Maine, Monkeys, and Museums: A Conversation with Outgoing HMSC Director of Exhibitions Jan Sacco

Jennifer Berglund 00:04

Welcome to HMSC Connects, where we go behind the scenes of four Harvard museums to explore the connections between us, our big, beautiful world, and even what lies beyond. My name is Jennifer Berglund, part of the exhibits team here at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. And I'll be your host. Today, I'm speaking with Jan Sacco, the former Director of Exhibitions for the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and an exhibit developer who researches, writes and organizes content for our wonderful exhibitions. She's also been my fabulous friend and boss for the nearly eight years that I've been at the museum. We're all so sad to see her go and couldn't let her escape without spending some time reflecting on her storied career and time at Harvard. Here she is. Jan Sacco, welcome to the show.


Jan Sacco 01:11

Thanks for having me, Jennie.


Jennifer Berglund 01:18

You grew up in rural Maine, the oldest of four children, and you describe yourself as more risk averse and less athletic than your siblings. But perhaps more content to watch and wait. How do you think being different in this way helped you along your life's path?


Jan Sacco 01:35

At the time, I always felt a little inadequate. I was the oldest so I guess I'm supposed to feel like I want to be accomplished and things like that. They say that with oldest kids. But I had all three other siblings, two girls and one boy, we're all a lot more physically coordinated and athletic than I was. I think, I love to read and sit more quietly. And my mom even says, as a baby, I was like, I was content more to sit. And in some ways, maybe that enhanced my ability to observe. You know, I paid a lot of attention to observing things around me, sometimes played fantasy games in nature, too. You know, it was all around me. And I created stories. I was social. But I played a lot, I think by myself and imagined a lot and observed a lot. So I think that maybe shaped where I ended up in my career in some ways.


Jennifer Berglund 02:41

What kinds of books did you like to read back then?


Jan Sacco 02:44

I was a science fiction, fantasy person.


Jennifer Berglund 02:49

That make sense.


Jan Sacco 02:51

If I had lived at the time, you know, grown up during when my children grew up, I would have been a Harry Potter nut, I mean, I was a Harry Potter nut as an adults reading to my children. But I definitely was completely into science fiction and fantasy. Anything I could get my hands on. Less the technological stuff and more of the stuff that was magical worlds I think. I loved Star Trek. Imagining other places and other worlds. I had a pretty vivid imagination, I think.


Jennifer Berglund 03:23

I think that makes so much sense. Just knowing you as well as I do. Because you have such an imagination. Jan and I worked together very closely, for many, many years. I've mentored for many years by Jan, but Jan just has this way of thinking about a concept and just having this incredible imagination about it. And just, you know, it's I mean, I think that's putting it lightly. I think everybody that works with you would say that. She has this ability of creating a story out of things that are seemingly disparate, and


Jan Sacco 03:59

Maybe that had something to do, I used to be almost embarrassed by my imagination, (really?) like, yep, I played. Like I said, I was social. But I played a lot by myself too. Because when you have a vivid imagination, and you kind of want to follow that path, and imagine it's a hard thing to engage someone else in. It's a very personal thing, you know? Yeah. So I think there was a part of me that wanted to please the world, was really worried about what people thought. And so you can play in your head with ideas that you can't always express to others openly. So I think that, you know, I did play a lot with my imagination. I was very imaginative even later in life when people are supposed to sort of settle down and stop doing it. But what you say is kind of interesting, Jennie, because I never really thought of it that way, that maybe I got into the area I got into in part because it did allow me to use my imagination. And that's something I still continue to enjoy doing.


Jennifer Berglund 05:04

Doing this is kind of destiny for you in a way. You were fascinated by human evolution. And you decided pretty early on that you wanted to study it in college. But ultimately, you ended up studying monkeys. How did that happen? And where did it lead you?


