In the American Museum of Natural History there are dinosaurs, and then there are models of animals one might only see halfway across the world.
But behind the massive blue whale and the colossal Olmec head, there are tour guides who help it all make sense.
Justyn Simmons and Wilson Hernandez turn their tours into journeys of astronomical and anthropological exploration. Although they’re still in college, the museum’s education and employment program has given them the opportunity to create imaginative tours for attendees.
“Their goal is to develop a tour based on their interest of the museums that most excite them, and we give them a lot of support in workshopping on how to design their tours,” said Preeti Gupta, the museum’s director of youth learning and research. “We don’t want lectures happening. We want to give tours that engage the learners and get them interacting with the exhibits.”
Simmons does just that in his primate behavior tour. Kids are not only encouraged to give knuckle walking a spin, but are taught different forms of quadrupedalism — walking on all fours — and taught fun facts about chimpanzees.
Simmons’ love for primates exists outside of the museum. Long before he studied physical anthropology at Stony Brook University, the Celia Cruz Bronx High School of Music of alum earned the title of “Curious George” as a child.
“I didn’t know there was a legitimate field for what I wanted to know, and before I didn’t even know what primates were, and I realized I really liked it,” Simmons said. “You get to do a tour on something you care about and expand and learn new things, and primates are my real big passion.”
Simmons volunteered at the Bronx Zoo in the past, pushing him toward his current primate path.
For Hernandez, however, his passion is literally not of this Earth. The University of Wisconsin at Madison junior studying astronomy, physics and Portuguese fell in love with stars when he lived in Puerto Rico. When he moved to the states, their absence — especially in the Big Apple — made his heart grow fonder for the distant balls of gas, and everything else space has to offer.
“It forced me to pick up a book and pursue my interest,” Hernandez said.
The Bronx High School of Science alum covers the Cullman Hall of the Universe, the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth, and the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites in his Natural History Museum tour. And throughout his work, Hernandez tries his best to communicate what he knows to his audience, which sometimes are children.
“Not everyone knows what you know, and not everyone’s going to understand what you say,” Simmons said. “You have to be able to say things that are acceptable to people, and this experience has helped me change the way I say things and relate it to people lives.”
In Simmons’ tour, he doesn’t call primates by their genus, but instead relates them to movies children have seen before, like “The Lion King.” The skills Simmons and Hernandez learn are not what might be found in a typical summer job. Instead, the education and employment program allows students to move through fields of science, museum education and similar work.
“We don’t see this program as a one-time thing with the kids,” Gupta said. “We really see these college students as joining a family, and once they meet us, they stay connected and we have alumni events.”
Those who have taken part in the program — colloquially known as “MEEP” — remain connected even after they move on, Gupta added, and a lot of them have become friends.
Although the summer has ended and both Hernandez and Simmons have headed back to class, the program has taught them that intelligence is not limited to big words, but instead how well you can communicate the information you have.
“Everybody is so passionate and knowledgeable about their field, and here you can really let it rip about what you know,” Hernandez said. “The MEEP family is much closer to us than any of us would have realistically expected. I have so much freedom here, and so you have to be smart about which responsibilities you chose to take.”
Hernandez has been a part of the program since 2014, and has learned a great deal about people and his field throughout his time there.
“When you are surrounded by people that are so smart, you just learn so much by being quiet and listening to what people are saying,” Hernandez said.
“You learn and appreciate people and see what they have to bring to the table.”