Five questions with Ashley Fragomeni

16 Aug

Ashley Fragomeni, 26, is an educator at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. She is also, according to her colleagues, the biggest dino geek in the museum. To supplement our investigation into Change and Investment at the Natural History Museum, we asked Ashley to pose with a pterodactyl and answer a few questions….

Q: What is natural history?

A: I guess my definition of natural history is anything in our world that is of the natural sciences: bones, stones, sticks, anything outside in nature that once lived or lives on our planet. To me it’s dinosaurs and fossils and all the good stuff you come to the museum to see. Stuffed birds. Stuff in jars.

Q: What do you love most about dinosaurs?

A: They were around for 180 million years, and it makes us look terribly insignificant. For something to be around for that long is something to kind of bow down to. It gives us a reality check about our existence and our life compared to the creatures that came before us.

Q: What is your favorite dinosaur, and why do you love it so much?

A: Parasaurolophus. I know it’s not tyrannosaurus rex or anything like that, but it’s a big crested hadrosaur. Why, I don’t know. It was one of my favorites as a kid, and I just always loved the weird looking ones I guess, not so much the meat-eaters.

Q: What do you hope to be working on twenty years from now?

A: Oh man. That’s a long time. I really love paleontology. I was one of those kids who just wouldn’t shut up about dinosaurs, and I still haven’t shut up about them. So, in 20 years, I would like to be doing paleontology. If you do what you love, then you can talk about it in a way that makes sense to people. So I hope to be going out into the field and digging and then coming back and talking to the kids about it, telling them my experiences too.

Q: How do you expect natural history museums, natural history education, and dinosaur education to change over those twenty years?

A: I think the way we’re going now in this museum, with all of our new exhibits is kind of the brighter, more interactive natural history, where it’s not a dark hall, and it’s not just something that you can’t touch. It’s going to be more accessible, natural history, I think. Not just for the nerdy.


On words and dinosaur exhibit reviews

16 Aug

Here’s one way of looking at the things the mainstream internets have to say about the new Dinosaur Hall at the Natural History Museum of LA County:

(Click the image to make it bigger. Or go see it on Word sources: NPR, NY Times, USA Today, LA Times, LA Weekly, LA Daily News, Orange County Register, KPCC, KCRW, KCET, CBS LA, NBC LA, KABC-TV LA.)

Note the lack of adjectives. Maybe the reviews were more informative than critical. More likely, however, the reviewers communicated their praise and frustration more economically than they described the exhibit.

What about the non-mainstream internets, you ask? Did they describe differently? Were they more verbosely opinionated?

Here’s what Wordle shows:

(The word sources for the Wordle above are all blogs. Dino blogs: Dinosaur Tracking, Everything Dinosaur. Travel blogs: Jetsettersblog, Travel Pulse, Old West New West, Travel4Seniors, LA Travel. LA blogs: Media Bistro, GOOD Magazine, Curbed Los Angeles, Red Tricycle LA, LA Observed,, A Driveable Feast. And a few miscellaneous others: Cvent Event Planning,, Making Me Cranky.)

Very little difference, it turns out. The bloggers seem to use the plural form dinosaurs a bit less than the mainstreamers, and they (the bloggers) also display a mysterious love of the word one. To be honest, I didn’t learn much.

Part of this experiment’s failure, I think, has to do with my decision to include the travel blogs along with the other blogs. They tend not to offer much more than generic description.

More importantly, however, I believe that I was fundamentally wrong to create such big baskets of words. It’d be more fun to see how, say, the LA Times writeup differs from the Everything Dinosaur writeup.

So, for fun, here they both are….

LA Times Review Wordle:

Everything Dinosaur Review Wordle:

There’s that word one again. And lots of love for visitors. And even more love for specimens.

And, frankly, I don’t think this second exercise has shown me anything noteworthy either. It certainly does have me hoping to find something someday. And I’ll keep looking, just probably not in reviews about dinosaur exhibit (or should I say exhibition?) reviews.

