Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Using the Museum's Staff-Only Entrance

At the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History (pictured above), the staff-only entrances are also the exits for everyone leaving the building.  Entering staffers who successfully avoid being trampled by the flow of exiting tourists are spared the museum police force’s inspection of bags.  In fact, despite the moments when it’s like the running of the bulls, using the staff-only entrance is a welcome perquisite and it is one that the Smithsonian extends to its volunteers.  That small gesture speaks volumes about the Smithsonian’s long-standing embrace of volunteers.

I’ve been thinking about the importance of volunteers for museums, particularly natural history museums.  For many of these institutions, such as the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) or Philadelphia’s Academy of Natural Sciences (ANS), volunteers are clearly an important element in each entity's lifeblood.  I don’t say that just because I recently began volunteering at the NMNH.  For all of the various museums that comprise the Smithsonian Institution (not just the NMNH), the number of volunteers in service – over 6,500 – exceeds the total number of paid staff – more than 6,000 (including some 500 scientists).  (Smithsonian Institution, FY2012 Budget Request.)  The ANS has 273 employees, supported by 508 volunteers.  (IRS Form 990 (Return of Organization Exempt From Income Tax) for 2009 filed by ANS.)

I recognize that the range of services provided by volunteers is very broad, many perhaps requiring little scientific knowledge.  Still, it’s hard to gainsay the contribution that volunteers make to these institutions.  Importantly, the relationship between museum and volunteer is mutually beneficial.  While the museum often plays an educational role for its volunteers, providing training and other opportunities, this is all in the institution’s best interest because, for many visitors, some volunteers constitute the face of the institution while other volunteers are providing support to scientists behind the scenes.

And if there is a pantheon of volunteer heroes at natural history museums, Patricia Kane-Vanni is certainly enshrined in it.  I never met Patti Kane-Vanni, who passed away June 11, 2011, at age 57.  Parenthetically, I have to admit that I’m at that stage when a person’s age in an obituary delivers either a bit of reassurance (“yes, that was wonderfully long life”) or brings on a sudden chill (“damn, that’s much too young”).  The obituary in the Delaware Valley Paleontological Society’s September newsletter brought a chill, one, thankfully, soon dispelled.  After reading the story and doing what felt a bit disrespectful – googling her name – I learned that her far too brief life was remarkably full and well led.

A graduate of Chestnut Hill College with a BA in sociology and studio art, she earned her law degree from Temple University and practiced law in Philadelphia (link here to this background information).  At some juncture her then-young son fell for dinosaurs and she supported him in his infatuation – a fateful decision to be sure because, even as he moved on to other interests, her paleontological passion flowered.

In a moving piece, written months before her death, University of Pennsylvania paleontologist Peter Dodson described how she followed this road, even as she continued her career in law.  An initial stage was volunteering.
She became more and more involved with fossils, working as a volunteer preparator and sometime weekend lab manager in the fossil prep lab and in the fossil dig in dinosaur hall, all at the Academy of Natural Sciences. She gives exhibit tours. . . .  Her volunteer services to the Academy number hundreds of hours per year. Patti cannot stand to sit idly by. She joined the Delaware Valley Paleontological Society and quickly became vice president and program chair.
(Dodson’s account of Patti Kane-Vanni is actually a comment he posted on WGBH’s American Experience website for the TV documentary Dinosaur Wars.  He was responding to an invitation to post comments on the topic:  “Do you have a thing for dinosaurs?”  It was posted January 19, 2011.)

Coursework complemented volunteering – she took geology and paleontology courses at the Wagner Free Institute of Science, and graduate-level vertebrate paleontology courses from Dodson at the University Pennsylvania, and began a part-time MA program in Environmental Sciences focusing on paleontology and environmental law.

Fieldwork marked her love affair with paleontology, including University of Pennsylvania digs in Montana and Egypt.  Publications from these efforts explicitly acknowledged her contribution – see, for example, A Giant Sauropod Dinosaur from an Upper Cretaceous Mangrove Deposit in Egypt (Joshua B. Smith, et al., Science, June 1, 2001); and A New Diplodocoid Sauropod Dinosaur from the Upper Jurassic Morrison Formation of Montana, USA (Jerald D. Harris and Peter Dodson, Acta Palaeontologica Polonica , volume 49 (2), 2004).

Perhaps not surprisingly, she cast her paleontological reach widely and embraced paleoart.  Her illustrations grace several publications, including two beautiful drawings in Fossil Legends of the First Americans by Adrienne Mayor (2005).  (I have only “looked inside” this book on Amazon.)

She apparently sought a different balance in her life as her law work became part-time, freeing her up for more paleontology.  As she told Peter Dodson, “I want a life, not a living.”

Such an inspiring life, so much accomplished.  Clearly, she deserved to enter any natural history museum using its staff-only entrance.

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