Museum Adventures: Beneski Museum

Discovery and “Wow” Moments at the Beneski Museum

From February 16-19, 2016, families can enjoy student docent–guided tours at 11am and 1pm daily. Scavenger hunts for the whole family will be available throughout the entire month. Admission is always free.

The Beneski Museum of Natural History in Amherst is one of New England’s largest natural history museums, boasting three floors of exhibits with more than 1,700 specimens on display, and tens of thousands of specimens available for use by scholars and researchers from across campus and around the world!

At the Beneski, visitors can step inside the museum and see:

  • Dramatic displays of fossil skeletons, from fish to dinosaurs to Ice Age megafauna
  • An extraordinary collection of dinosaur footprints
  • Geological specimens and immersive exhibits that tell the history of the local landscape through geologic time, including when dinosaurs inhabited the area
  • Dazzling mineral specimens from around the world and meteorites from beyond Earth

Why visit science and natural history museums?

Today more than ever before, these institutions are valuable educational supplements for homeschoolers and those in schools, as well as for those who have already completed their formal education. TV, books, the Internet and other media provide limited opportunities to interact or participate with actual objects or other people; they tend to be more passive learning experiences. Museums provide the opportunity to work with real objects and interact with others potentially all at the same time.

Our curiosity drives our learning. Natural history and science museums are perfect places to ask our own questions, and try to discover the answer. A lot of learning goes on in the world, and much of it is not even intentional—it just happens. Informal learning experiences, such as those at the Beneski Museum, are ideal for people to learn without the pressure of a formal setting. Though museums can’t replace the structure schools provide, they can provide a break from the ordinary and give that “wow” moment.

What’s the importance of informal science education?

In the digital age, science comes at each of us fast and furious with new discoveries constantly being uncovered. Some discoveries completely revolutionize what was “common knowledge” only a few years ago. Processing the massive amount of new information can be daunting. However through a “Nature of Science” lens one can informally filter the science and enhance one’s personal science literacy.

The 95 Percent Solution is a science and education article about the current thinking on informal science learning. The article speaks well to how people learn science. Contrary to the popular belief that science is learned primarily in the classroom, most of a person’s science education is done outside a formal environment; less than 5 percent of a person’s life is spent inside a classroom (and that’s including science, history, gym, art, and more).

The authors suggest that science education may be well served by considering what might be possible during the 95 percent of the time people spend outside of the classroom. This could include TV (Cosmos, NOVA, Bill Nye, etc.), magazines (Smithsonian, Popular Science), interpretive parks/nature centers, and natural history/science museums.

This is not to say that the whole of the 95 percent of life outside of school should focus on science, but that greater opportunity for exposure to informal science learning and education is possible. Something as simple as a walk through the park on the way to work has the potential to add to the knowledge and interest people may develop in science.

What is the role of a natural history museum like the Beneski?

For children and families: Children want to come to museums because it’s fun and new. Much of what a child experiences is new to them, and when they can see, touch, hold, or create, they are able to satisfy their natural curiosity. They begin to ask questions, such as the infamous, “why?” In some instances, a parent may need to give their child a little push, but most children seem to be entertained and enjoy their experience. And parents typically enjoy themselves as well, while learning a few things along the way.

For students and teachers: For students, it’s a break from the ordinary—a chance to potentially explore on their own. The Beneski provides field trip guides that help facilitate and focus a school’s experience while providing open-ended experiences. For teachers, using the museum as a place to extend learning is an experience unique to its environment. Excellent preparation, coupled with open-ended access to the museum collection and thoughtful follow up after, makes the most of the informal science learning opportunity.

For young adults: The Beneski Museum is in a distinct position to scaffold the learning of college-age adults. An active student docent program provides students an opportunity to engage in natural history content that they in turn share with the visiting public. In many ways the best way to learn is to teach. Informal visits supported by young adults are a win-win for everyone.

For concerned citizens and enthusiasts: Science and natural history museums around the country maintain and partner with a number of enthusiast programs. Provocative issues about food systems, nanotechnology, hydrofracking, and climate change are just a few issues that the museum hosts discussions around.

The Beneski Museum of Natural History is FREE to visit, and is open Tuesday­­–Friday 11am-4pm, and on weekends 10am-5pm. The Museum is located on the Amherst College campus at 11 Barrett Hill Drive, Amherst, MA. Find out more at


Alfred J. Venne

Alfred J. Venne is the Educator at the Beneski Museum of Natural History. Before entering informal science education, he was a nonprofit agency director, middle school science teacher, public school administrator, and a science education consultant with the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education. In addition to his work with the Beneski Museum he is the Director of the Bassett Planetarium, Wilder Observatory, and Ives Weather Station on the Amherst College campus.

Leave a Reply