I am not a-Muse-d
Really, seriously, what the hell is wrong with museum exhibit designers these days?
Last fall I went to the American Museum of Natural History for a week to do some research. I always took a break in the middle of the afternoon to stretch my legs and at least walk through one of the public exhibit halls. And I frequently checked in on the Hall of Biodiversity to gather data. Not data for my dissertation. Data on how museum exhibits work.
The Hall of Biodiversity is basically a big room with a rainforest diorama going down the center. One of the long side walls facing the rainforest is called the Spectrum of Life and it has really impressive mounted specimens from more clades than you can count (portions of this are shown above and below). The other long side wall is called Transformation of the Biosphere and it has a bunch of cubicles with computers where you can sit and learn about how the planet is going to hell in a handbasket.
Guess what? The first time I went through the Hall of Biodiversity, I walked quickly past the cubicles just to make sure they didn't have any actual specimens stashed back there, and I spent the rest of the time standing in front of the Spectrum of Life gaping at all the weird stuff. So did everyone else I saw that day. So did everyone else I saw that week. In a hall on biodiversity, one half of the space is being utterly wasted because . . . deep breath . . . it doesn't actually contain any biodiversity. No animals, plants, fungi, protists, or what have you. Instead, it has fucking computers in fucking cubicles. And the people are staying away in droves.
Which leads me to my first principle of natural history museum design:
People do not go to natural history museums to see fucking computers.
The positive principle to which this is merely a corollary is this:
People go to natural history museums to see natural history.
It follows that the job of an exhibit in a natural history museum is to show people natural history stuff--preserved organisms, fossils, artifacts, whatever. Not fucking computers, and certainly not fucking computers in fucking cubicles. Seriously, who wants to go to a museum--named for the Muses, descended from Renaissance cabinets of curiosity, repository of all that is arcane, bizarre, and wonder-full--and sit in a motherfucking cubicle getting lectured about the same depressing shit that you see every time you flip on the tube?
No one, apparently.
I'm not saying that the biodiversity crisis ain't real or that museums don't have a responsibility to educate the public. But a row of empty cubicles is educating no one. Was this hall laid out by utter retards? Did no one involved take the curiosity and free will of actual human beings into account during the design process? On one side of the room you have people standing shoulder to shoulder and three to five deep just to look at stuff. C'mon, museum studies dipshits*, harness some of that curiosity for good. And no, I don't mean show them a bunch of fascinating real stuff and then funnel them toward the cubicles. I mean show them a bunch of fascinating real stuff. Period.
That's the gig.
My favorite room in any of the museums I've been to is the main hall of the Natural History Museum in London. There is this vast expanse of human architecture and a much smaller but still awe-inspiring example of animal architecture, and . . . that's it. It's just about perfect. There's stuff to look at in the niches on the sides of the hall but it doesn't intrude into the main space. You can walk all the way around the dinosaur, see it from up close or far away, even go upstairs and look down on it from above. Mike Taylor and I have spent a lot of time just looking at that Diplodocus. I'd be hard-pressed to think of another mounted dinosaur anywhere that you can see so well from so many angles. Certainly no other dino mount has such a beautiful and appropriately awesome setting.
It makes a sad contrast with the actual dinosaur hall in the same museum. You know, the one where they took the absolutely gorgeous immense room and filled it up with so much butt-ugly elevated metal and exhibit junk that you would be forgiven for thinking that someone was out to destroy general public interest in dinosaurs. The contrast with the main hall couldn't be more striking: the exhibit, with its elevated metal walkway and the one-dimensional path, is totally out of harmony with the architecture of the room itself. You can't walk around any of the dinosaurs except for the Triceratops up front. All the rest are off to one side of the path and you can only see them from 180 degrees or less. That's nice if you just want to momentarily "appreciate" each one as if they were fucking paintings, but it's pretty dismal if you actually want to get a sense of their size and proportions. The stupid path constrains you to experience each thing in a particular order. No niches to explore, no space to sit and contemplatively take it all in, just a long-ass mostly metal cattle chute designed to keep the human traffic flowing. The lighting is godawful--good luck trying to get any photos better than "medium Bigfoot".
