We break the bias every day here at The Exploration Place, and I’m going to spend this month introducing you to some of the inspiring women we work with. The museum industry is historically a male-led and male-dominated industry, but we have fallen outside of the mould for decades in all sorts of ways. Our Museum is not only female-led, but women make up an incredible 77 per cent of its staff team and 62 per cent of its board of trustees. Considering that nation-wide, women comprise just less than half of those employed in the museum sector, The Exploration Place is a bit of an (extraordinary) anomaly.
Women contribute to The Exploration Place’s success in a variety of ways. We are a diverse organization with many different departments. It takes many varied and specialized skillsets to do the work we do, and when much of the work is done behind the scenes, you may not be familiar with some of the talented and inspiring women that make the museum function.
As part of our renovation project and new curatorial and programming approach, we are stepping up our focus on paleontology and geology. To do this properly, we needed a staff expert, and we found one in Elizabeth Schoenthal, our Assistant Curator – Paleontology. Elizabeth had worked with us previously as a gallery interpreter and as the Station Master for the Fort George Railway. Now, she looks after and catalogues the paleontology collection and helps create exhibits to educate visitors on our Earth’s history.
She has put a lot of time and research into designing our new Gaia Hall paleobotany gallery, which will tell the story of climate change as seen from a deep-time perspective, teaching visitors about British Columbia’s ancient past from 565 to 66 million years ago. She has always loved museums and science, and she’s wanted to be a paleontologist her entire life. The Exploration Place provided an excellent opportunity for her to learn and educate the public on STEAM topics, and it’s also the place where she gained a life-long friendship with a magpie.
“Everything I have ever learned or done seems to fit into this job. I work with a great group of people who always seem pumped to be here. They energize me and get me excited to be here and do science. I also love working with rocks and fossils, so that’s a huge part of my motivation.”
Born in southern Alberta, Elizabeth spent eight years in Saskatchewan, completing her Bachelor of Geology and Master of Sciences Ichnology/Sedimentology at the University of Saskatchewan. She holds a PhD from Memorial University of Newfoundland. She is currently learning to be a preparations technician, learning the proper way to repair and clean fossil specimens for display or research.
Elizabeth has worked a lot of different jobs in many places all around the world. She once worked with an isotope lab to collect water samples and clams from Iceland and Greenland for climate research. She has also worked as an assistant in a vet clinic, a clerk at a gas station, a housekeeper at a mountain resort hotel, and an ice cream scooper in our train station. She loves knitting and has been doing it since the age of six. She once worked at a yarn store, knitting samples of new patterns for display. She finds joy in doing new things and having new experiences.
“There is always something valuable to learn from every job.”
One of the biggest challenges in Elizabeth’s work is identifying fossils that have been donated. Often, they come to her with very little or no information. She puts a lot of work into investigating what something might be, the species, how old it is, and where it came from.
“I think there is a sense that museums keep old stuff around for people to look at. And we do!” she says. “But we also do a lot of other cool stuff, like educational workshops and research. Museums actually serve as spaces for researchers to come in and study specimens.”
Another challenge Elizabeth has faced is living with dyslexia. Until adulthood, she didn’t know she was dyslexic but always struggled with reading and symbols. She didn’t learn to read properly until Grade 5.
“But being dyslexic, I have an excellent 3D mind which has served me extremely well throughout my geological education and career.”
In her career, Elizabeth has learned that not every professor or expert in a particular field knows everything there is to know.
“We are all human, we all make mistakes, and sometimes we don’t know something. It’s okay to say “I don’t know”! It’s important to ask questions, read, and have conversations with people. Sometimes you take something that is said at face value, but it’s important to look at the evidence. Always go back and look at the evidence and clear your mind of any biases or preconceptions that you might have.”
Elizabeth finds museum work to be very fulfilling and feels that is why it attracts a lot of strong women. She has been inspired by her thesis supervisor, Dr. Gabriela Mangano, our CEO Tracy Calogheros, and our Curator, Alyssa Leier.
“I have learned a lot from them and am grateful to have this opportunity. I personally prefer working at a museum because I find the work environment to be less competitive and stressful. Everyone here is working together towards the same goals, and it is more of a community than a corporate structure. I love that my job is so varied. There’s never a boring day. There’s always something exciting or new happening.”