Um, so, connecting it to dinosaurs?

16 Aug

Dinosaur kale: natural history has a new sub-discipline

10 Aug

Working Title

See blog post title. And click here for pictures of dino kale. You can buy it at the Hollywood Farmers’ Market.

Log Line

The Natural History Museum of LA County has started teaching visitors how to grow their own food. Its leaders say they are constantly striving to offer its visitors natural history education that is more compelling, more complete, and more important. It remains unclear if museum visitors care.

Story, Character, and Themes

I want to tell the story of the decision to add an edible garden to the Natural History Museum of LA County’s educational offering.

How does edible gardening fit within the discipline of natural history? Lots of natural history museums share campuses with botanical gardens. However, the internets have not revealed to me any other natural history museums that feature corn and beans.

It appears to me that the museum markets the garden more to adults than to children. And, through its gardening classes, it pushes museum curriculum in an unexpectedly practical and hands on direction. How is the educational experiment going? Does the museum want to do more activity-based teaching?

And what about the kids? Do they like the garden? Does the museum want kids to get involved? To what extent does the museum try to cross-sell their exhibits (prehistoric mammals to dino geeks, for example), and is the garden involved in any of that cross-selling/cross-pollinating?

I hope to interview the following people (I have a friend at the museum who has put me in contact with all of them, and everyone seems to want to help, but given that I have to do the interviews on Thursday, I’ll have to take what I can get):

-Florence Nishida, who designed the garden but is not an NMH employee
-Briana Burrows, who is the garden’s program manager (she schedules and coordinates the gardening classes that the garden offers)
-Lila Higgins, the museum’s Citizen Science Manager, who is managing the creation of the museum’s big North Campus landscaping project, which connects to the garden in that it will be a living, plant-based exhibit
-At least one educator or tour guide, someone I find on Thursday and ask to walk me through the garden
-Anyone that I find in the garden, engaged with the plants
-Someone big and fancy at the museum, a visionary type, if Edward can deliver one

Stylistic Approach, Audio/Visual Elements, POV

I plan to get the most delicious looking b-roll that I can (and I’ll see if they’ll let me film late in the afternoon, for golden light purposes). KCET has a garden tips web video series that just featured Florence in the Nat Hist Museum garden, but the visuals are, frankly, boring. I won’t make their mistake. I’ll get down in the dirt, vary angles, find shade, and make the plants look wise and peaceful (as opposed to frantic).

In addition, I would love to get shots of garden education in action. Thursday might not be a great day for that, given that there won’t be any garden tours, but I’ll figure something out.

As for the interviews, I would love to feature some office shots in addition to some outdoor shots. If I were designing my sets, I’d go with dark wood backgrounds, high-ceilinged halls of knowledge, a classic museumy feel to contrast with the dirt and flowers. I want this story to be at more about educational creativity and the expansion of a very old discipline than it is about onions and basil.

Target Audience and Media Outlet

The people that will be most interested in this story are people that think about education and educational infrastructure. The sustainability crowd might be interested, too, though I certainly don’t want to package the story as a celebration of organic gardening or off-grid food.

Maybe GOOD Magazine would be interested?

They’re LA-based. They’re not afraid to tie gardening in with other themes. And I don’t think they have done more on the Nat Hist Muz than a quick review of the new dino exhibit.

Multimedia Elements

1. We met an educator named Ashley Fragomeni on our scouting trip, and we think she would be a great subject for “five questions” profile piece (either video or written with a photograph, NY Times Mag style). She’s photogenic: unusual hair, lip piercing, dino tooth necklace, silly makeup, lots of buttons on her nametag. And she has serious dino knowledge and likely a life of paleontology ahead of her.

I’d like to ask her about the childhood dinosaur education that she received, the education role natural history museums should play in the world, and the importance of dinosaur education as a means to engage people and make them educatable.