Jan Sacco 05:29

Well, actually, it's a really easy story, because back when I was going to school, and I would have entered college in the 19, the mid 1970s. I didn't know this at the time. But if you wanted to study human evolution, or anthropology in any way, a branch of anthropology I discovered in school was physical anthropology. And anybody who studied monkeys or monkey behavior, any primates tended to be in in these physical anthropology or biological anthropology departments. So what happened was that I yes, was very interested in human evolution. I'd grown up looking at Time Life books, on the living room floor at my parents' house. And I was just fascinated with the idea of, of how humans may have evolved from earlier ape-like ancestors. So I knew I kind of wanted to study anthropology. So I started taking anthropology courses really, really early. And in physical anthropology, I had my intro course, I had this incredible professor, Bob Sussman, who totally turned me on to primate behavior. He studied ring tailed lemurs in Madagascar. And I just said, oh, wow, I want to be just like him, I want to study monkeys. So it really happened. As soon as I started taking anthro courses, I liked all the anthro courses, but I really, really liked his course, and decided that I wanted to study primate behavior. And that's how I got started.


Jennifer Berglund 07:00

So what is the connection between monkeys, primates, and this idea of physical anthropology? Like, are we studying sort of behavioral relationships? Like social relationships?


Jan Sacco 07:13

It was anything about the biology. I think it was, it's changed somewhat, departments are changing. Now you see, at Harvard, it's human evolutionary biology. It's just that back then anybody who was interested in primates, it's actually very anthro centric. Right. So it's like, people were focused on trying to understand humans by understanding their ancestry. And I think that's why it was any aspect of primates. I think, from there, I segwayed into, Oh, I love behavior. So I went from, I'm interested in human evolution to, I'm interested in primates, and especially I'm interested in and why they do what they do. And it just fascinated me, I think, partially because they are close relatives of humans. But the more I got into primate behavior, the more I became interested more broadly, in animal behavior and ecology, so I sort of got broader and broader and more interested in a wider variety of things. So I think it was in anthropology because there was a perception that we would learn more about ourselves by learning about the behavior, ecology and evolution of our closest living relatives. So that's why I think it was in anthro departments, traditionally, but there's been some changes in recent times. Yeah.


Jennifer Berglund 08:30

But I think it's interesting that you went into studying this thinking that you would learn more about ourselves, but you ended up learning that we are more connected with nature than the common perception.


Jan Sacco 08:44

That's true. That's absolutely true. I think the light bulb moment for me, it's ironic, but I think it happened in more in graduate school. So in graduate school, I was still exploring in anthropology and physical anthropology. But I had a mentor who actually was studying like voles and mice, and all this kind of stuff, looking really looking at the evolution of behavior. And also ended up studying E. O. Wilson's work, sociobiology and things. And my God, I just felt like a light bulb went off in my head, like, all of a sudden, I was like, oh, oh, so this is what it's all about. It was just really, 'yes'. The going, kind of evolving to a person who would really wanted to understand everything about behavior and how it might have evolved over time in all kinds of organisms. So you know, that they say the more you know, the more you know, you don't know. That's how I felt through my entire career. It's like every new step opened a whole wider world of things, and maybe going back to the old imagination thing we started with, and I think it feeds your imagination, right? Now, there are so many more possibilities. You really thought of the world in this very narrow way. And now, the more you learn, the more you're like, oh, whoa, it's even more complicated than that. It sort of layers on complications and new avenues to travel down to explore. So at every step, I became more and more interested in the broader sense of what it means to be alive, and humans as part of a much larger picture of living things. And I think that's an amazing story, a much larger and more amazing story than anything I could have imagined when I was in high school.


Jennifer Berglund 10:36

Stranger than science fiction. Yes. And more amazing. I do want to talk about one experience you had while you were in graduate school during a period where you're doing your fieldwork, which you did in Peru, studying monkeys. So you and your husband Ron, got married right before you went down and you went to Peru together to do this field work. First off, explain what you all did there, what your fieldwork entailed, and then tell me about some of your adventures.


Jan Sacco 11:12

I wanted to study the behavior and ecology of the Saddleback Tamarin.


Jennifer Berglund 11:17

And what's a tamarin? What


Jan Sacco 11:18

A tamarin is a small monkey, a small type of monkey, you might have heard of marmosets, tamarins, and marmosets, a family of monkeys that lives in the Americas. And they tend to form family groups, monogamous pair with supporting older siblings to care for the young and they tend to have twins. So I was interested in looking at


Jennifer Berglund 11:41

And you have to explain what they look like. Because they're like, just the cutest little things.


