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  • Thinking Outside the Tent

     It took seven tables to accommodate the length of the forty-three-foot fossil snake at the Folklife Festival.
    It took seven tables to accommodate the length of the forty-three-foot fossil snake at the Folklife Festival.

    Another day of near-record heat yesterday did not dampen the spirits of the Smithsonian Inside Out program participants.

    As in the past three days, the variety of displays, activities, and discussions represented the depth and breadth of the work of Smithsonian staff on Sunday, June 27. In the Grand Challenge tents, for instance, you could learn about the birds and the bees from Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute staff members Dave Roubik, Sunshine Von Bael, and Alan Herre in the Biodiverse Planet; explore the photography collections of the National Museum of American History with Shannon Perich and those of the National Portrait Gallery with Ann Shumard in American Experience; and discover the extent of collections with global reach from a team from the National Museum of the American Indian and from the Numismatics Collection of the National Museum of American History's Richard Doty and Karen Lee in World Cultures.

    The Mysteries of the Universe spilled out from the tent in a clever and engaging method of depicting the forty-three-foot fossil snake (Titanoboa cerrejonensis), discovered in Colombia by an international scientific team including researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. The day before, researcher Edwin Cadena had used a presentation via the computer on his table and an enlarged illustration of the snake (graciously provided by staff from the Smithsonian Office of Exhibits Central) to help visitors visualize this important finding. But yesterday, several of our interns and program coordinator Nicole Harper worked with Cadena to roll out white paper and arrange it along seven six-foot folding tables to approximate the size of this amazing reptile. Children (of all ages) decorated an outline of the snake with crayons, markers, and bits of colored paper, and left their comments.

    In Festival lingo, we call this “thinking outside the tent”—that is, coming up with an idea that extends interpretation past the usual show-and-tell to involve visitors in a creative learning experience. There have been many other instances of “thinking outside the tent” in the Smithsonian Inside Out program, and I am sure before the end of the program there will be many more. Come visit and find out yourself!

    Betty J. Belanus is the curator of the Smithsonian Inside Out program at the 2010 Folklife Festival. 

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