Tuesday, September 11, 2007

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 morons? 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.

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Blogger Julia said...

Hear, hear. The dinosaur hall at the NHM was cool when I was 13, but since then it's got very tiring. It's too cramped, being on two levels, and from a modern point of view does not funnel visitors well - a friend of mine had a bad panic attack a few months ago and had to go back to the main hall.

Some parts of the NHM are excellent - the hall of mammals is still amazing, and while there are some computers, there are some better more interactive stations (a small machine showing how a camel's thick fur actually keeps it cool complements the stuffed models). And the corridor to the palaeontology department with its Wall O' Sauropterygians.

We absolutely need more specimens on display. I love the Black Hills Institute for just that reason - loads of T. rex skeletons, all their other specimens too, and wall upon wall of invertebrates.

2:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen, brother!!

5:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Loved the rant- the really ironic thing about the Natural History Museum, London's central hall exhibit is that the only reason you can walk all round the dinosaur and there is no clutter is that they can then get many more tables in there when they have very expensive business 'functions'. Luckily this has two outcomes. One- the exhibit, as you say, is really awesome and two- the Museum makes money to support it's curation and research. Still sad though that it's commerce and not understanding of what people might want to see that drives it.

7:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yea, someone has dared to voice the thoughts of museum-goers, or "no longer goers" who dislike where the "new" museums are going so they no longer visit. People want to see the REAL specimens, or at least some REAL vs all casts. Another idea we prefer, if the museum space is limited, stand on the museum's strengths=use local specimens and showcase local diversity. If we want to see international specimens, we will schedule a trip overseas to see their local specialities.

P.S. My mother often said "if you have something important to say, you don't need to "swear" to get me to listen to you!

7:53 AM  
Blogger Mike Keesey said...

I remember visiting the Paris museum, which doesn't seem to have changed much since the 1800s, and thinking, "Wow, a museum of natural history for adults."

That said, I don't think children should be excluded, and I don't think every change since the 1800s has been a bad one. The Smithsonian has a nice little film about mammals having a "family reunion" that nicely shows how all mammals are related, descended from something similar to Morganucodon. It also has a nice illustration of gradualistic adaptation (brown bears becoming polar bears). I consider films like these a nice supplement to the specimens.

I do agree that the London museum's dinosaur hall is excruciating, especially compared to the rest of the museum.

8:26 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Whoo-hoo! Musta hit pretty close to the mark to get her all riled up like that, huh kid?

Thanks all for the comments.

Some parts of the NHM are excellent - the hall of mammals is still amazing

Oh, for sure. By and large I think the NHM does pretty well. The literal hallway of marine reptiles and the giant ground sloth is a great example. And the fossil halls at the AMNH are stellar--a breathtaking number of real skeletons on display in a large well-lit space and you can walk around most of the mounts. But I had to pick a couple of well-known bad examples to illustrate my point.

I was at the OMNH when the new building (that opened in 2000) was being designed and built, and I remember going to little functions where the potential exhibits were tested. It was just appalling how much they were stressing interaction over content. Fortunately we all let them know that on the comment cards, and the museum as built is one of my favorites. It's not the world's biggest, but there is a lot of stuff on display, plenty of space to take it in, connecting passages that break up the linear flow, and some actual benches here and there.

I consider films like these a nice supplement to the specimens.

That's cool. You'll notice from the photos that the Spectrum of Life has some monitors scattered amongst the specimens. These don't bother me because they don't take people's attention away from the exhibit. Nothing bothers me more than walking through an exhibit hall and seeing people standing in front of something awesome and looking down to mess with some interactive toy. Some signage is absolutely necessary, and interactive stuff isn't wholly bad in principle. BUT for me the most important question is, is that stuff drawing people more deeply into the exhibit or pulling them out of it? Anything taking up exhibit space that isn't an actual specimen had better be enhancing people's experience of the specimens, not taking away from it.

