Museum will be partnering with the Earth Museum on a project to explore the stories behind one of our collections. This session was a very informative and interesting introduction to the story behind the Earth Museum.

We started by hearing a bit about how the Earth Museum came into being. The project was inspired by Janet’s many years of working in the museum and cultural heritage environment.Janet told us about her research involving the collecting journeys of Alfred Russel Wallace and Charles Darwin, as well as other travelling collectors. The artefacts they collected are now scattered in museums across the world, a long way from their original places of belonging.

The Earth Museum allows users to locate these objects where they were found. Janet showed us the different ways in which audiences can explore the objects in the Earth Museum. When you enter the website, you can explore stories by clicking on areas of the globe, which take you to links to different stories. You can also view objects in the same way across the globe.

For example, there is a story about Sappho and Cinnamon which explores ancient trading routes through the very first surviving mention of cinnamon in the region by the ancient Greek poet Sappho in the seventh century BC. Through the object route, an example might be the Starfish Pseudarchaster intermedius, which was collected on ‘Challenger’ expedition, 1872-6.

Visitors can also take virtual tours which connect to particular themes, such as as exploration of Antarctica, which features things like tins of pemmican (a concentrate of dried meat and fat or lard) recovered from a depot on the Great Ice Barrier, and left there by the Terra Nova expedition led by Captain Scott.

Janet explained how people could get in touch to have their own community or family history recorded and stored on the Earth Museum. The museum enables all sorts of connections to be made, by being a virtual presence that connects with projects, organisations, people and individuals all across the world. A lot of the projects have an environmental emphasis and a strongly collaborative ethos.

Janet asked students what they thought of the Earth Museum and how you felt it might be developed. A number of them said you really enjoyed the layout, and the dynamic nature of the images. They appreciated being able to explore things by zooming in on the globe. Some felt more content would be really useful, and wondered about ideas such as incorporating infographics. They all felt that the virtual experience did not in any way diminish any potential real experience, but that it was important that any virtual museum movement did not replace real museums. Some raised issues such as visitor interaction in real museums being important, and how the digital experience might engage with this.

We are very grateful to Janet for her very interesting introduction to a really fascinating museum and project.