My Unique Path Into The Museum World – A Conversation with HMSC Public Programs Director Diana Xochitl Munn

HMSC Connects! Podcast Episode 20


Jennifer Berglund, Diana Munn

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 Diana Munn, the Director of Public Programs at the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. She's responsible for putting on the fascinating programs we have here at the museums. I wanted to ask her today about her multicultural upbringing, her love for plants, and how those two things ultimately led her to us. Here she is. Diana Munn, welcome to the show!


Diana Munn 01:06

Hi, Jennie. Thank you for having me.


Jennifer Berglund 01:11

You have a multicultural background. You grew up in different parts of Mexico and in the US. Tell me the story of how you grew up, and how you developed a love for plants.


Diana Munn 01:24

So my Dad is from the United States. He is from Brunswick, Maine. And my Mom is from Oaxaca in southern Mexico from a small town called Huautla de Jimenez, and my father was visiting different indigenous communities in Mexico back in the 60s, and he made his way to my Mom's hometown met her. They got married. My Mom is from an indigenous community in northern Oaxaca, and her community is in a cloud forest region called the Sierra Mazateca. So she's Mazatec. She speaks at indigenous language called Mazatec. So growing up, I was able to experience indigenous community life in rural Mexico. We also lived in Mexico City, so I experienced the urban world of that ginormous city because even back then it was a very large city. And then when I was small, we also lived in California for several years, so I got to experience typical American life. In order to get to my mother's town from Mexico City, we had to travel for about 14 hours, and half of the path was not paved because her town is in a very mountainous area, so back then it was really, really difficult and time-consuming to get there. Plus, it's in an area that has a lot of precipitation. So when, we would go in the summer, and it rained a lot, so the roads were very, very muddy, and sometimes the bus or the car would get, you know, stuck in the mud. That process of traveling over there, something that I remember was just seeing the changes in the landscape. So as we moved from the lowlands, you know, the valley, we would go up the mountains, and all of a sudden there was this beautiful transition into a very rich cloud forest. Little did I know back then that this area of Mexico has some of the most diverse cloud forests in Mexico with, you know, high numbers of species. So when I was in college, and I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life, I knew that I loved plants. So I just happened to take a class on plant systematics, and I realized that that's what I wanted to do, and then I made the connection between that and the plant diversity in my mom's hometown. So my botanical work was very focused on understanding the plant diversity of cloud forests in her community and adjacent communities. One of the most striking ones as you're moving into the Highlands, is when you start seeing oaks that are covered with a type of bromeliad called Tillandsia, it's commonly known as Spanish moss, and it gets really cold. All of a sudden there are these very large trees covered with epiphytes, you know, plants and grow and other plants. So we're talking about bromeliads and orchids and mosses, and It's a very rich environment. So for me, that was one of the striking things, I knew that when we got to that point where I saw those oak trees, that we were entering this magical, mysterious world. And I think that that stayed with me probably, you know, unconsciously, because I didn't really understand that until I was an adult. But when I pursued my master's degree, I focused on doing a whole vegetation survey in the region, and I ended up with a collection of about 640 species. So


Jennifer Berglund 05:39

Wow. That's amazing.


Diana Munn 05:41

That is probably not the full number of species found there, but it's amazing. I had to work with community leaders to access different sites because you just can't go anywhere and collect plants, you have to have the proper permits. So I had to work with community leaders, I also worked with individuals who were very knowledgeable about their local forest because they were the ones who guided me into the forest, and I had wonderful experiences. And, of course, my local family connections were really important for me to get approval to go into specific areas. So for me, that was a wonderful experience, and in the process of doing that, I got to see how people lived in different areas because even though it is a large area, in the main community, there is the Mazatec community, you have a Highland area, and you have a lowland area. And there are differences in the ways people live, in the ways they speak their language. So part of the joy of going to these places was to learn about people's traditions and ways of life. I found a lot of joy in that, and I usually stayed with local families so that I had enough time to collect and process the specimens. Over time, I've thought a lot about how my heritage influences my work life, my museum practice, and one of the ways it does is that because I saw from an early age, these different ways of living and thinking about the world, I became very curious about how different people are, and I've carried that curiosity throughout my life, throughout my career. I like to learn about people, I like to learn about their traditions, about their culture, about their food. So any opportunity I have to do that, I do. And in my museum practice, we have museums that are focused on cultural diversity and understanding other cultures. So I feel like my personal curiosity is very much aligned with the mission of some of our museums.


