What is Old is New Again: Continuously Revisiting Content at the Field Museum

Since I volunteer as a docent at the Field Museum in Chicago, Elliot has visited dozens of times. He goes with enough regularity that he knows his way around (almost better than I do, and I’m supposed to tell people where stuff is). The repetition of visits, though, hardly means each outing feels like Groundhog Day. On the contrary, each visit feels positively fresh. How is this possible? By revisiting the same content as Elliot’s comprehension and knowledge develops, he sees the same artifacts through new eyes.


Today, we focused most of our visit on carnivores, herbivores, and omnivores. We talked about tooth shape, about how basically anything with antlers is a herbivore, how all the big cats are carnivores. Halfway through the enormous halls of taxidermied animals, a pattern clicked.

“This one eats meat,” Elliot said assuredly, pointing to a leopard. I asked him how he knew. He gestured vaguely at the leopard, looked at me like I was rather dim, and said patiently, “Because the lion and the cheetah eat meat. And it has sharp teeth.”
The last time Elliot spent a demonstrable period of time in front of the leopard’s case, he stood there for five minutes and counted the spots. One to ten, over and over, until he got bored and moved on. This time, it was about sharp teeth and big cats. We’ve grown up a bit in these past few months.


Upstairs with the dinosaurs, it was a similar story. Six months ago, the fact that Elliot knew at all what a trilobite was served as its own impressive anecdote. Now he stands over the round case full of trilobite fossils and exclaims, “There are so many different ones!” He examines the large model arthropod in the forest environment and declares it to be the “friend” of the trilobite in the water. He studies the teeth of wooly mammoths and mastodons and says they’re “different kinds of bumpy” because the animals “ate different plants.” How very recently it was that he first learned what a mastodon even was.

Seeing the same fossils, the same skeletons, and the same fur over and over again might seem a bit gruesome at first glance. Why perseverate so much over the corpses of animals with a small child? But to Elliot’s brain, the museum preserves the materials so that his understanding of them can evolve (much more efficiently, it should be noted, than protoceratops evolved into triceratops). A year ago, they were just animals. Just dinosaurs. Six months ago, we could differentiate a bit, and that was great. Now we discuss eating habits, sleeping habits. We examine skin and fur and scales and teeth.


I can’t wait to see how much deeper his comprehension grows with more time. With more reading at home, more connections forged, I know that even the dioramas celebrating their centennials will seem fresh. What is old is new again.



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