Jan Sacco 11:43

Yeah, they look like little miniature lions or cats. I mean, in fact, there's one, Lion Tamarins, that have a larger of fluff around their head. But yeah, they're cute little things. Many of them do a form of locomotion called vertical clinging and leaping where they leap from one vertical support in the understory to another. To me they look like little cats are lions. I mean, do you think they look like something...?


Jennifer Berglund 11:45

Well, some of them look like Dr. Seuss characters I think.


Jan Sacco 12:07

Yeah, there's a couple of like the Cotton Top Tamarin and stuff that have little puffs on their heads and things. Mine looked more like a lion, I think had more of a lion, almost a mane-like look around its face and look like a little bit, almost like a little cat in the tree.


Jennifer Berglund 12:25

Really cute. (They are cute.) You had to follow these tamarins around. And for those who are unfamiliar with primate research in the wild, it's pretty intense. Because, monkeys are super agile, and they're jumping around in trees. And so you have to basically chase them around on the forest floor, and always looking up. And these are little guys, so you can barely see them. It's like really, really challenging work. Yes, it is. But you also had to trap some of them to radio collar them so you could follow them because they're challenging to follow.


Jan Sacco 13:02

You have all these great plans, you think you have all the equipment you need. But inevitably, when you get in these places, you find that there's a lot of a lot that you don't understand, no matter how much you've read and learn from people and use, what equipment you use, what traps you use, you get all that stuff and you haul it all down there. And you think, okay, we're all set up, right? So we had learned a couple things, we learned that you need to make platforms to trap so my husband's really handy. He can build all kinds of things. So he helped construct platforms off the ground, and we put our traps out, we set them with what we thought was the greatest bait in the world. And we had our little radio packs that we were going to put our transmitters on our monkeys. And we waited. And the first thing that happened was we trapped everything but tamarin monkeys. Even though we scouted out the area and we thought 'Oh yeah, this is where they live and we see them here all the time.' We got things like members of the weasel family like big tayras and things which are kind of aggressive, nasty things and we couldn't even get them out of the trap until we darted them with ketamine to put them to sleep so we could open up the trap and we went with mini dark guns to shoot them with a needle that normally we would have used with a glove and you know, to avoid getting bitten by a tamarin but with a tayra, I don't know that you could avoid getting bitten. So we learned pretty quickly that we couldn't leave it to chance. So then what we did was we scrapped all those traps. And we built from scratch traps out of chicken wire that we bought in a local town that we had to travel two hours on a, you know, a canoe boat with a motor on it to Puerto Maldonado where we would buy the chicken wire and my husband made completely new traps and we used fishing line and we made a blind up in a tree. So we'd climb up a tree and then we'd sit in a blind all day long. With these chicken wire, we pulled the chicken wire to close the trap doors. That way, we could sit there and watch and when I was on watch, I would watch the traps and if a monkey that I wanted went in it I could close the door but if a tayra came up, I could scream at it scare it away. And then once we trapped one tamarin we could use that to attract other tamarins because they called and things and that's how we attracted the tamarins. Then we would put them to sleep and put a little backpack on them, then watch them till they they revived and let them go and then track their, some of their movements and measure things like home range and things like that. That was okay. You know, we did lose some tamarins. I was, we were tracking one one day and it didn't move very much and we got to the location, we found the backpack on the ground and we noticed we were below a raptor nest a big raptor nest, which was an ornate hawk-eagle.


Jennifer Berglund 15:41

Which are these huge raptors, they're truly ornate they have these feathers in a crown on around their head,