I could go on.
But what REALLY pissed me off about the People's Gloriously Efficient Metallic Intestine of Compulsory Dinosaur Appreciation is that toward the end there is a display case full of toy dinosaurs, dinosaur lunchboxes, and other dino shit.
This is another corollary of the first principle:
People do not go to natural history museums to see fucking toy dinosaurs.
If I wanted to see some fucking toy dinosaurs, I'd go to fucking Wal-Mart. That display case full of dino bullshit is taking up space that could be used to show actual fossils.
It makes me want to weep.
Museums cannot compete with amusement parks, multiplexes, arcades, and other temples to brain distraction. They shouldn't try. They're not just in a different business, they're in the opposite business. Museums have stuff that no one else does, stuff that is truly fascinating and that people are dying to see, and more and more they replace that wonder-full stuff with ordinary boring crap that people can find anywhere. Cubicles. Computers. Interactive geegaws and gimcracks. Piles of toys and lunchboxes.
I know that the public has an appetite for seeing the real stuff. I saw them standing shoulder to shoulder and several deep at the Spectrum of Life. Just looking. I've seen it in every museum I've ever been to. There are always going to be people who blaze through the halls as fast as their legs can carry them. But if you just stop and look, you will see other people just looking, anywhere that there is something real and arresting for them to look at. And if there is space for them to sit and just take it in, they will.
Let's cater to those people. The ones that are seeing something they've never seen before, something they can't go anywhere else to see, and having their sense of wonder tickled. That's what museums are for. If we can achieve that, we don't need all the plastic fakery stamped with bullshit buzzwords like 'relevant', 'educational', and 'interactive'. And if we can't, all that junk isn't going to help anyway.
If you look at pictures of museums from the 19th century, they all look the same: chock-a-block full of real specimens. Signage is minimal and discreet, and there are no Interactive Gadgets To Provoke Active Learning Moments(TM) to be seen anywhere. Partly because they hadn't been invented, but mostly because there were no museum studies dipshits* there to install them. The galleries were put together by curators who took whatever space they were given and filled it to the rim with as much cool stuff as possible. Big specimens went in the middle of the room where you could walk all around them. Little stuff went in cabinets and display cases on the sides of the room where they might entice you to spend a minute or thirty just contemplating their endless forms most beautiful.
If you walked through the Hall of X in the 1890s, there would be approximately half a million examples of X on display, and their sheer number and variety were free to work their dazzling effects on your brain. A century later and you have to sit through the Entrance Hall Streaming Video Preview, then be pre-tested by the Interactive Knowledge Assessment Module, then maybe if you're lucky you will see one or two actual specimens of X off to one side behind a couple of layers of Plexiglas, surrounded by about 7.5 MDEs (Moby Dick Equivalents) of explanatory signage and a collection of interactive computer stuff that is roughly equivalent to a really lame arcade in 1984, before you are processed by the Web-Based Pre-Exit Educational Product Survey and emerge blinking into the sunlight precisely 25.4 minutes after you entered. It goes without saying that there will have been no side-paths, cul-de-sacs, or niches to explore and no benches to sit on. No room for anything so inefficient.
When museums fill up their limited space--and their space is always limited compared to the awesome diversity of stuff that could potentially go on display--with interactive junk or piles of toys, they are sending a subtle message that they have ceased to believe in their own mission. You don't need a pile of toy dinosaurs to make a dinosaur exhibit 'relevant'. You don't need a row of cubicles and computer exercises to impress people with the scope and importance of biodiversity. That stuff doesn't work. Worse, it suggests that all of the real specimens on display are not worth getting interested in or caring about on their own.
If you want to know where the people are, they're on the opposite side of the room, standing shoulder to shoulder, looking at the specimens. Somebody, please, learn from that.
There is only one principle in natural museum history exhibit design:
People go to natural history museums to see natural history.
They can't get it anywhere else. And museums have nothing else as compelling to offer. So let's stop pretending that museums are interactive entertainment venues, and let museums be museums.
* Are you in museum studies? Awesome! Don't be a dipshit.