Valene L. Smith Museum of Anthropology

Pivoting to Virtual Education

Kids and museum staff zoomed in Halloween costumes for Museum Monster Mayhem in 2020.
Kids and museum staff zoomed in Halloween costumes for Museum Monster Mayhem in 2020.

By Adrienne Scott, Curator

In the early stages of the COVID pandemic, we wanted to explore and seek positive opportunities to learn and grow together.  The 50th anniversary of Earth Day (April 2020) provided the perfect opportunity highlight the museum’s objective to collaborate with other museums on campus and to underscore our commitment to sustainability. To that end the Gateway Science Museum, the Janet Turner Print Museum, and the Valene L. Smith Anthropology Museum of Anthropology joined forces to provide virtual content for families interested sustaining our planet Earth. It is important to note that this first foray into online educational content was done in a cooperative spirit. Never were we more aware of our obligation to plant seeds of knowledge to rethink our collective futures.

As the global pandemic worsened, the fissures in our society became more evident. This made our commitment to telling the stories of marginalized communities even more essential. By presenting their stories, we can begin to affirm the resilience of those whose voices were muted by dominant culture. We acknowledge the dignity of the many populations that make up the United States today and to whom we owe a great debt. For example, we have begun a pilot program of activities for K-12 teachers willing to “decolonize” their classrooms. We are inspired by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz who in her book, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States, emphasizes that, “writing US history from an Indigenous peoples’ perspective requires rethinking the consensual national narrative.” With this guiding idea, we will support teachers in tangible ways, beyond the mere metaphor of decolonizing. In addition to curricular suggestions and ideas for K-12 educators, the museum plans to unveil a “bookshelf blog” to review and recommend books for classrooms and families. Additionally, the upcoming website of the Epidemics of Injustice online exhibit will provide more space to grapple with topics surrounding diversity, inclusion, and justice during current conversations on racism.

Being committed to diversity and inclusion as an educational goal means not only inviting dialogue on tough topics, but also to integrate these objectives as part of our museum programming. The annual Halloween event—Museum Monster Mayhem—is a case in point.  Last October as we were hearing about Zoom fatigue in schools, we wanted to combine our goals with some “frightful” Halloween fun.  So, we contacted Linda Wright, a seasoned Bay Area storyteller, who shares stories in local schools and libraries about her personal ancestry as well as the lives of Black women and men from history.  For our museum’s program, Linda brought an original story of her own based on African folktale traditions, called The Haunted Savannah.  Her storytelling skill was evident in the way we were all riveted to our virtual seats to find out how things turned out for the little girl, Amalia, who must cross a haunted savannah to reach her sister’s tribe.  Amalia’s errand was critical to save her village from starvation and prolonged drought that was caused by the spells of creatures she encounters along the way. Amalia, which means hope, defied the odds, made it home safely and saved her people.  That night we also met up with bat behavioral specialist, Dr. Sharoukh Mistry, Professor of Biology at Butte College and Chico State.  A lover of all things bats, Mistry was standing at a cave entrance at dusk in a remote corner of Asia, when he was overcome by thousands of these flying mammals dipping and bobbing in coordinated unison coming within inches of him, but never colliding.  It was breathtaking and bewildering and it set his life on a course to study and understand these often-demonized animals. He also shared facts about local bat colonies and the truth about vampires—his knowledge and enthusiasm were infectious!

Storyteller, Linda Wright (left), shared her story, “The Haunted Savanah” with kids from Museum Monster Mayhem.
Storyteller, Linda Wright (left), shared her story, “The Haunted Savanah” with kids from Museum Monster Mayhem.

Student Assistants, Ceasar Salas, Amanda Bermudez, and Lupe Cruz all stepped up their virtual game by becoming expert Zoom tour guides.  They zoomed into third- and fourth-grade classes in and around Chico, presenting the Unbroken Traditions exhibition, which celebrates the exquisite basketry work of Lilly Baker and her ancestors.  Students and their teachers were reminded of the centuries-old artistry and knowledge required to make Maidu baskets. Tour participants learned how this tradition has continued uninterrupted through today by the original peoples of California. Many students and teachers are learning that Native groups across California and the nation are still here, despite the systematic attempts throughout the history of westward expansion and manifest destiny to eradicate their ways of life and cultural traditions. Through this lens, a basket is indeed a sign of resilience!

