That’s why museum staff plan to celebrate Museum Day on Sept. 8, offering free admission to both the Natural History and Berman museums and special activities for children and adults.
But even if the museums do offer fun, hands-on activities, that doesn’t stop them from being museums — buildings that house objects of historical, scientific, artistic and cultural value. And that means the objects in the museums are hands-off.
“One of the things people don’t get is that these are real objects,” said Susan Doss, collections assistant for the museums. “They are unique things that cannot be replaced. Every day we have something broken.”
Broken objects range from the objects in the museums to parts of the displays, which get broken when children — and adults, sometimes — climb and walk where they shouldn’t and push and shove each other into displays.
“Our job is to protect these collections. We are the stewards for these objects,” said Margie Conner, marketing manager for the museums.
Conner says there has been a growth in rule-breaking at the museums over the last several years, most of which she attributes to the popularity of hands-on science centers. Those centers, unlike museums, have components and exhibits built to be handled and manipulated and are built from durable materials for years of hard use. If an object at a hands-on center is damaged, it can likely be replaced. Such is not the case at a museum, where an object is likely one-of-a-kind and cannot be replaced.
Repairs to objects that are hundreds of years old are often more costly than nonprofit museums like Anniston’s can afford.
“We can’t go to Walmart and get a new elephant,” Doss said.
“We don’t have these (objects) because we went out and bought them,” Conner added. “People very generously donated them.”
And it’s not just for the safety of the objects in the museum — patrons can be injured if they cross a barrier into an exhibit. Much of the “ground” in the safari exhibit is made of plaster and cannot support a person’s weight. If someone is shoved into a case, they can be injured just as easily as the case can be damaged, staff say. Some of the older animal mounts — all of which, save for the natural history museum’s hippopotamus and gorilla, are real — were treated with arsenic, and could be very dangerous to touch.
When visiting the museums, Conner asks that patrons remember these rules:
• Museums are for looking and learning, not for touching: Do not touch any exhibited object unless it is clearly marked “please touch” or “hands-on.” The museum of natural history has several hands-on components to its exhibits. But even those interactive items need to be handled with care.
The oils on human hands can do a tremendous amount of damage, Conner said. It doesn’t happen with just one person, but if thousands of people touch a stuffed animal mount, the hair and skin will start to disintegrate.
• No food, drink, gum, candy or tobacco products are allowed inside the exhibit halls. While direct damage, such as spilling a drink on an exhibit, is obvious, the indirect damage caused by food particles is really what can be a problem. Any food crumbs or sugar attracts insects, and once an insect is in a museum, it doesn’t discriminate between food crumbs and animal skin when it comes to dinner. Bugs can cause thousands of dollars in damage to a collection.
• Don’t try to be part of the exhibit: Do not duck under stanchions, step over fences, sit on exhibited furniture or place a child in an exhibit for a photo.
• Turn down the volume: Patrons aren’t expected to whisper during their visits, but use of “inside” voices must be enforced. Many of the galleries share walls and do not have a ceiling to buffer noise and a phone conversation or shouting child can disturb visitors, even if they are in another hall.