Jan Sacco 15:50

They're actually beautiful and I had seen them close up because we had had one tried to attack tamarins and land right on our traps once when I was in the blind. So I watched it for quite a while until I finally decided it was traumatizing the trapped animals too much and scared it away. But it was quite magnificent. I think it's the second to the Harpy Eagle in South America in terms of size, pretty magnificent. We encountered big things like snakes and stuff like that. One of the things you have to do to ensure that you don't get lost, we were in subtropical moist forests are not a lot of people. So you don't want to lose yourself somewhere and we had to go out by ourselves sometimes. We were working as naturalists for the Tambopata Nature Reserve. Sometimes one of us would have to go out with tourists and the other one would have to do research. So what we had to do is build a grid, basically a big square of outlying trails, and then we would build a grid with other trails in between. That way we knew where we were located in the area and we wouldn't leave the trail wander into the woods and get lost. So we were making our trail and Ron was ahead with a machete cutting and I was behind and he was cutting away and all of a sudden he makes us loud exclamation, like 'Whoa!' And I say 'What's up there?' and he goes, 'Oh man, it's so cool. It's a really big snake'. I go trotting up, you know, I love snakes. So I go trotting up to see this big snake. And he's cut through a big cluster of ground palms on the ground. I know you've been in the tropics Jennie, so you know what I'm talking about, he had cut right through the top of them. And wrapped around the base of this is a really large snake, which I recognized as a bushmaster, a really big bushmaster and their largest member of the rattlesnake family.


Jennifer Berglund 17:27

And unlike many venomous snakes, they're actually really aggressive. They tend to be really aggressive. Most venomous snakes kind of avoid being aggressive at all costs, but bushmasters are different. So it's scary


Jan Sacco 17:53

That's true. I'd heard the story that you had to be careful of bushmasters. And it was a really big one. And by large, I mean, I'm going to estimate, they're fat too, I'd say at least seven, eight feet for sure. (Wow, that's a big one.) You know. This thing, I didn't know it 'til later, but it was wrapped around this thing. So I said, uh, Ron, that's a bushmaster. And he's leaning over. He's so interested, like, he goes, 'Are you sure?' I go, 'Well, how about if you back up a little bit?'


Jennifer Berglund 17:59

And we'll talk about it. Yeah.


Jan Sacco 18:28

And we'll talk about it back here! And so he did and we talked a little bit and at that day, we decided, oh, we're leaving. We just left I said that 'you know, I don't feel comfortable.' And he said 'Oh come on, I don't want to waste a day.' I said, 'No, no, I just don't feel comfortable.' So we left. Next day, we came back to continue making, or finishing this grid and we got about to the same location. We found a dead bushmaster, huge, so we think it was the same one. And all over everywhere were peccary tracks, and if you don't know peccary is a peccary is a member of the pig family in South America.


Jennifer Berglund 19:03

They're jungle pigs,


Jan Sacco 19:04

Right jungle pigs. This particular... Well, there are two types of peccaries. But we often found them in great big groups, really big stinky groups because they smell terrible. (They do smell). There were peccary tracks everywhere. So our theory was that they will trample, I mean, that's their defense, right in a big group, that they may have encountered the snake and trampled it. You couldn't see a mark on it. But you could just see the indentations of the tracks all over the place. So we thought that maybe that's how it died. So we wrapped it around a big stick and we took it back to the camp, where we were staying with other scientists, some of whom were from the Smithsonian, including a Smithsonian herpetologist, who took it back to the Smithsonian. So I think that our snake is in the Smithsonian in the collection. I still believe it must be, because it was quite a large snake so


Jennifer Berglund 19:54

Well, it's your first major contribution to a natural history museum. (I think it's the only one) Yeah but. Well that's not true. (Well I mean in terms of objects) of specimens, yeah. So how do you think the experience and you know, doing your fieldwork in Peru, how do you think that further sculpted your appreciation and love for nature?


Jan Sacco 20:15

It certainly gave me new experiences to build on and learn from and I thought it sort of solidified it. I actually had decided, by the time I finished my fieldwork, I hadn't decided, 'oh, I'm going to be a museum person' at all. I was like, 'I want to work for zoos'. I had published my research and I published a little bit later, but I was a lot more interested, I think, in communicating to a broader public. And I was interested in how to apply my knowledge to better environments for animals in captive settings. So I sort of set my sights on zoos. And I really pursued zoos for quite a number of years and volunteered at the Pittsburgh zoo, which is where I did my graduate work at University of Pittsburgh. But as it turned out, the opportunities came from museums, I applied to do some work in a volunteer program called Museum on the Move where I worked with on a volunteer basis worked with people with disabilities with mental disabilities, the blind, children who were in cancer wards at the hospital, things like that, bringing the museum out or museum specimens and ideas out to people who couldn't come to the museum, and really enjoyed doing that. And then that way, it connected with museum people. And when opportunities arose, they came and asked me to participate. And so that's how I got into museum work was that the museum people just were the ones who, who reached out to me even more. And so I gradually navigated my way into the museum world that way. I wasn't a person who was immediately in that world or drawn to that world necessarily. It was that the people in the museum seemed very interested in what I was doing, and had to contribute and reached out to me and got me interested. So