I'm sure the MSDs* who design such things would say that they are enhancing the experience. They should trying watching museum-lovers some time. Also, I think MSDs* lard up exhibits with that stuff because they're not convinced of the inherent coolness of specimens. In fact, they seem to care about specimens less than any of the people they're allegedly serving--certainly less than curators, and apparently less than the general public.

9:19 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've worked at a natural history museum, and am currently working at a zoo, and am continually discouraged by the emphasis of everything for kids. "Dinosaurs are for kids" and "animals are for kids" are impressions you get from visiting these places.

Adults are very interested in these things but often their questions and needs go unnoticed, and that's when I try to step in, because I love educating adults. Adults don't want to play with computers at a museum, and they don't want interactive BS. Most kids just slam the buttons anyway and run off to the next "education station" without even understanding anything.

It's difficult to create a sense of wonder and curiosity on a computer screen.

10:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fucking brilliant--and I completely agree, of course. It's sad when institutions of education fall prey to the "received wisdom" (of marketers and other lowlife retards) which declares that the public *really* wants infotainment. It never was and never will be true.

10:11 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amen again!!!.... not only 19th century museums were beautifully crowdy and dense!...se the Museum of Natural History in Dublin (pics from last year here: http://www.mediamax.com/manakin00/Links/FFB56FD233)
A must visit!!!

10:13 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hurrah! FINALLY the sad and infuriating truth about new museums is OUT IN THE OPEN for discussion.

And it's not only new and improved natural history museums that are so poorly designed--the same problems are obvious in other kinds of museums too. For example, the much touted Museum of the American Indian in DC has a paltry hundred artifacts in overly interpreted display cases, competing with a cacophony of interactive videos and miles and miles of patronizing museum texts telling you exactly what to think about the one or two items on exhibit, while the all of the awesome actual collection is hidden away in warehouses in Maryland. These new museums are more like lame theme parks, designed by academic museologists instead of curators who are really passionate about their specimens and want to communicate the wonder of natural history.

I've heard many modern museum curators complain that visitors come once but never revisit their fabulous, expensive new museums. Like Matt says, they don't realize that the message they send is that they have lost ther mission of a natural history museum. A museum should be a place that you can never get enough of, a place that is filled with so much that you are drawn back again and again, a place where you feel like you might discover something.

The new Natual History Museum in Paris can't compete with the old Paleontology Hall from Cuvier's day, right next door. True aficionados of
Natual History must visit tiny out of the way local museums with no budgets to find exciting exhibits of actual fossils.

The Black Hills Institute is beloved for its commitment to displaying as many specimens as possible. I also highly recommend a visit to the new Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman Montana, which was designed by actual paleontologists and people who love dinosaurs. The halls are modeled on older Museums filled with specimens, you can walk around the models and NEARLY EVERY fossil in the MOR collections is on display.

10:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There are some interesting points in your argument but most of your profanity is aimed in the wrong directions. Museum designers respond to the criteria set out by the institution's management, which is based on the exit interviews you mentioned and other survey data. If people had all said "let's go back to the way it used to be done", then that's what designers would do. People don't want the same thing everywhere they go. There's no way you'll convince those that are paying for the space to build massive halls and put either one specimen so that it may be viewed form all sides all the time, or jam pack it full of specimens and overwhelm the majority of visitors.

You're right to say that there are too many gimmicks in some modern museum designs. People do want real stuff and museums should continue to display their real specimens, but just looking is only one way that people learn. Most museum visitors are families and demand some sort of hands on experience to engage the younger crowd. Which of course means it has to be carefully designed so that it will be around for more than a few days and not injure anyone. The utopian world that some people live in where museums can leave things out in the open doesn't exist. You just can't put real specimens out in the open and expect them to be around for more than a few years, which would completely negate one of the reasons for a museum's existence, to preserve.

Visitors are the most destructive force in a museum environment because they want to touch things and discover them in other ways besides looking.

There are ways to use interactive elements in museums and yes, even computer based interactive exhibits can be effective and popular. There's a whole generation of computer natives that will not be concerned with the format challenges that are inherent to the medium, they will understand it as a knowledge interface and a tool that can be have many layers. I'm not advocating the propagation of computers as the only means of information dissemination, but they do have immense potential as aides.