Jennifer Berglund 08:30

What inspired you to make that switch from science to museums, museum education?


Diana Munn 08:37

I tend to be a very social person, and when I was doing my botanical work, it was a bit solitary. You know, after collecting literally thousands of specimens, I would go back to the university. I studied at the University of Texas in Austin. And I would spend a lot of time by myself working with the specimens, and it was, for some reason, it was a bit solitary. When I made the switch to education and outreach, I was able to interact with a lot of people, and I found a lot of joy in doing that. And I found that I could make contributions that I may not have been able to do in the botany world. And then I discovered that there was a whole new world where I could help people gain access to science in ways that I hadn't really thought about before. I think that when I was carrying out my botanical work, I imagined that the only way to share knowledge with the wider world was through scientific publications. And when I got into education where I had the opportunity to work on public programs, on exhibits, on publications for general audiences, I realized that there were a lot more opportunities to engage people with science, and I found a lot of energy in that, and I found myself feeling a lot of passion for that. The good thing is that in that role, I could tap into my scientific background as well as my cultural background.


Jennifer Berglund 10:33

So you've been closely involved in the implementation of the Day of the Dead celebration at the Peabody Museum. How does your cultural background influence your approach to sharing this holiday with our museum audiences?


Diana Munn 10:49

When I joined HMSC, I didn't know that one of the big programs I would have to be involved with was the celebration of the Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, Todos Santos, as it is known in Mexico. And when I learned that I would be involved, I was super excited because this is a holiday that my family celebrates every year, and I grew up celebrating it. And it's a holiday that I really, really cherish and appreciate very much. So Day of the Dead is celebrated at the end of October and the beginning of November. So, there are about three days that make up this holiday. And from my perspective, the holiday is a mix of Christian and indigenous traditions. And the reason for the holiday is to celebrate and honor the lives of those who have departed. We create altars with their photos, with their favorite foods. We decorate them with candles and flowers, and depending on what region you're in, in Mexico, the approach to the altar making varies a lot, and is usually informed by the environment where a given community is located. So we start preparing probably a week or two in advance, thinking about how are we going to set up the altar? Where is it going to be placed? What foods are we going to make? How are we going to decorate it? When are we going to go shopping for all the things that we want to place on it? There's a lot of preparation in advance. I mean, it's like a it's a major project, depending on your family's approach. And also, depending on how many people you have lost, actually. If you have lost a lot of people in your life, you're going to have a lot of photos on the altar. And you want to do something special for each person, if possible. The 30th of October, the first and second of November, this varies across communities in Mexico. But in many communities like mine, you go to the cemetery, and you go at night. You take candles, you take flowers, you take water and scrubbing pads so you can actually clean up the tombs of your loved ones, and then you can light the candles and place flowers there. So this is what I remember growing up. It's a huge celebration, right? People who may live outside of the town would go back specifically to celebrate. And then of course, all of the people in the town would go to the cemetery. And once you're there, you spend almost all night there. And so what do we do? We talk to one another, we connect, we share stories about our loved ones, we listen to music because our belief is that the souls of the people who have passed away are there with us on those days. And so we are hyperaware of the fact that they are present, and we want to make sure that they are happy while they are visiting. So we will not only prepare their favorite foods, but we will also play their favorite music, and sometimes there will be musicians at the cemetery who come and spend some time with you, who sing songs, and it's a very joyful occasion, but it's also bittersweet because anyone who has lost a loved one can imagine that remembering those people who are so important in our lives is not always easy. In the United States today, The Day of the Dead has taken on a whole new meaning, and I think that it's being embraced by people in the country because it does offer an opportunity to grieve in a way that gives you an opportunity to be joyful, to be thoughtful. So yes, that's what we would do. And then after going to the cemetery, you go back home, and as a kid, I remember that I always kept an eye on what was on the altar because sweets are usually part of the altar, so the kids were always sort of lurking around wondering when the altar would come down and see what goodies we could get. At the Peabody, we have a very small space for altars, and we actually have three altars. We have a permanent altar, and we have two temporary altars, and I am responsible for one of them, which is actually informed by students from a class that professors Showing results for david carrasco harvard Search instead for david currasco harvard Davíd Carrasco and Bill Fash teach, so the students are involved in creating artwork for the altar, and they are involved in developing the theme for the altar, so it's a wonderful collaboration. And again, we've been celebrating the Day of the Dead at the Peabody since 2003, so that is a very, very long time.


