Curator at Bruce Museum discusses science exhibits

Dr. Daniel Ksepka is the curator of science at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich and has been helping to weave together new technology and a new vision as the museum undertakes an ambitious project to reimagine its permanent science galleries. From the “Changes in Our Land’’ exhibition that visitors over the last two decades will fondly remember, the museum has begun construction on its new galleries named “Natural Cycles Shape Our Land.” Ksepka recently chatted about his role as a curator.

Andrea Valluzzo: What inspired you to become a curator?

Daniel Ksepka: Visiting the American Museum of Natural History and seeing the dinosaurs when I was a toddler made a lifelong impression on me. Twenty years later I returned to the museum as a graduate student in paleontology. Of course, being a curator involves more than an appreciation of dinosaurs. To me, the most enjoyable aspect is being a storyteller. We build exhibitions around objects, first and foremost, but there are a hundred ways to tell the story both in words and in the exhibit design. It is always very rewarding to put the objects in context. Sometimes one tiny frog gets placed in its own pedestal case, creating an intimate introduction. Sometimes, we have a thrilling specimen like a giant fossil crocodile, and we figure out a layout that creates a “moment” when visitors turn a corner and all of a sudden meet it eye to eye. When it all clicks, it is the most satisfying feeling.

Valluzzo: Tell me about the new science gallery exhibition you are currently developing.

Ksepka: Our theme is Natural Cycles and the galleries explore how these cycles shape our world, starting with global, large-scale cycles like plate tectonic cycles and Earth’s orbital cycles, and ending with the short-term cycles that play out in our own backyards like the day-night cycle of animal activity and insect life cycles.

Valluzzo: For preparing an exhibition, how do you choose objects?

Ksepka: This is a bit of a chicken or the egg question for me. In some cases, I get a flash of inspiration about a theme and so the exhibition inspires the objects. Maybe it’s Madagascar — one of the most incredible places on the planet. Then, it’s time to research objects that fit the theme — a lemur, a pygmy hippo skull and a side-necked turtle. In other cases, I stumble upon an object so compelling it becomes the kernel to build the exhibition around. With “Secrets of Fossil Lake,” we had this gorgeous fossil stingray in the collection and it inspired me to seek out more fossils from the Fossil Lake site to build a whole show.

Valluzzo: How has the pandemic impacted your ability to plan upcoming exhibits?

Ksepka: We have been incredibly fortunate in that progress on the new permanent science galleries has not slowed down at all. Our exhibition artists have been working safely and efficiently from their own homes, and every week I get more photos of the results: a giant spider model (20 times life size) for the Big BackYard Gallery, a painted backdrop for the dinosaur diorama in the Paleontology Gallery and a new plan for the tank layout in the Marine Ecosystem Gallery. Of course, many temporary exhibitions rely on loans from other museums, and almost all museums have been closed for the past two months. We have been making a “Plan A” and “Plan B” for every component of our upcoming exhibitions, sketching out the object checklist for the ideal scenario in which everything is open again by the time the show starts, and a backup plan if a given lender needs to cancel.

Valluzzo: What are the differences curating a virtual exhibit vs. a physical exhibit?

Ksepka: Obviously, things change when you can’t put people directly in connection with the real objects. It can be hard to create those “wow” moments because a 15-foot dinosaur just doesn’t have the same impact when it is a photo on a screen rather than staring you right in the face. So, we definitely look forward to the time when we can welcome guests back into the museum building. That being said, there are a number of advantages to virtual exhibitions. There is essentially no space limit so we can display as many objects as we would like without worrying about building dozens of cases.

Valluzzo: What’s your favorite object in the museum’s collection? Why?

Ksepka: That’s a really hard question, because there are so many that I love. One of my very favorites is a large mineral specimen of aquamarine and muscovite. This was part of a recent donation from Robert Wiener, a great friend of the museum and someone I really enjoy talking to about the wonders of the mineral world. The specimen is such a glorious juxtaposition of the brilliant sky blue aquamarine crystals, which look so cold and clear, with the flakey muscovite, which looks like a cluster of warm, golden leaves. It boggles the mind how something like this can form naturally. I actually like this one so much that I had a T-shirt of it made!

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