Many would agree that the most important invention of our time is the printing press, a breakthrough that allowed for the distribution of information and a way to record things worth passing on to future generations. To get information and knowledge to the masses, empowering and educating. Undoubtedly, it was rejected by some at first as an agent of destruction for oral historical tradition, and the written word, the only ways it would have been done up until then. So now in the computer's infancy, we sometimes misuse it but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try.

Maybe you should publish your rant on paper and try handing it out to a few people to see how that goes. Or, just go outside and tell it to anyone that will listen.

Things change, which is precisely why museums exist, to show what was and hope that people will care enough to consider how that will impact what will be.

10:38 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was in Europe this summer and agree. The building and main hall were beautiful for the British Natural History Museum, but I was really disappointed with their dino hall due to all the garbage in it. The museum in Paris is wonderful, and almost never visited because people go to see art in Paris, not fossils. The dislpay in the Paris museum would have fit in with the museums 50-100 years ago. They have brains and hearts and other organs in cases on the walls.

Chicago's Field Museum just recently redid their dinosaur exhibit and they learned from the previous exhibit. The old exhibit had computers and interactive displays everyone walked past because they wanted to see fossils. The new exhibit has almost no computers and these are tucked away into corners or part of the display with actual fossils. The exhibit is full of fossils, which is wonderful. And you can't beat the view of Sue.

11:46 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

Museum designers respond to the criteria set out by the institution's management, which is based on the exit interviews you mentioned and other survey data.

Then the system is broken. In support of this thesis I offer Exhibits A and B above, and others that commenters have mentioned.

There's no way you'll convince those that are paying for the space to build massive halls and put either one specimen so that it may be viewed form all sides all the time, or jam pack it full of specimens and overwhelm the majority of visitors.

I should have mentioned that the NHM Diplodocus is a brilliant main hall exhibit. It would be pretty austere if it was the only thing in an exhibit hall. The museum needs both kinds of spaces, and there's no reason why both kinds can't be elegant and functional. Whereas the NHM's actual dinosaur hall aimed for complete functionality, failed that, and tossed any shot at elegance right out the window.

You just can't put real specimens out in the open and expect them to be around for more than a few years, which would completely negate one of the reasons for a museum's existence, to preserve.

Just about every mounted sauropod that I know of has a real sauropod limb bone on display in front for folks to touch. Some of these have been on display for decades. And some of the mounted sauropods have been up for nigh on a century. So I respectfully disagree.

Maybe you should publish your rant on paper and try handing it out to a few people to see how that goes. Or, just go outside and tell it to anyone that will listen.

Yeah, it might have been a misstep, putting this in such a public and formal venue.

Oh wait.

12:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is, very much so true. Reading about the NHM's Dinosaur Hall seemed disturbingly similar to the Smithsonian Natural History Museum's Dinosaur Hall, which culminates in a Dino-riffic gift shop. Lovely.

How irritating is it to have to walk through a sea of little kids pretending to be T.Rex and roaring at you or their little brother?(I liked dinosaurs since I was a little kid, but when I went to a museum, I didnt screw around.) Very. Its not just like that at the Smith's Natural History Museum, the Aerospace museum seems to be like that too, in some parts. Do we really need silly little flight simulators? I can go to Six Flags Great Adventure and experiance that nonsense.

Also, the Mutter Museum(Phila, PA) seems to have not fallen to such computerised nonsense. The only problem really is the crowds. Totally worth it, though, to get a feel for what the ole' museum experiance.

12:14 PM  
Blogger Sarah Werning said...

I think a lot of exhibit designers do know their stuff and what makes for a good exhibit: appropriate signage with just the right amount of well-written text, well-planned exhibit spaces, more specimens and interactive models, and few-to-no computer stations. And there are plenty of passionate curators and museum educators with great, easy-to-implement ideas for exhibits designed to foster the same love for natural history that got them started in their field.

But, having witnessed the entire idea-to-exhibit process, I'd say that great exhibit plans are often complicated and ruined between the drawing board and the exhibit hall.