Jennifer Berglund 16:58

Through programs like Day of the Dead, like the lectures that you put on at the museum, like Solsctice, like all of these programs that you do at the museum, you kind of have a vision for what you want to accomplish through all of this programming. Can you talk about that a little bit? How is it that you see your role at the museum as the director of public programs? And what do you hope to inspire in others through it?


Diana Munn 17:24

One of the great things about the programming that I get to do for the museums is that our events are, for the most part, free and open to the public. This means that anyone can join our events. And that, for me, is very important because being able to give access to people, to all kinds of people of all different backgrounds of all different ages, is personally important to me. We are working at Harvard University, which is for many an elite organization, and I think that some people may think that it's not a place for them, and what we try to do is offer a bridge between the University and the broader community, and that could be the community from Cambridge, it could be from the Boston metro area, it could be from Massachusetts. We have people from many different States who come to our programs. Ultimately, we are a window to the great scholarship and research that happens at Harvard, and also at other universities and research centers. We want to give people access to this knowledge that they may not otherwise encounter in their daily lives. Programs are about making content accessible, relevant, and giving them this opportunity not only to learn new things, but also become curious to learn more. I think that many of our program participants self-describe as lifelong learners, but there are a lot of other people who just happen to come across one of our events, and they realize that we have a lot to offer. Right now, we are trying to identify ways in which we can diversify our audiences. There are people who are well aware of what we have to offer, but there are a lot of people who don't know about us. So internally, we are being a lot more intentional about what content we're presenting, how are we promoting it? What communities are we reaching? We ask ourselves, you know, are we really reaching diverse communities? Are they engaging with us? How could we change our approach to public programming to ensure that we are reaching as many people as possible?


Jennifer Berglund 20:21

If there was one mark of ultimate success in your position, what would that be?


Diana Munn 20:28

I think the success of each program is whether a person who attended a program walked away from it feeling more inspired to learn more, more curious. If they have conversations with other people about what they learned, to me, that is the marker of success that we've been able to touch people in a way that inspires them, motivates them, and opens up their way of seeing the world and people.


Jennifer Berglund 21:09

Diana Munn, thank you so much for being here. This has been great.


Diana Munn 21:13

Thank you, Jennie. I appreciate you having me on your podcast, which is amazing! So thank you for all the work that you have done to make this podcast possible.


Jennifer Berglund 21:28

Today's HMSC Connects! Podcast was produced by me, Jennifer Berglund, and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture. Special thanks to Diana Munn and the Harvard Museums of Science and Culture for their wisdom and expertise. By the way, though we're not celebrating Day of the Dead inside the museum this year, stop by the Peabody Museum anytime from 5:30 to 7pm on November 1, for a short moment of personal reflection. The front steps of the museum will be set up as an outdoor altar, and staff will distribute lighted candles to visitors in remembrance of those we have lost. Checkout for more information. 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 in a couple of weeks!