Written by Cindy Howells, Curator and Collections Manager at Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales
As a child one of my favourite days out was our annual family trip to London to visit the Natural History Museum. I loved any of the dinosaur displays most of all, then the mammal and bird taxidermy came second. I’m afraid that displays of whales and other sea creatures didn’t really do much for me, although I was fascinated by the systematic mineral displays.
Mainly though, it was fossils and especially dinosaurs for me! I bought several geology guide books when I was 10-12 years old, but there wasn’t really the same amount of choice as available today and I didn’t just want a basic picture book. I then learnt that you could collect fossils and minerals of your own on beaches and in quarries, and was totally hooked on geology. Several years later I proudly announced to our career’s advisor in school that I wanted to be a palaeontologist, which was countered with various suggestions of more suitable occupations for a girl. I forget what they were, because I instantly dismissed them all. Why couldn’t I study fossils? I duly took geology O and A level and then a degree. Contrary to all advice given to me in my earlier days, I am now happily working as a palaeontologist in a museum.
However, I am usually dismayed when walking round museum shops and others, to see that dinosaurs (and other prehistoric animals – but Dimetrodon is another story) are still almost always just marketed for boys. Luckily my best friend’s children were both boys so I could buy them George-osaurus, and Jack-osaurus t-shirts, but what if they’d been Susan and Claire? Out of interest I’ve just searched online for dinosaur bedspreads and only found one design in pink. Not that it has to be pink to attract girls, but why shouldn’t pink dinosaurs exist too?! I regularly meet small girls who know just as much about dinosaurs as their brothers and are frustrated to find that much (if not all) dinosaur merchandise is aimed at boys. I suppose there is always Palaeo Barbie – but she was a limited edition and I hate to think how much mine is worth, still in its original box.
It’s not just confined to children though. Many museums have dinosaur (or other natural history) exhibitions which are totally targeted at children, and it’s very frustrating to visit one of these and find that all the text is written at a much lower level of understanding than that which is displayed in the social history, art, archaeology or ethnography exhibition next door. So why should that be? A few years ago I was fascinated to observe an elderly gentleman walk round our dinosaur exhibition reading every single panel from start to finish. Now our planners had had concerns that there was too much text in this brought-in exhibition and no-one would read it all. He obviously really enjoyed it (as did many other visitors!), so why is he less deserving of text written at his level of understanding? In fact one of the most positive receptions I had for my current dinosaur talk came from a set of very elderly patients at a local NHS social group – especially one very bright 95 year old gentleman. Let’s let adults enjoy dinosaurs too!
In work, we used to use a panel layout based on the Rupert Bear comics and I still try to design panels that way when I’m allowed. For those who didn’t grow up with Rupert Bear, you can read the story at different levels depending on if you looked at the title or cartoon, read the very basic rhyme, or the paragraph of text underneath. Why do we not make that a standard format for exhibition text? Don’t leave out all the interesting details, just put that extra information underneath a single sentence or two in a larger typeface which summarises the whole and can be read quickly by those who don’t want to linger. I’m sure I’m preaching to the converted here, but just look at the difference between your average natural history label, and your average art label.
Although we have made great strides in gender equality recently, there is still much to be achieved in the field of geology/geosciences – call it what you will. Yes, there are many more non-male geologists than before, but toys and clothing, and even museum designers, haven’t all caught on yet. Please don’t restrict dinosaur (or other prehistoric) themes to just boys, and little boys at that – they really are for everyone!