Jennifer Berglund 22:05

Growing up in rural Maine, going to museums was never really a part of...


Jan Sacco 22:10

We would go on vacations and sometimes we would go to the, I remember going to the Air and Space Museum at one point, we went to historic places, I think more, but you're absolutely right. I think my love of nature came out of my experiences living in rural Maine, and going to camp in the summer where we had no electricity, you know, we were on the lake and canoeing and things like that in the summer. And that all sticks with you. And that was a big part of my, particularly my father, who was a Mainer. You know, he really wanted us to share in all that he loved. He hunted and fished and got up in the morning at 4am. and dragged us out of bed to to the sunrise in the summer. And it was just something you that was part of my upbringing. You're right, I didn't have as much access to things like natural history museums, or big anthropology museums, that kind of thing. And it wasn't a part of what I did a lot of. It wasn't a go-to, for me. We did go I remember zoos were always a place that, oh, my gosh, if we went to a city, I would go to a zoo. I think the live animals just really excited me and I studied animals in the wild. So I think that's probably why I didn't think of museums at first. But it turns out a lot of people in museums also study live animals and care about that kind of stuff, and have a lot to impart from the collections about what living things do. So it was a great match. I just didn't know it 'til much later in life.


Jennifer Berglund 23:40

Fast forward to when you started working at the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which when you started was quite different from the way it is now. What was it like back then? And how did you envision giving it new life?


Jan Sacco 23:56

Probably the most exciting thing about the Harvard it was the Harvard Museum of Natural History that hired me. I'd been at the MIT museum before that, Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History before that, and the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh before that. But Harvard was, I think, on the cusp of kind of emerging and what I mean by that in terms of natural history museums, the public natural history museum, was in a place where it really wanted to do new and different things from what it had done before. It was a fairly new entity then this public facing museum that combined the collections of the Museum of Comparative Zoology and the Mineralogical Museum and the Glass Flowers and all these other things under one umbrella. So I started at the Natural History Museum, and at that time, it had like amazing collections. But most of the galleries hadn't really been renovated in a very long time. They did some smaller, temporary exhibits, but they hadn't really done much with the permanent galleries. And so, over the last 20 years working with wonderful colleagues like Sylvie Laborde, who's still here as our senior designer and then pulling people on like you, Jennie, and others, we have gradually transformed and updated the natural history museum and are doing the same with the other museums now in the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. And that's not to say there weren't things done before. But it's been this really interesting dance between preserving the history, the long history of the Harvard museums and collections and partnering that and pairing that with new ideas and ways of looking at nature and the evolution of life on Earth. So I feel like a lot of what we did, there was lots of collections that were on display, but one of the sort of missing elements, and I know the education department felt this way as well, is ecology was hard to teach in the galleries because it was a lot of specimens in cases. More of a Victorian presentation. And we ended up deciding to renovate two galleries with New England themes. One New England Forests, and the other one was the Marine gallery, and sort of gut those and create galleries that had dioramas almost like a newer, a better version of the dioramas of old, where we could create immersive environments that better reflected the the ecology of the region. And I love stuff like that. That's one thing I do really, really like when I go to museums, and always have is immersion experiences. And so being part of creating immersion experiences for the Harvard museums has been something in particular that I have enjoyed.


Jennifer Berglund 26:50

And when I started seven plus years ago, I guess, I still saw the remnants of some of the galleries that you had not yet touched (that we had not yet touched) and boy.. Sorry, yes. (It's a 'we' It's always a 'we'), I know. It's a team. And it was very interesting. It was very, you know, 70s, like psychedelic colors and just sort of arrangements. I'm thinking of the South America gallery in particular, there are these like weird, bright oranges and greens everywhere.