First, the passion that museum curators have for their own research does not always extend to a passion for public interaction or a desire to participate in any way in the improvement of museum exhibits. I have been fortunate to work with several academics who really understood the importance, especially at publicly-funded museums, of the educational and public service roles the museum has as part of its mission. However, there are just as many (and probably more) researchers who see the public side and research side of the museum as completely separate entities; the public side being inferior and not worthy of their attention. Ironically, this academic elitism breeds the exact disinterest and misunderstanding in/of science in the general public that these academics are using to justify their lack of interaction.

Unfortunately, as part of their institutional service requirements, these types of researchers wind up on exhibits committees or in administrative positions. They can and do nix great exhibit ideas, cut projects in funding and/or scope, delay projects until there's no time to do it right. They have no problem pushing the public mission of the museum to the back burner, and both the public and the museums lose when that happens.

Another HUGE problem is that many scientists are really ineffective at public communication. They may or may not believe the public side of the museum is worthwhile, but regardless, they're not much help in exhibit planning or design. They can't conceive of what makes a good exhibit, they can't explain the science or its importance to the designers, they can't write the text, and they can't give docents a good background in the subject.

There are many great exhibit planners and educators producing subpar exhibits whose poor quality can be directly traced to a lack of involvement, interest or competent explanation on the part of museum scientists, or a lack of interest or assistance on the part of museum administration.

I'd like to believe that academics and administrators don't actively sabotage their own exhibits, but I've seen plenty of evidence to the contrary.

1:48 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A word about signs, computer programs, interpretive text, etc.: Success or failure of these media depend on a more systemic problem in science education: people who do the sign-making (etc) are often not professional scientists, and when they are, the scientists' often do not have a background in graphic design and pedagogy.

This provides a situation where museums designers are (frequently) either effective at communicating information that isn't terribly exciting, or have a fantastic grasp of the subject matter but aren't terribly adept at conveying it to lay audiences.

The result is the situation Matt Describes, with a bevy of computer programs and signs that are shiny and gee-whiz but lack the content to maintain a visitor's interest, and at least a few museums that have fantastic content but fail to convey that excitement to visitors that do not come with a priori knowledge of the subject.

1:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

On the "for kids" and "for adults" distinction -- kids don't like crappy exhibits either, they like specimens. I've taught preschool and elementary school, and when I've taken my classes to museums they are awed by mammoths, moa, butterflies, dinosaurs, etc. They are momentarily drawn to computer screens out of habit, but quickly get bored when they realize that the games suck compared to Halo. So, MSDs*, claiming that an over-designed exhibit is "for kids" is no excuse, because they don't much like them either.

4:12 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

A-fucking-men. And I say that as a museum studies graduate, and a volunteer at the NHM.

It wouldn't surprise me if part of the problem was that not enough people from a science background were involved with exhibition design.

Its probably a good thing you didn't visit the human biology gallery. Its one thing to use computers to explain how genetics works, or display images of specimens you just don't have space to exhibit, but really, one specimen in the entire hall? I despair sometimes. I really do.

4:31 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Because it hasn't come up in the blog comments (though it has on several listservs), I thought I'd point people to a complimentary essay by Jere Lipps HERE.


7:56 PM  
Blogger Rufus said...

About time somebody said it. Not that interactive computer based stuff doesn't have its place, but I can get that anywhere else. I go to a museum because I want to see something. Yes, computer displays can help to explain things that are not easily done with actual specimens. But, as so many others have said, we pay to go to museums to see the specimens.

There is one thing that so far none of the other comments have addressed. If it can be put on a computer, it can be put online. I think interactive computer instruction should be produced by the museum, but it doesn't actually have to be in the museum. It can and should be an integral part of the museum's website and outreach program. Maybe by doing so we can replace one of those silly computer terminals with another cool specimen. That way we can give the kids, parents, teachers or whoever else the chance to see a real example of what they saw on the museum's website.

11:09 PM  
Blogger Brian Lee Beatty said...

