Thursday, January 19, 2017

Make Way for Hedgehogs!

by Sarah Dolan
Fall 2016 Intern


Growing up I would sometimes pass afternoons in search of critters in my backyard. I would find all sorts of creatures indigenous to the Northeast. Garter snakes, worms and tiny red newts were all exciting finds. Had I grown up in Great Britain, it would have been very likely that I discovered a different animal, one very popular in British gardens these days: the hedgehog.

New research by the University of Hamburg suggests that Great Britain’s indigenous hedgehogs have changed their lifestyle to adapt to growing urban development. Hedgehog populations in urban areas are often higher than those of the surrounding countryside. Researchers tagged 14 hedgehogs with GPS temperature sensors and monitored them for 10 months. They found that urban hedgehogs travel far less at night than rural ones do—only 12 acres, compared to 123. Urban hedgehogs tend to sleep in private gardens during the day, then go out at around 9 p.m. after people and dogs have gone indoors. The study also found that urban hedgehogs follow the same hibernation patterns as rural ones, unaffected by human activity, noise and availability of food sources (read: trash) over the winter.

However, hedgehogs aren’t fully out of the woods. Their urban numbers have declined in Britain by one-third since 2000, and rural numbers have halved. Habitat destruction from farming and urban development is putting the species in further danger. As hedgehogs live in bushy areas with natural vegetation, urban gardens and parks are crucial to their survival.

In order to help preserve habitat for urban hedgehogs, the British Hedgehog Preservation Society has founded the Hedgehog Street initiative. The campaign encourages citizens to cultivate gardens that hedgehogs can use as a habitat. It also encourages citizens to cut small, 5-by-5-inch holes in the bottom of their fences so that hedgehogs can pass through. This helps to increase the animal’s roaming areas and grant them access to more areas around the city. (You can see a map tracking hedgehog sightings, as well as the “hedgehog highway,” here.) As of December 2016, there were over 41,000 registered “Hedgehog Champions” on the site.

Hopefully with the help of these conservation efforts these spiny animals will thrive and Great Britain’s beloved animal will be around for years to come.

Did You Know?
When encountering a strange smell, such as turpentine or tobacco, a hedgehog will lick it up. (Hedgehogs are very resistant to toxins.) The animal will then lather the substance over its quills. Scientists don’t know why the hedgehog does this. Some theories are that doing so disguises their scent from predators, poisons the tips of their spines or kills parasites that may be on the animal.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

The Crisper the Crunch, the Better the Taste

by Abbrianna MacGregor
Fall 2016 Intern

As a self-proclaimed impulse buyer, I am all too familiar with the trials, tribulations and joys attached to being a consumer. Many of us develop brand preferences and remain loyal to said brands for years. When you’re subconsciously reaching for that specific cereal on a routine grocery trip, do you ever stop to ask yourself what exactly it is about that brand that you enjoy so much? If you do, I’m impressed. If not, well . . . neither do I.

Despite most of us hardly ever pausing to consider the mechanics behind the products we know and love, there are some who specialize in it. One of these brand experts is Charles Spence, a professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University. Spence studies the sensory interaction that is responsible for creating our consumer experiences. His research in the field of consumer psychology and multisensory perception has made him an asset to many major brands.

Spence’s experiments inspire both awe and disbelief regarding consumers’ tendencies to be influenced by surrounding stimuli when interacting with a product. In an experiment that gained him recognition, he analyzed whether a potato chip would taste different if the sound of its crunch were altered. All test subjects were fed chips that did not vary much in terms of shape and texture—Pringles were chosen as the chip of choice due to their uniformity. Situated in front of a microphone inside a soundproof booth, the subjects could hear every bite they took through a set of headphones. From outside of the booth, Spence tweaked the crunch sound they were hearing by means of an amplifier and equalizer. Nearly all of the volunteers reported that the chips were different.

Further studies by Spence and other researchers have revealed additional fascinating consumer insights. Lab studies have shown that the color red suggests sweetness, that names with “k” sounds can be associated with a bitter taste and that curved shapes (be it the shape of the food or the plate it is served on) enhance the sweetness that the consumer experiences.

Spence believes these findings can explain certain product failures. Coca Cola’s special edition white cans failed due to consumer confusion with Diet Coke cans and complaints of a different taste from the usual red cans. Cadbury had a similar experience—when they changed the shape of their milk chocolate from square to curved, customers thought it was too sweet. The candy company also had little luck with a product that included “KOKO” in its name.

Although they may seem quirky, these discoveries may improve the quality of many consumer experiences. Heston Blumenthal, a notable chef Spence has been working with for over twelve years, combines food and music to heighten taste for diners at his restaurant. One of his dishes comes with an MP3 player programmed with beach sounds to accentuate the taste of the food.

Next time you sit down to eat, remember, it’s not just taste that is influencing your experience. That’s just the way the chip crunches.

Did You Know?

Charles Spence won an Ig Nobel Nutrition Prize for his potato chip study. The Ig Nobel Prizes “honor achievements that make people laugh, and then think.”

Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Fashion of the Force: "Star Wars" Costumes on Display

by Sarah Dolan
Fall 2016 Intern

It’s impossible to write about the costumes of the Star Wars series without a rambling opening paragraph about Padmé (a.k.a Queen/Senator Amidala). The oft-debated prequels, are—in my opinion, at least—salvageable by one thing: Padmé. Besides the fact that she’s a peacekeeping galactic senator and very handy in battle, she rules the fashion world in literally every scene (like this one and this one and this one . . . and this one). Even when she’s on the run and disguised as a refugee she dresses like she’s ready for the runway. However, in the Star Wars films, Padmé is not the only character who is consistently dressed to impress.

The Denver Art Museum will be displaying over 70 original costumes from the Star Wars movies. The costumes on display are the actual costumes that were used during filming. The exhibit was developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service in collaboration with the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art and Lucasfilm Ltd. It will “closely examine the captivating process of costume design for iconic outfits featured in all seven films of the Star Wars series.” The exhibit will focus on the creative process and the “challenge of translating [Lucas’s] iconic characters into a dynamic reality.”

The traveling showcase started in January of 2015 at Seattle’s EMP Museum (now the Museum of Pop Culture, or MoPOP) before moving in late 2015 to New York City’s Discovery Times Square museum. The New York exhibition ended in September of 2016, and moved on to the Denver Art Museum. The exhibition will continue to travel until 2019.

Even those who aren’t Star Wars fans will find something of interest in this exhibit. Visitors who appreciate fashion will be able to see the intricacy of the costume designs up close. A lot of the detail in these elaborate costumes can be lost onscreen in scenes with poor lighting or too much fast-paced action. This exhibition gives an opportunity to see these costumes up close and in person, allowing for a deeper appreciation of the design and craft of characters’ apparel that doesn’t get enough screen time in the films.

Costumes ranging from Princess Leia’s simple white robe to Darth Vader’s imposing body armor are on display. Seeing all of these pieces together in one place really brings out the scope and scale of the Star Wars films. It displays how the franchise has grown over the years, with costumes evolving from simple, minimalistic looks to grander, more elaborate attire. Just thinking about it is almost too much for my Star Wars–loving heart to bear.

Did You Know?

The cloak worn by actor Alec Guinness (a.k.a. Obi-Wan Kenobi) in Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope was thought to be lost until it turned up in a costume warehouse in 2005. The article had been returned there after filming ended and was thrown in with a collection of monks’ robes. It was unknowingly rented out to customers and at one point worn by an extra in The Mummy. The cloak was unearthed during a routine stock check when an employee noticed the oddly shaped hood and put it on.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Can Art Withstand the Test of Time?

by Amanda Gutierrez
Fall 2016 Intern

This past summer, I spent a week cleaning my bedroom in preparation for graduation (and therefore, moving out), and I was dismayed to find that many of my old graphite sketches had faded and smudged over the years. In retrospect, I should have used a fixative spray or stored them in a safer place. Luckily, there are art conservationists dedicated to protecting the world’s more well-known art, or we wouldn’t have treasures like the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel.

Contemporary art and its contemporary materials are posing challenges for today’s artists and art conservationists. While some modern artists embrace the idea of non-enduring art and create masterpieces out of ephemeral materials like chocolate or vegetables, others are using new synthetic materials, like acrylic paint and polyester resins, which have yet to be tested for long-term survival. Because these materials haven’t been in the art world for very long, it’s hard to tell if they will be able to last for centuries with proper conservation, like oil and tempera paintings of the past have been able to.

Even modern art pieces that seem like they should endure are posing conservation problems. Take, for instance, GRP sculptures. GRP, or glass-reinforced plastic, is a composite of alternating fiberglass and polyester resin layers. GRP artworks, especially those displayed outdoors, need careful conservation handling. Conservation techniques include regular cleanings (with the appropriate materials, of course), applying protective coatings, physical repairs and paint touch-ups.

The wave of modern art materials has also created new challenges for art collecting. Modern art enthusiasts may soon have to be as innovative as the artists when it comes to storing their prized purchases. Art collecting comes with the responsibility of protecting art from natural elements, such as humidity and human errors—like accidentally dropping a piece of art or spilling something on it. Add in the unique considerations that have to be taken for modern art materials, and it looks like collectors could have a real conundrum on their hands.

Some of modern art’s more avant-garde materials include straw and shards of broken dinner plates. How would someone go about fixing a broken dinner plate that has been broken already? That’s what modern art conservationists still need to figure out. It’ll be up to the most creative and resourceful art conservationists to see that modern materials survive for future generations.

Did You Know?

For a thousand years, Great Britain has printed its legislative records on vellum, a writing surface made from the skin of a goat or a calf. Vellum can last for 5,000 years—talk about enduring materials! In early 2016, Britain announced that it would no longer be using vellum and would use archival paper (which lasts a measly 200 years) instead . . . the decision was reversed a week later.