In the eyes of a child, the museum display that makes a lasting impression might be a row of animal skulls showing how a wild boar or a turtle takes a bite. Or the gallery featuring President George Washington’s portrait and an accompanying exhibit of his false teeth.
Or perhaps what truly sticks are the white lab coats and youth-size dental chair that children can try out when touring the Samuel D. Harris National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, a part of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry (UMSOD).
A partnership with Baltimore City Public Schools and the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene makes possible the Title I program for public school field trips. The intent is to allow children to enjoy themselves while learning about oral health and being introduced to what could be a future career: dentist, dental hygienist.
“Traditionally, children visit the museum to have fun and get excited about caring for their teeth,” said Richard Manski, DDS, PhD, MBA, executive director of the museum and professor and chair of Dental Public Health at the School of Dentistry. “We want to reach these future dental professionals early in order to encourage them to look forward to and appreciate their STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math] classes and aspire to health careers.”
During a recent field trip by 38 second-graders from Mount Royal Elementary/Middle School, Isaiah Joseph was among a group eagerly taking in exhibits. “He’s all the way at the front,” said his grandmother, Nadine Kinard, one of the chaperones.
When asked what he’d seen that surprised him, the child replied: “pictures of teeth.” When asked if he might one day consider becoming a dentist, Isaiah nodded.
Kinard was more vocal than her grandson. “I love the museum,” she said.
An affiliate of the Smithsonian, the museum has a collection of 40,000 objects, many of which come from the collection of the Baltimore College of Dental Surgery, the School of Dentistry’s predecessor and the world’s first college of dentistry, founded in 1840.
Located at 31 S. Greene Street on the campus of the University of Maryland, Baltimore, the museum also features interactive exhibits designed to engage and educate children.
The Mount Royal students shook their heads as they entered a tobacco-cessation section, startled by depictions of the ill effects of smoking. In an oral health section, they took turns pulling on a string that simulates floss, pretending to clean a larger-than-life model of a mouth. Similarly, they wielded a huge toothbrush to practice brushing techniques.
In the role-playing section, students took turns wearing a white coat and climbing into the chair with such enthusiasm that it was hard keeping track who was patient and dentist, or dentist and patient.
For a role model, they interacted during the tour with Ben Scherr, a second-year dental student who wore blue scrubs for his volunteer shift as guide. Scherr was adept at mining the curiosity of elementary-schoolers, challenging them to use their own powers of observation.
Scherr paused beneath the lion’s skull, asking how its teeth or those of a horse might be related to the animal’s food. And how do human teeth compare?
“Are they similar to ours, or different?” he asked.
Answers were flying at that and other exhibits, ranging from a lineup of early dental tools to one about the science of saliva.
“It’s great exposure for my students to learn to care for their teeth,” said Mount Royal teacher Carlotta Williams. “It’s a very hands-on museum.”
Said Scott Swank, DDS, museum curator and assistant professor in Dental Public Health at the School of Dentistry: "We want the students to realize that they can actually become dentists, dental hygienists, and one day help take care of other people's teeth as well as their own."