State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

(Toy) Creatures Find Welcome Habitat in Whimsical Holiday Display

geoscience lobby decorated
Every year, CIESIN’s Joe Schumacher decorates the Geoscience lobby with a fun array of plastic figurines. Photo: Joe Schumacher

December days grow dark early but on Columbia’s Lamont Campus, the second floor lobby of the Geoscience Building shines brightly with fanciful creatures to delight imaginations of all ages. Over the past 20 years, CIESIN user services manager Joe Schumacher has decorated the area with selections from his collection of hundreds of figurines, interspersed with exotic candies for the taking. This year, barnyard animals—including a plump fuchsia pig and another of rainbow stripes, along with dinosaurs and wild animals—frame the ledges of the open space.

plastic figures on display
Photo: Joe Schumacher

The exhibit has its roots in Joe’s grad school days at the University of Nebraska, when his desk in the geography department office sat next to a plastic landscape used as a teaching tool. As students added small figures to the display, Joe began adding some too. The collection travelled with him to Bowling Green State University and then to Saginaw, Michigan, where CIESIN (the Center for International Earth Science Information Network) was originally located. When the organization moved to the Lamont Campus in Palisades, New York, a skeleton crew was putting in long hours. Joe got the idea to decorate the lobby with his growing collection as a surprise for his overworked colleagues. Minus a couple of missed years, he’s been decorating ever since.

During the off-months, Joe’s miniatures fills every nook of the office shelves, with overage in boxes. At some point in December he’ll decide on an organizing factor, and overnight the lobby is transformed for the holidays. One year the theme was color progressions. Last year, pieces were grouped in pairs. Sometimes he’ll arrange statuettes to make mini-narratives, as he did this year with a tiny figure poised to take a photo of an oversized parrot, or two small U.S. presidents standing side by side and staring intently into space, among other whimsical tableau.

plastic figures in holiday display
Photo: Joe Schumacher

Joe tries to decorate when the building has emptied out. Often he’ll aim to do it when folks are away at the American Geophysical Union meeting, to minimize interruptions and maximize the wow effect the next morning. People who have never seen the display before react in two ways, he says: with sheer delight, or dumfounded shock. Either way, the experience is awesome, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. And for those of us who have worked with Joe at CIESIN for a while, the holiday display in Geoscience is a tradition that never gets old.

Visit this year’s holiday display in the second floor Geoscience lobby into January.

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