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PEF members at the New York State Museum delivering weekly exhibit content on Facebook Live, YouTube

By KATE MOSTACCIO

New York began to rapidly shut down in March in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 but PEF members at the New York State Museum didn’t let that stop them from creating unique and sometimes behind-the-scenes content to share with shut-in New Yorkers.

PEF member Robert Feranec films a Facebook Live program at the New State Museum.

“When we shut down, Kelley Feranec, Museum Exhibit Specialist 1, and her husband, Dr. Robert Feranec, Museum Scientist 3, had this idea of doing a Facebook Live with Bob talking about the Cohoes mastodon and his collections,” said Chief Museum Education and Visitor Services, Kathryn Weller. “At the same time, the Senior Historian, contacted me about what online content we were offering.”

Museum educators and scientists began looking at what they could offer the public through over a digital platform.

“Kelley and Bob did the initial one,” Weller said. “We had a great response. People were excited to see the museum and thrilled to hear the content. All of our presenters have come up with wonderful ideas. We’ve been able to go behind the scenes in our collections, things visitors can’t normally go into like the dry room that has some of our earlier fossils that show plant life.”

PEF member Robert Feranec, Museum Scientist 3, with the museum since 2006, is the curator of ice age animals and the curator of modern mammals. These video tours have given him and his colleagues a unique opportunity to share more of their collections than ever before.

“What’s on exhibit is less than 1 percent of the collections,” Feranec said. “We oversee about 20 million different objects in total. What you see on exhibit is a very small percent of those. It’s dictated by how good the specimens are and how good they can stand up outside the collections.”

Feranec said a Facebook video lets viewers into the back rooms of the museum.

“The behind-the-scenes videos showed what types of specimens we keep, that people normally don’t get to see, how they are stored and why they’re important,” he said. “They provide us as researchers with information about the past for New York state.

“The animals I oversee in the collection provide us with an idea of what New York State was like 15,000 or 20,000 years ago,” he said. “We can use those things to get an understanding of how New York came to be.”

Feranec presented a behind-the-scenes tour of the ice age collections in the collections room, a talk on the Cohoes mastodon with new information gleaned since the exhibit’s installation, and a tour of the ice age animals exhibit in the museum.

“A lot of our lectures that we give at the museum, you have to come to the museum,” Feranec said. “This medium allows people to view things anywhere they are. They can pop open their phone and watch a video and learn about what the museum does and why that’s important.”

Feranec said even if they filled the museum auditorium they would only reach a few hundred people. The digital platform has increased viewership dramatically.

“My lowest number of views is 1,200,” he said. “The reach is much greater and it allows people from Buffalo to New York City to watch. We’re in Albany so most of the time people that come to talks are generally from the Capital Region.”

The well-known Cohoes mastodon, a favorite among many museumgoers and their children, was at the center of Feranec’s second presentation.

“The Cohoes mastodon [installation] was done right when I got to the museum,” Feranec said. “We’ve learned a lot about the specimen itself since. When I do tours or talk to school groups, I can talk about those new things that we learned.

“One thing I mentioned in my video was we now know after the exhibit was developed that the mastodon was in at least two fights and that during one, he hurt himself,” Feranec said. “There is a wound to his jaw that you can see. Also, we learned how we think the mastodon died during another fight when he was 32 years old and got a tusk to the temple. If you came and looked you wouldn’t see that since that information wasn’t there when the exhibit was developed.”

In addition to these videos, work goes on at the museum and amid the collections.

“I’m doing my research,” Feranec said. “I’m taking care of the collections. The museum is in the process of developing an exhibit on the fourth floor. We’re still performing our jobs even though the pause is going.”

In another part of the museum, PEF member and Museum Scientist 4, Lisa Amati, was also hard at work providing viewers a glimpse into the back areas and specialized storage facilities of the NYSM.

With the museum for five years, Amati, Museum Scientist 4, is the curator of paleontology and the state paleontologist. She has presented three virtual tours so far – one geared toward children, one toward adults and a third that targeted young and old.

Nicole LaFountain shoots video for one of PEF member Lisa Amati’s Facebook Live events.

“The first one was an introduction to fossils where I talked about different types of fossils,” Amati said. “The second was on New York’s ancient forests and the third was about intriguing invertebrates. About 2 percent of what a museum houses is actually on display. When you come to the museum you see select things, but if you could go into the back rooms you get to see stuff that is maybe new and acquired after the displays were built.”

Amati said the museum has a giant room that contains most of the museum’s fossils and two small rooms, the dry room and the shale room, both kept at a constant low humidity.

“Some fossils contain pyrite,” Amati said. “Fools’ gold. The mineral will break down if the humidity fluctuates and then the specimen crumbles. Some things in the dry room will never go on display but you get to see them if you are on Facebook.”

In Amati’s first presentation on fossil types, she talked about dinosaur footprints.

“Dinosaur footprints, even though they are an impression, are actually fossils,” she said. “We do have dinosaur footprints on exhibit. We also talked about how to identify a fossil, and you can’t find that in the museum.”

During her video on ancient forests, Amati presented information and showed viewers the crown of the eospermatopteris tree, which will never go on display due to preservation needs. And, in her third video, she showed invertebrate fossils, of which there are nearly none on display.

Amati said sharing these items with the public was rewarding.

“I loved doing it,” she said. “I love people being able to see what we do here. People visit the museum and they don’t realize we have these huge collections and specimens that aren’t on display. This lets people know that we have more that they don’t see. This is the basis for our research. Learning about these items is what we do on the third floor.”

Weller said the Facebook videos are reaching more than 1,000 viewers, whether it’s during the live streams or when the videos are placed on YouTube afterward.

“I was blown away by the numbers,” she said. “Some of our earliest now have over 3,000 views. You can watch them taped on Facebook and we have them on our YouTube page if you missed them.”

Since the beginning of the programming in April, the museum has featured about 20 to 30 special presentations.

“It doesn’t replace the personal physical experience of coming to the museum,” Weller said. “But it is a wonderful way to augment that. It’s a great way to know and benefit from the collections.”