I agree with Matt about preserving museums as places to observe natural history, but I have to disagree with one aspect of his evidence. Since moving to New York last year, I've been to the AMNH many times and, like everyone going to Paleo, passed through the Biodiversity Hall on my way from the security entrance.

In my passing through, I have to say that I've had a different experience. Despite my adoration of the exhibit's dugong high in the sky (despte the fact that its taxidermy has some serious flaws), I've repeatedly been disappointed to see people ignoring specimens and staring at computer screens for minutes on end.

Why are they at a museum to watch a video screen? Cable and DVDs these days often have just as much to offer, whereas I doubt their living rooms have a giant clam sitting there like a loveseat! I can only suppose it is because my love of musuems is focused on specimens. As a scientist I treasure information, so I suppose learning from a video could be sufficient - but as a "natural historian", I not only see specimens as verification and more thorough source of information, but I simply revere them. I don't mean that in any spiritual way, but its their tangibility, their uniqueness, that makes them special. I could go on and rant about how that makes almost every natural thing special, but that sort of discussion is best left to people with not enough work to do. I'd rather leave it at:
Natural History museums allow everyone to see nature in tangible ways that not only make it real for the individual, but make those items, particularly the remains of animals, unique in their individuality. Intraspecific variation, especially as opportunity for evolution, is a one of many concepts important for people to really "get" evolution. Seeing all of those individual specimens, especially with pathologies like the tyrannosaur, "Sue" at the Field Museum, transform a child's (or adult's) generic notion of a species from some archetypal monster from a D&D monster manual, and into an individual eking out a living. I would like to think that if more people gained some humility from recognizing that life and its trials have been problems for all of life, it might help us respect life more and get grounded as just another mammal.

On the other hand, I guess seeing a healed bone break in a dinosaur is just a reminder of the old saying "Same Old Shit, Different Day"

3:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with a lot of what ol' Dr. V and others have said here, though I have a somewhat different perspective, having been involved with exhibit designers and exhibitry in the past. Of course, I fully realize that no one here is advocating a complete abandonment of high tech multimedia additions to museum exhibits. In fact, I fully agree that some museum exhibits have gone waaaaaay overboard in an attempt to "keep up with the Joneses," as it were (the same reason there was a huge and pointless rush for lots of groups to get on the Internet, even when there was no obvious purpose to doing so...it was simply "the thing to do"). But, as others have noted, multimedia really does have a role to play, and it can be used very effectively, even offering material that can't be gotten elsewhere. It's just that it requires a very balanced approach, so that it's complementary to actual specimens rather than gratuitous or overwhelming the specimen displays.

As for museums being "for kids": I agree that this is an odious concept and whomever is responsible for coming up with it needs to be shot, buried, dug up, and shot again. But I've worked with some absolutely top-notch exhibit designers, and I can tell you that finding a "middle ground" that is both comprehensible to children yet involved enough for adults -- both of whom have short attention spans in the U.S. -- is not at all easy. Pretty much all the commenters here are people that are not only predisposed to want to go see and learn more about fossils but are also people that already have at least some background with them already, so we're a biased bunch when it comes to our perception of what a museum exhibit should be like. Most museum patrons might be interested, but don't have even the barest of backgrounds, and might even need some reeducation to correct what they've "learned" from things like Jurassic Park or (SHUDDER) The Land Before Time. Science museum exhibit designers, at least in the U.S., know that (a) the average American has a science understanding level (and a reading ability) of about a 7th grader, and (b) museum signage that requires more than about 30 seconds to read, and even appears long, will not be read completely, and will often be ignored entirely -- the average museum goer might read a headline on a sign, stare at a specimen for a few seconds, then move on, obtaining very little by way of information, and certainly little of what the display was intended to teach in the first place! At least part of the push toward multimedia was, I think, driven by the understanding that animated, moving stuff grabs the attention more than static exhibits. As above, though, I think many places really did go overboard with that, though.