Among other activities, the second annual Museum Weekend sponsored by Explore Butte County allowed visitors to sightsee the whole of Butte County museums in a virtual format.  Participants coming to the Anthropology Museum program got to design and share a recipe card for their favorite family recipe.  Riverside California artist, Kim Cobb provided a step-by-step drawing experience for everyone. Storyteller Linda Wright attended and shared the most delicious Philadelphia cream cheese-cake recipe with us.  The story that goes with it is a great Chico story.  Here it is in her words: “My husband, Eddie R. Wright graduated from Chico State in 1978.  While a student at Chico, he attended Bethel AME church.  An elderly lady loved seeing him at church and would bake him desserts because she was very happy to see a young African American male student at church.  This was his favorite cake that she baked for him.  After he graduated, he told his Aunt Earline, in Richmond, California, about the cake and she made it for him.  When we married, he sent me straight to his Aunt Earline so I can see her make the cake and frosting.  Today, this remains my husband’s favorite cake.  The family always asks me to bring this cake to every family gathering. “

Even with the technical hiccups during that event, we all agreed that family stories and cooking were a means to sustain each other. Pass the dessert, please!  When the calendar passed a year of lockdown, we were all feeling a bit antsy.  So, with a little help from our friends—namely the Galleries, Libraires, Archives, Museums, and Reserves (GLAMR) group—we doubled down as a campus museum team to create Earth Day Week.  This expanded the joint programming the museums began at last year’s fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day.  The week-long version provided a week of lectures, art shows, and activities to celebrate Earth Day presented by all the GLAMR group locations in Chico. The Museum of Anthropology presented BEE HAPPY, our Zoom version of paint and sip.  Anthropology graduate, Sarah Carmody gave a 15-minute presentation on the history of beekeeping and especially her trip to Southeast Asia to document honey making practices. Then Beth Packer, a teacher at Wildflower School, gave us a step-by-step watercolor lesson with a bee theme.  Creating something beautiful while learning more about these important pollinators soothed our nerves and gave us food for thought for the final days of lockdown.

There was also a special Earth Day World Explorations that featured a talk by local author, Anna Lenaker, who spoke about her new book, Able to Be Otherwise, a memoir exploring the authors experience with climate change, poverty, and her mother’s addiction.  Anna spent many of her high school years exploring the woods of Paradise and Magalia, California on foot. Before she studied climate change or experienced its harsh realities, the woods were her instructors and her friends. Her talk explored what it means to build intimacy with one’s local environment and how one’s well-being is tied up with the well-being of others and the well-being of the environment.

Virtual gatherings collage 2 

As the world contemplates just how to return to normal as restrictions in the state and nation begin to ease, our summer camp will continue to be offered in virtual Zoom format this summer.  Since children under 12 are not yet vaccinated and our camp happens primarily inside when meeting in-person, it was clear to us that we needed to provide the online format for a little longer.  Besides, so many camps were eager to return to in person, we thought reaching out to families still being careful was a good niche for us.  At the same time, we did not want to go back to the same old Zoom format during school hours.  So once again, we are bringing a brand-new curriculum.  The camp will be based on an exciting anime-style show on Netflix called Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts.  The show is set in a post-apocalyptic world with mutant animals and multicultural characters.  Yes, things might seem bleak, but they are full of wonder, science, and optimism.  These themes align with our twin educational objectives to inspire wonder and respond proactively to our culturally diverse world with compassion and problem-solving attitudes.  As an example of how we will weave climate science, diversity, and creative engagement—on the first day students will meet the character Fun Gus, who is a fungus—and learn how trees communicate through the mycelium network of fungi below the surface of a forest or neighborhood grove of trees. Then they will hear the opening segment of Alice Walker’s 1987 essay Everything is a Human Being, where she talks about her meditation with the trees where she learns that trees are not so happy with humans, even those of us who feel we have done them no harm.  This metaphor fits aptly into our relationships with each other and other creatures.  Participants will join the Zoom activity breakout rooms to compose group letters to the trees in our lives to thank them for what they do for us and reflect on the ways humans could improve their relationship and treatment of trees.  We may not be able to communicate via the fungus super-highway with our trees, but we can learn to see the world from their perspective for a better future.  We will ask them to consider what other perspectives have we taken for granted or overlooked as we go about our days.  We have also gotten the attention of Netflix regarding our camp idea.  They may send some swag to distribute to campers.  If you haven’t watched Kipo yet, I highly recommend it.  It is meant for young and old and carries a great message of how we can change our hearts and work together even in the face of big problems facing our world. As an adult I am not ashamed to say I binge watched this one and it gave me hope in the  darkest hours of the pandemic.

All these educational events and programs have pointed to our successful pivot to online programming and allowed us to bring high-quality guest speakers into our format.  Still, we look forward to a time when in-person gatherings will be commonplace again.  It seems that many things during the pandemic lockdown have changed us forever and in some cases for the better; still, we humans long for the personal social opportunities.  As you check off your post lockdown must-do bucket list, be sure to include a visit to the Museum of Anthropology in the coming fall semester.  See you soon at the museum!