The Edward H. Burtt Jr. Curatorial Director
Zoology Laboratory Coordinator
Shala Hankison '95 recalls her time as an Ohio Wesleyan student working in the OWU Natural History Museum. Now a member of the University faculty, Hankison, Ph.D., says, “The fruit fell close to the tree.”
I started undergrad at OWU in 1991 and was excited to get a work-study position in the zoology department. ... I knew I was going to be a zoology major, so the position seemed a great way to become familiar with the department and faculty.
After a semester, Jed Burtt, my academic adviser, asked if I was interested in working in the museum. I said yes and continued my museum work throughout my remaining 3½ years at OWU.
The museum and department were still over on the third floor of Bigelow-Rice, and my duties were varied. Of course, early on Brady Porter ’90 came to teach me to prepare study skins.
Brady had worked at the museum before me and had already graduated from OWU. I am sure that Brady’s current students at Duquesne University benefit from the same patience and encouragement that he showed to me.
Brady continues to come back to OWU to instruct students in preparing study skins, and when I peeked in recently he had about 10 all bent over their birds. I also cataloged the birds for the annual report, tried my hand at constructing a few displays, and even prepared a couple of mammal study skins. …
Working at the museum was certainly effective in allowing me to stay active in the department. I got to know all of the faculty and I would often come in for tours and admission events to answer questions about the museum, my job, and being a student at OWU. On occasion, it was even a little spooky.
In the winters, it would usually be dark when I finished up, so I would have a last lingering look at the dark room full of skins, mounts, skeletons, and jars. On one memorable night, I had come back late to finish some work. I was putting some items in a cabinet below a display case, and although the halls had been dark and empty, when I stood up, I felt something on my back.
Stifling terror, I turned around to find that the finger bones of a human skeleton had caught in my sweater and I had pulled the arm up with me when standing. Funny now, but I remember being terrified at the time.
My museum position likely contributed to my successful application to intern for a summer at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. It certainly helped me become more familiar with zoology faculty, not always easy for a fairly shy first-generation college student. It paid for my books and, I am sure, a late-night pizza or two.
And while I did not take Ornithology with Jed until my senior year, I am positive it contributed to my success in his course. After three years of preparing study skins, my bird anatomy skills were top-notch. Plus, some of the bird IDs were on specimens I prepared!
When I came back to OWU to interview for my current position on the faculty, I was glad to know that Jed had already factored in time to visit the museum. I had not seen it in its new home off the atrium of the science center and was impressed.
More importantly, I was thrilled to know that students were still an integral part of the museum. Students were still preparing study skins and learning curator skills. Students were using the museum for research.
A recent independent project by OWU student Emily Webb ’16 had her looking at left/right symmetry in specimens from Ohio Wesleyan, the Field Museum in Chicago, and the Smithsonian. She had access to those collections, in large part, because of her experience with the OWU Museum of Natural History, and her experience is not unique.
The reach of the museum goes beyond even OWU, however. It is not uncommon to see groups of local children excitedly walking through the displays. Dr. Anne Fry even recently found a letter in the library archives explaining some of the mystery behind the museum’s two-headed calf.
While I did not pursue a career in either museum work or ornithology, I have no doubt of the impact of working in the museum as a student. A job within the department, engagement with faculty, even learning skills that led toward an internship all put me on the path to my eventual career as a professor.
Recently I met with Jed and I was discussing my good fortune at being able to return to Ohio Wesleyan as a faculty member. Jed mentioned that sometimes the fruit falls so close to the tree it can be hard to remember how it got there, meaning my present time at OWU sometimes meant that it was harder to remember that my past was here as well.
I remember regularly, however, and cannot help but be thankful for what that past provided me, for the mentorship of Jed and others, and for the chance to spend a little time making study skins in the back room of the museum.
– Shala Hankison ’95