Anyway, my point is that museum displays are tending toward brevity and simplicity (for the sake of a relatively low level of education) while trying to drive home one or two very basic concepts simply because that's all that audiences (American ones, at any rate; I certainly can't speak to those elsewhere) seem to want. Few museum-goers want to spend hours poring over individual specimens, and those that do are one that, as I mentioned, are there because they're already interested in the subject matter. So many exhibit halls are becoming designed to funnel people through rather quickly while trying to give them the impression that they've gotten their money's worth. Education certainly can be had; it's just not always of the scope and breadth that those of us in natural history would like the patrons to have.

As has been pointed out, this has resulted in the sort of "de-Victorianization" of museums -- they've lost much of the kind of high-brow mystique that they had a century ago and have moved more toward entertainment. I can empathize; any good teacher knows that people are more receptive to learning when they're being entertained. It's just a difficult thing to achieve the right balance of entertainment and education without the former becoming paramout and the latter getting lost as a result.

I'm certainly not fond of this trend, and in that respect, I'm with all the rest of you! But it's not the fault of museums or exhibit designers; it's a symptom of a larger societal issue concerning the zeitgeist toward science and education. As fabulous as museums are, I don't think that they have quite enough power to reverse that trend simply by redoing all their exhibits -- a "you'll like what we tell you to like" approach ain't gonna cut it. But if the general societal trend gets reversed, the museums will follow and can return to some of their lost glory. IMHO.

7:46 AM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

I've repeatedly been disappointed to see people ignoring specimens and staring at computer screens for minutes on end.

Even thought it's only 7:46 AM here, I am pretty confident that that is the most depressing thing I will hear all day. It makes me afraid that the MSDs* are winning their perverse crusade.

If that's the case, why have natural history exhibits at all? Take one or two of those big halls, fill 'em up with cubicles and VR goggles, and let the morons watch the Virtual Interactive Dino-Extravaganza of Their Dreams(TM). Or, like you said, put it all online and save everyone the trouble of even going to the museum.

Hey, consumer! Yeah, you! Why not experience the whole world from your couch! Once you buy the Comcast Ultimate Cable and Rolling Refrigerator/Microwave Combo Pack, you'll never have to get off your fat ass again! Call now!

7:46 AM  
Blogger Mike Taylor said...

I'm glad to see I'm not the only one for whom Matt's rant has struck a nerve.

There's an overriding point here that lots of us have touched on, and alluded to, but I think not yet explicitly stated, so here is is: PEOPLE GO TO MUSEUMS TO SEE THINGS THEY CAN'T SEE AT HOME.

The problem with all the "interactive displays" is that they are no better than what museum visitors can see from the comfort of their own web browser -- although, and here I know I am introducing a side-rant, it pains me enormously that nearly all musuem web-sites have only tiny, low-resolution photos of any of their actual exhibits.

And this "it's for the kids" thing: won't fly. Not only is it the case that kids also prefer to see actual, y'know, stuff when they've gone to all the trouble of getting up from in front of their X-boxes, but the whole idea that museums are for kids is directly tied to the idea that education is something that happens to kids -- a lie so pernicious that I hope none of us is ready just yet to give up and lie down under it.

Finally, a word in favour of our own NHM: the Diplodocus and Triceratops are not, quite, the only skeletal mounts that you can look at from more than one angle: there is also the Camarasaurus, which you approach from the front, see from the side, and then look down on from the balcony, so that you can admire its comical sacral articulation in all its glory.

Still. You'd think the trustees could spring £40k or so to put a Stan mount in the main hall, at the bottom of Owen's steps. That'd get the kids excited all right!

9:19 AM  
Blogger Jeph Porter said...

Man good points I agree. Too many computers and video game crap. Its almost like, if you can't get the kids to leave the TV and video games, give it to them at the museum as oposed to ruining their day with a bunch of stuff they'll really appriciate later.

I'm from Chicago though, and I must say I'm usually very impressed with out Museums. The Science and Industry Museum is constetly a pleasure to visit. And as a previous commenter said, you can't be the view of Sue at the Field Museum. However I have found that the Field Museum is slipping into this hell you describe.

