JSCNHM home • Winter 2008 • vol. 1 no. 1

Museum Methods:  Interdisciplinary 10

By Kim Stevens

Sierra College Natural History Museum Course Instructor

Sierra College provides its students with classes that can give them the sort of “real world” experience that can help them to be more successful in their current or future careers or that can help them to gain a skill that they might have always had an interest in. One of those classes is the Sierra College Museum Methods Class. This class, which is offered periodically in the fall through the Interdisciplinary Department, offers students the rare opportunity to learn the techniques that are utilized in museums; everything from how to take road kill and turn it into what is called a live mount to how to make casts of rare fossil specimens to display in a museum. The class is offered in a lecture and lab format giving the students time to discuss the methods in class and then to practice them in lab.

Exploration and Review

The class typically begins with an exploration and critical review of our own museum, the Sierra College Natural History Museum on the Sierra College-Rocklin campus. The students evaluate the exhibits and can then offer suggestions on how they could be improved. This marriage of coursework to an all volunteer run facility provides the museums with a constant influx of new idea. Throughout the semester, students then can work on implementing some of their ideas. Wide-ranging class discussions consider museum goals; themes; funding sources; and exhibit design, implementation, and interpretation.

Class Projects

For class projects, the students participate in the development of exhibit design, planning, and construction for the Sierra College Natural History Museum. One of the most recent projects developed by the class involved preparing photos for a slide show using a digital picture frame. It will be utilized in the showing the history of the 38-foot gray whale skeleton that hangs in the front entryway to Sewell Hall, the campus building that houses the Natural History Museum. Another student project focused on the inclusion of solar powered lighting for information kiosks planned for outside the entrances to Sewell Hall. One student worked tirelessly in the pursuit of integrating our Museum tour program with K-5 curriculum. She held meetings with local schoolteachers and administrators, as well as some college science instructors who volunteer time in our Museum, in order to develop articulation between the programs.

Laboratory Activities

Laboratory activities have included specimen preparation and preservation; the production of museum quality reproductions from existing fossils; how to properly design and word signage found in a museum so they better enrich the experience of the museum patron; and specimen documentation which helps to ensure that all specimens are properly tracked and maintained once they are part of a museum collection. Techniques and products for the long term maintenance of specimens are also discussed in this class. Many mammals and bird specimens that can be found in museums may be older than 100-150 years and, well, the fossils are, of course, much older than that. It is important that museum curators understand how to properly maintain those specimens. Students also learn methods of specimen preparation and preservation for research, exhibition, and storage.

Making molds and casts

This past semester student macerated, or softened and separated into parts by steeping in a liquid, an okapi skull for display in the skull exhibit. The okapi hide was sent to a taxidermist for later mounting on a museum wall below its relative—the giraffe. Another student prepared the skeleton of a badger for use in the museum’s Comparative Collection.

Molding and casting of fossil specimens is common practice in museum environments. Some of the techniques practiced by students were impression molding and casting; plaque molding and casting; 3-dimentional latex and shim molding and casting; and squeeze molding and casting. A few of the products used include latex, plaster, silicon, urethane RTV, and 4-to-1 Super Hard epoxy resin.

Sierra College Natural History Museum Tours

After learning the history and basic information of many museum exhibits, students of the class have developed and conducted Museum tours for local school groups. Some students have created virtual tours of some displays on the Sierra College Natural History Museum website. Those virtual tours will be available online in the near future.

Volunteering in the Salt Flats


On occasion an additional opportunity arises for students in this class and during this past October, many of the students in the class and their instructor volunteered a weekend of time and effort in the pursuit of funding for the Museum. The class participated in the Gem-O-Rama, an annual mineral collecting frenzy held in the desert playa salt flats of Trona, California, an historic mining town near Death Valley. The most desirable search objects were hanksite crystals, a very rare mineral found in only two mines in the world. Collectors come from far and wide for the annual opportunity to explore the mine’s private stash of mud piles, blowhole emissions, and stinky brine pools for a handful of different minerals, mostly hanksite and pink halite, or table salt. Students not only toiled in the field but also back in the college labs, and at home on their own time, to clean and preserve these precious mineral specimens. This extremely dirty and time-consuming work will prove valuable for the Museum, which will profit from the sale or auction of these items at upcoming Museum events, such as Dinosaur Day 2009.

Field Trip to the California Academy of Science

During this past semester the class culminated with a trip to the world-famous California Academy of Science in San Francisco. Students were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the museum and its collections by Dr. Peter D. Roopnarine, curator of geology and paleontology at the Cal Academy. The Cal Academy is presently in temporary facilities as a new permanent structure is constructed. The new facility will open in a few months with all new exhibits. The students in this class learned some of the techniques used by the Cal Academy in packing up and moving one of the world’s largest natural history collections—a feat which they have had to accomplish twice in the last few months.


Sierra College | Natural History Museum | © 2008 JSCNHM
Based on design by www.mitchinson.net