Jan Sacco 27:20

You can see. you're right, the galleries prior to renovation, you can see some attempts at renovating or refreshing. Each of them was dated. So you could say, 'Oh, well, yeah, they worked on this in the late 60s, early 70s'. Because it had like avocado, magenta, and like you say, orange or something, terra cotta, all colored on the wall. So in some ways, it was like a history lesson, a museum history lesson. You can see when things were renovated, you can sort of tell by the colors that were used. The renovations tended to be sort of superficial, though. Be something like painting, but not gutting, you know, not really saying 'okay, we're going to start from scratch in here.' And there were some galleries where we took it right down to the original floor of the building, (In Glass Flowers, that was one) Right, and also New England Forests. And now the Marine gallery, right down to the bare floor took everything out. Other places, we left up a lot of original casework, but in many cases earlier renovations, with the exception of maybe Mammal Hall that had lots of things done to it at various times, most of the galleries, I would say, and I think the Romer Hall of Paleontology had some major renovation. A lot of the galleries didn't have a lot of major renovation done for quite a while, but they did have paint jobs. And those paint jobs really told you, oh yeah, this was done in the late 60s, early 70s. Like you say, when those colors were kind of in vogue.'


Jennifer Berglund 28:48

You've seen so many changes at the Museum of Natural History, and subsequently, the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, HMSC, and you've played a major part in overseeing some of the most fruitful, dramatic changes with each. So as you look back on what is nothing short of a marvelous career, which truly marvelous career, what are you most proud of? And what do you hope you leave as your legacy because you're retiring, and we're so, I'm devastated. I mean, I'm happy for you, but I'm devastated. I know so many of us are. What do you hope to leave as your legacy?


Jan Sacco 29:28

I guess I'm most proud of creating experiences that excite people of all stripes and ages and backgrounds, about this really wondrous world. And I think I've played a small role maybe biased toward my own interests. Like I said, I love immersive experiences. So I like to pretend I'm in places. I think this goes back to my my imagination. Some of my favorite places are things like New England Forests because I feel that the forest is all around me. It's like I'm creating this little, this space that hopefully connects people emotionally, as well as intellectually, but first and foremost, emotionally, to the wonders of the world around them. And I hope that gets people curious and outside and exploring whether it's exploring nature, or in the case of our cultural institutions, an interest in exploring other cultures, or listening to voices from other cultures. If I've contributed in some way to that I hope, I have, creating engaging experiences that make those connections between people, different peoples and people and the natural world. I guess that's what I hope, that there's some piece of what I've done that contributes in a larger way to that. I just sometimes think in a world where we talk about all the ways people contribute, and it's easy to talk about, well, somebody contributes by curing a disease. I can't say I've ever cured a disease or, you know, protected anyone in that way. I guess, it's a legacy of contributing, hopefully, to a broader appreciation for the world we live in. Because as I said earlier, the trajectory of my life has just made me more and more in awe of just the fact of our own existence, and our own existence in this miraculous, and it really is truly a miraculous planet that we live on. A little blip in the universe. I think that whole idea, if I contribute to someone coming in and saying, 'Wow, am I ever lucky to be here and alive'. And if there's some way that I can make sure that our impact on this planet doesn't destroy this wonder that it in fact, enhances and ensures that it will live on as long as nature will allow it to live, then I think I will have done something positive. Because I know that's how I feel. But I'm not sure that that view is shared. But I think it's an important view that all residents of this planet have to share in some sense is an appreciation of how lucky we are.


Jennifer Berglund 32:23

Jan Sacco, thank you so much for being here. We're really gonna miss you.


Jan Sacco 32:28

I'm gonna miss you too, Jennie. Thanks so much for having me.


Jennifer Berglund 32:38

Today's HMSC Connects podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture, and edited by Amanda Fish. Special thanks to HMSC and to Jan Sacco for her wisdom, dedication and many years of wonderfulness. We're really going to miss you, Jan. And thank you so much for listening. If you like today's podcast, please subscribe on Apple podcasts, Spotify, Podbean or wherever you get your podcasts. See you in a couple of weeks!