The Milwaukee Public Museum is perhaps one of the better Museum's I have been too, I would suggest a trip if you can make it.

11:18 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Before the new Dinosaur gallery in the NHM opened they used to have a triceratops mount, the Scolosaurus cast and a T. rex skull in the main hall. I think its a shame that they're not there any more.

4:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the Roaring Rubber Robots far more offensive than the computers; worst one I've seen is the Dino Jaws exhibit at the NHM, which had almost no intellectual content, just juttering, jiggling monstrosities to make the kids shriek. And the entry ticket price was disgusting; something like £7 to see that trash.

12:26 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Then the system is broken."

That might well be true, that and the fact that there is no system, no one will agree on one way to do it. We can't even agree on who should lead the process, never mind what the goal should be. Probably due to the fact that there are too many variables, audiences and methodologies to ever have one way to do it. That leads to a lot of failure in exhibits and elsewhere. But hopefully we can move forward by trying new things.

"Some of these have been on display for decades. And some of the mounted sauropods have been up for nigh on a century."

I have worked for in a science center as well and perhaps my comment was somewhat tainted by that experience. The behavior of visitors is very much dependent on all the design factors we are discussing here, in my experience the most destructive force in a museum/science centre environment is the visitor. Only a small percentage act with malice or vandalism in mind so the remainder of the damage could be attributed to a lack of careful design and planning. As you mentioned there are certain specimens that can be left out. A dinosaur bone is a pretty sturdy object and if all you do is touch it, then fine. But it isn't a methodology that can be followed for the display of most items.

"Yeah, it might have been a misstep, putting this in such a public and formal venue.

Oh wait."

I wasn't saying that you shouldn't have a right to your opinion or even that you chose the wrong medium for expressing it, on the contrary I think this is a very necessary discussion. I was just trying to say, rather clumsily it seems, that there is a need and use for the computer as a communication tool. One that you had appropriately taken advantage of in this case when the selection of a different medium would have limited success.

It is very easy to point out what is wrong with something, and when we dislike something we all become experts. Engineers, designers even doctors. I've caught myself doing it, so I tried to get into the industry to do something about it.

I'm not trying to be abrasive with that comment, I feel that your starting this discussion is 'doing something' also. But I'm sure that if you leave this post active you will continue to get comments on this museum or that one, this display or that display and most are valid and worthwhile. But the problem is, there are those of us that at the end of the day or month or year, have to do or build or present something tangible. Not just theories or criticisms.

It isn't possible to make anything for everyone, whether its something as ubiquitous as a pen or as complex as a car. So there are lots of different types of everything that won't work for everyone. Within a museum environment we have to try to appeal to our audience, and to do that we have to try to find out who they are and what they want.

I was discussing this with a colleague of mine and she made an excellent point, in the context of the 'BodyWorlds' exhibits, if you're not familiar with them, look them up. The point she made was that even if we did only directly respond to exit interviews and surveys, there is no way that exhibit would exist, and yet it is always sold out wherever it goes.

I guess that ultimately the issue is that exhibit planning, design and production is not as simple as most people think. The ones that we all recall that aren't very successful are probably the ones that were done in an environment where those in charge oversimplified the process.

I encourage you to talk to your local museum or exhibition hall about your concerns and opinions.

1:26 PM  
Blogger Dr. Vector said...

"We can't even agree on who should lead the process, never mind what the goal should be. Probably due to the fact that there are too many variables, audiences and methodologies to ever have one way to do it. That leads to a lot of failure in exhibits and elsewhere. But hopefully we can move forward by trying new things."

Absolutely! Even the examples I used of less-than-perfect exhibit design have some good elements (like the Spectrum of Life). My hope is that someone is keeping track of what works and what doesn't, and that the next generation of museum exhibits will build on that. And specimen-heavy exhibits are still being built. The North American Museum of Ancient Life has an unbelievable number of dinosaur skeletons on display, and from what I have heard the renovated dinosaur hall at the Carnegie Museum will also be a mounted-skeleton blowout (and with real skeletons rather than casts).