2. I have been in touch with a researcher at the museum named Liam Mooney, and, apparently he is quite knowledgeable about the sounds dinosaurs made. If I can get him to imitate and demonstrate, I’ll have a little audio piece to add to the package too.

Two places, one of which I like better than the other

10 Aug

I like the look of embedded Vimeo vids better than embedded YouTube vids.

But I uploaded the video to YouTube as well.

On (intentionally) not following directions

9 Aug

Instead of one 500 word blog post, I made five blog posts of varying lengths. They will make the most possible sense if you read them in chronological order.

Start with Creatures big and small, which is about educational ambition.

Then read Cross-selling a whale, which is about spillover attendance.

Then read Defining natural history, which reveals that the story that most attracts me involves a vegetable garden.

Then read Speaking of plants, which is about signage.

And, finally, have a look at Another story for another assignment. It’s a pretty silly picture that I can imagine someone turning into a pretty awesome recession story.

Comment wherever. And thank you for reading!

Another story for another assignment

8 Aug

Headline idea: New Dino Hall Wows, Cotton Candy Sales Skyrocket.

If you click the photo to enlarge it, you’ll notice that the dinosaurs are hungry, and the salesman has noticed.

Speaking of plants

8 Aug

The museum’s new landscaping – the beginning of it, at least – looks very nice, very Southern California, very elegantly spiky.

(The thing that actually interests me most about that shot is the P, not the spikes, but that’s another story for another day, as they say.)

But I wonder the extent to which it – the landscaping – plans on being educational.

One of my pre-interviews revealed that the museum plans to have a native plants walk that leads from the new parking structure to an entrance and around into the full-blown garden. The interview also revealed that the museum does not plan to include plaques or any other form of educational signage on the walk. And that, to the pre-interviewee, is a bummer.

As she put it, humans have some respect for many big (horses, for example) and medium-sized (dogs, for example) animals. We have a bit of respect for quite a few small (lizards, chipmunks, woodpeckers) animals. We even sometimes have respect for insects. We recognize, at least, that they are alive and would prefer not to be dismembered. Plants, however, sit lowest on our totem poles. We rip off leaves; we dig knives into trunks; we maim, unintentionally but … intentionally.

So, given the plaquelessness of that future native plant walk, she wonders how walkers will treat the plants. And she wonders, with a smile, if the landscapers would be smart to seek a little extra spikiness.

I mean, it is true: the more dangerous the plant, the more interested humans are. The venus flytrap. Coca. Corn. Etc.

Defining natural history

8 Aug

This makes me wonder:

In part because I want to know about that guitar. And in part because I want to know what makes an edible garden natural history.

I can guess, of course. Humans and food go way back. There would be no WordPress or intern or Specialized Journalism without those brilliant ancient North Americans that turned a boring old scrubgrass into corn.

But how do we educate second graders on field trips about that? How do we inspire respect in children for the plants that make oxygenated, carbohydrate-fueled life on this planet possible?

Possibly through an edible garden tour.

And I wonder if that’s my video. Shots from the tour. Interview with the tour guide. Interview with a fancypants education supervisor. Interviews with a few plants.

Cross-selling a whale

8 Aug

But what about the rest of the museum? The non-dinosaurs? Natural history is a pretty big subject, right?

Word from a hoarse, exhausted Dino Lab volunteer is that while there was a nice little spike in attendance a year ago when the museum added a new mammal hall, it was nothing compared to the craziness in the museum over the past few weeks. The new dino hall is packed, every day, and nobody expects the attendance surge to slow until the schoolyear starts.

And the mammal halls are packed right now too. Packed with the people that are waiting to get into the dino hall.

So what do you do with that spillover if you’re the museum? How do you get people to focus, to point? How do you use the sexiness of the dinosaur exhibit to create a few new butterfly enthusiasts, to sell out the Chumash tour?