Sloane Whidden AB ’02: Life at the Museum
Social anthropology concentrator finds her calling among mastodons and meteorites
This is part of an ongoing series that reveals the depth and breadth of Harvard's alumni community at home and abroad.
In early 2013, Sloane Whidden AB ’02 traveled from Chicago to Boston to oversee the safe passage of some decidedly unusual cargo. Among the items under her purview: skulls, teeth, bones, and skin. Whidden’s field trip wouldn’t sound out of place in an episode of CSI had the body parts in question not belonged to a mastodon.
Whidden was in Boston fulfilling her role as exhibitions registrar at Chicago’s famed institute of natural history, The Field Museum. The mastodon parts had been on display at the Museum of Science, Boston in Mammoths and Mastodons: Titans of the Ice Age, a touring exhibition—developed at The Field Museum—that was headed west, first to Denver and then to San Diego.
Shepherding precious artifacts from one far-flung exhibition venue to another is among Whidden’s many roles at The Field. (By the time Mammoths and Mastodons closes, its contents will have traversed the United States and crossed the ocean to the United Kingdom.) It’s a logistically daunting task, one that clearly requires more than a giant ream of bubble wrap and a FedEx account.
How, exactly, does one ship a mastodon?
“Very carefully,” laughs Whidden, who declined to elaborate, adding that one of her beats is security—so we may never know whether the ancient beast’s skull had its own seat on the plane. But she says that maintaining “best practices to keep precious art and artifacts as safe as possible” is a large part of what she does.
Working with the ‘real stuff’
You could call Whidden a custodian of the invaluable. At The Field Museum, she is charged with managing the safety of artifacts, artworks, and other items for temporary and traveling exhibitions, as well as organizing incoming exhibit loans from other museums. Working closely with specialists like mount makers, conservators, and production managers, Whidden also oversees the installation of exhibitions that contain artifacts.
This means she can often be found handling items as strange as a translucent Inuit raincoat made of seal intestines for Fashions and The Field Museum Collection: Maria Pinto (“The parka itself is quite beautiful,” she remarks), or a piece of mammoth skin. While exhibitions such as Mammoths and Mastodons feature large-scale replicas and scientifically accurate casts, Whidden notes that she “only works with the real stuff.”
Whidden says that maintaining “best practices to keep precious art and artifacts as safe as possible” is a large part of what she does.
The “real stuff” spans many genres. “It’s fun to be a generalist,” Whidden says. “I work on every temporary and traveling exhibition that includes art and artifacts, so as a result I get to deal with a broad range of staff and team members but also a large range of objects. That keeps it really interesting.”
A museum may not seem like a place where things happen quickly, but the occasional fast-moving project also keeps Whidden on her toes. Recently, a surprise donation of 2.5 pounds of Russian meteorite fragments spurred a frenzied rush to get them on display. Within 24 hours, graphics were designed, paperwork and media were produced, and the installation was completed—“in record speed.” In a similar vein, Whidden and The Field Museum team speedily installed an ichthyosaur fossil nicknamed “Jim.”
Fascinated by people
For the Harvard social anthropology concentrator, it’s a job that is in her bones.
“When I was really little, I wanted to be an archaeologist,” Whidden says. “I always knew I was that sort of kid. I mean, I was collecting rocks out of the driveway when I was four. It was just my thing. As I got older, I was fascinated by living people. So I made a decision to study social anthropology at Harvard. And then I realized I was really intrigued by working in a museum context.”
She says her experience at Harvard, bolstered by a summer internship at Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology under the tutelage of Rubie Watson—retired curator of comparative ethnology in the Peabody Museum and retired senior lecturer in the Department of Anthropology—inspired her to make sure she infused a sense of childhood wonder into her career. “I’m not exactly an anthropologist,” she says, “but I get to use that intellectual curiosity in everything that I do.”
“When I was really little, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I always knew I was that sort of kid. I was collecting rocks out of the driveway when I was four. … As I got older, I was fascinated by living people."
After obtaining her master’s in museum anthropology from Columbia University, Whidden knew she had found her calling among exhibition cases and dioramas. From the Museum of the City of New York—“a great opportunity because it’s a medium-sized institution that takes on some pretty ambitious projects”—to New York’s Morgan Library & Museum and then The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the scale of the exhibitions changed dramatically, Whidden’s early exposure to the museum community was a crash course in logistics and a welcome introduction to the interactive nature of her profession.
“It was very important to me coming out of school to have a job where I actually got to deal with objects,” she says. “It’s just something I always wanted to do. I’m a hands-on person, and part of being a technician—which is sometimes what I have to do with the artifact handling—is having outstanding fine motor skills and being able to problem solve in the moment. That’s always an interesting challenge.”
Given her anthropology background, Whidden feels as though she is “back in her natural habitat” at Chicago’s Field Museum, which she notes is as much a scientific and research center as a repository of natural treasures. “It’s a wonderful job for me,” she says.
Machines built by nature
Part of her enthusiasm stems from having a hand in exhibitions such as The Machine Inside: Biomechanics, which will tour domestically and internationally beginning in 2014. An opportunity for Whidden to draw upon her academic past, Biomechanics, she says, is “about the science of looking at living things as machines built by nature—and the ways that we innovate based on that information.” Like figuring out how on earth bulky bumblebees can fly when they have such tiny wings, or studying architectural innovations that were discovered by looking at the way termite mounds manage airflow. “It’s fascinating,” she enthuses.
The exhibition presents Whidden with a logistical labyrinth: two versions touring simultaneously—a larger one for North America and a smaller international show. But transforming an unfamiliar space into a world-class display is a puzzle she relishes, right down to navigating the elevators. “It’s never boring,” she says. “Every venue has different strengths and challenges—everything from ‘How big is the freight elevator? Will the crates fit in it? Will they fit through the doorways? How are we going to manage the space? Which venue staff are we going to interface with?’ That part of it I really enjoy.”
“Visitors come for different reasons. But it’s great to get people in who haven’t been to a museum in a long time.”
But do people still want to travel to look at objects behind glass when there’s a whole world available online? Whidden maintains that there’s nothing like the real thing. “It’s really hard to replicate from a distance the actual experience you have with collections,” she says. “Encountering the objects themselves is astounding. When you see the size of a mammoth skull, or you see some of the specimens on display in exhibitions like Biomechanics, it’s extraordinary.”
That doesn’t mean that The Field Museum is a dinosaur when it comes to digital. “We do incorporate a lot of technology into our exhibitions,” Whidden notes. For Biomechanics, she says, the museum is working with the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Denver Museum of Nature & Science on interactive projects that tie in to the show.
Whidden may toil behind the scenes, but her ultimate goal is getting people through the front door. “Visitors come for different reasons. But it’s great to get people in who haven’t been to a museum in a long time,” she says. “It’s also terrific for the people who come back again and again, who have tremendous curiosity for what’s at The Field, for our collections, and for what we bring to the city.”