Computers aren't inherently evil. Even the Spectrum of Life has some monitors built in. But the monitors are unobtrusive and they don't take people's attention away from the specimens. I am not a Luddite, I just want exhibit design to be optimized on awe and wonder and not on interaction as an end in itself, or any other non-specimen-based goal. Even education. Let's blow people's minds first, and let education be a by-product of that.

In fact, I'm working on an interactive exhibit right now--but it's one that will augment an existing specimen-based display, and its purpose is to take people deeper into the experience of the specimens. Most interactive gadgets that I've seen in museums just don't work that way. Hence my venom.

"A dinosaur bone is a pretty sturdy object and if all you do is touch it, then fine. But it isn't a methodology that can be followed for the display of most items."

Yeah, I hear you. I'm a lookee-no-touchy person by inclination, but not everyone is.

The mounted T. rex in the Valley Life Sciences Building at Berkeley had one of its hand claws swiped by a vandal. I can't understand that kind of behavior, and it depresses me to no end that we have to take that kind of crap into account in designing exhibits.

"I wasn't saying that you shouldn't have a right to your opinion or even that you chose the wrong medium for expressing it, on the contrary I think this is a very necessary discussion. I was just trying to say, rather clumsily it seems, that there is a need and use for the computer as a communication tool. One that you had appropriately taken advantage of in this case when the selection of a different medium would have limited success."

Thanks. I'm sorry I was a jerk; I missed your point entirely.

I hope something productive does come out of this. The irritation that inspired this rant has been building up for years. Finally last week it grabbed my attention to the point that I couldn't sleep, so I got up and blogged. I had no idea that it would get the attention that it has. If I had known how many people would see it, I would have done some things differently. Heck, I might have chickened out and not written it at all.

But from the traffic here and on the listservs it seems to have hit a very raw nerve and hit it hard. Even if the total effect of this is just that it gets people talking about this stuff, that's a step forward.

Anyway, thanks for your thoughts and for being the bigger person. I don't deserve it, but I appreciate it.

2:06 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dynamite, and hilarious, rant.

So true, so amusingly-put.


3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The museum in Vienna is full of specimens; the explicit goal is that you should still discover something new when you come the third time.

The downside is that it's "a museum of a museum". Due to budget constraints, it is updated on average once every 50 years, apart from the addition of specimens.

And the (few) big skeletons all stand on raised platforms close to a wall. You can watch them from several angles, but you can't walk around them.


On another note, I prefer exhibitions of skeleton casts to the real thing. They are much lighter, so they don't need to be obscured by tons of steel armature. And how often have I read a paper where it says an important specimen was impossible to examine because it's on display! The casts should be good, though. Not like the tail-dragging Allosaurus in Vienna where the entire forearm and hand was cast as one piece (so that the carpus is a plate continuous with radius, ulna, and metacarpals!) and where the cast of the scapulocoracoid includes the cast of the armature of the original.

6:46 AM  
Blogger C. M. K. said...


Recently I went to the Paris Museum of Natural History, and came up with a blog post inspired by this classic post of yours.


I hope you like this.

Nemo Ramjet.

2:27 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That old photo is AMAZING. The Sperm whale dwarfs everything in the room! i wish there were still museums like that!

9:55 PM  
Blogger Trish said...

It's funny, the first thing your rant made me think about wasn't a museum at all. Last time I visited Walt Disney World, there was a lot of hype about the "new" Spaceship Earth. Now, while it wasn't my favorite favorite ride, I did enjoy the older versions of "Spaceship", even from just a purely technical and art direction standpoint. Some of the scenes in the ride are downright gorgeous. Naturally, I was curious as to how they updated it.


Towards the end of the ride, which was essentially similar to the previous versions, I prepared to sit back and enjoy the amazing star-studded view of the inside of the famous "giant golf ball". And instead, a distracting glow flashed right before me on the "dashboard" of my ride vehicle. They had installed effing touch-screen computers in the ride vehicles. Because people go on rides in Disney World to play on computers. Unbelievable.

2:24 PM  

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