I don’t think muses inspired computer kiosks…

14 09 2007

Me, Edmontosaurus Mummy
The author in front of Charles H. Sternberg’s Edmontosaurus (“Trachodon”) mummy at the AMNH. Sternberg was often hard-pressed for cash, so he packed this specimen up before one of H.F. Osborn’s man-in-the-field could take a look at it. Having purchased quality specimens from Sternberg before and knowing that the specimen could very well go to another museum, Osborn decided to pay Sternberg the sum he asked for, and it proved to be a very wise decision.

“Do you want to go and visit your dinosaurs?” “Are you kidding?” comes my incredulous reply, and my wife and I climb the alternating staircases up to the famed fourth floor of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. I can scarcely remember the details of my first visits to the museum when I stood little higher than Ornitholestes, taking a cab from Penn Station to the museum with my parents, a poster of a horse skeleton next to a human skeleton in the elevator making quite an impression on me (I recognized the human form, but I had no idea what the other one was). The rest of the museum was interesting, surely, but my young brain was only interested in one thing; dinosaurs. Even to this day, no visit is complete without at least a passing visit among the fossils (or, at least, what look like fossils in some cases), and anyone who has taken a trip to the museum with me knows I am loathe to leave without meandering through the 4th floor pathways.

My first visits took place during a time when the great fossil halls were divided by time period, the skeletal contents of the halls of Saurischian and Ornithischian dinosaurs jumbled together in the dark, musty halls of Jurassic and Cretaceous dinosaurs. Some non-dinosaurian celebrities appeared through the halls as well, a far wall of the Jurassic hall displaying the ever-impressive Dimetrodon from the Permian of Texas. What I remember most clearly, however, was the imposing form of “Brontosaurus” looming out of the shadows. Long before the renovations of the mid-1990s, the fossil halls were shadowy places, the subdued lighting casting a more “primordial” mood on the hall. I was in awe of that composite skeleton, and even though I knew it was a herbivore, the short head with large blunt teeth made me think twice about whether I would call the dinosaur “harmless” in life. It didn’t matter that the skeleton I was standing beneath did not hold up huge masses of flesh for over 100 million years; I could have sworn that I heard the behemoth breathing in that dark, dusty hall. The trackway that R.T. Bird collected from Glen Rose Texas, positioned just under the feet of the giant, further gave the impression that it had just walked out for its daily viewing, perhaps waddling back into one of the storage rooms where it went to pieces at night. If I had believed in ghosts, I would have sworn that one of the restless spirits had lumbered all the way over from the Howe Quarry assemblage in Wyoming, taking possession of the skeleton but never getting a bite to eat as the paleontologists hadn’t had the presence of mind to bring some “fossil fuel” in the form of petrified leaves and ferns for poor Bronty to eat.

Brontosaurus
An archival image of “Brontosaurus,” posing in the older fossil halls before the first renovation during the era of R.T. Bird and Barnum Brown. This was the skeleton that so awed me as a child, although the setting in which I first saw it was a bit darker.

I’m sure that I saw the impressive Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in the Cretaceous hall, and I faintly remember seeing some of Charles R. Knight’s fantastic murals that I had only seen miniaturized in so many children’s books (you really must see them blown up to their true size, or at least in high resolution; so much of the vibrance is lost in many books that have reprinted the paintings), but it was the Jurassic Hall that made the biggest impression on me. The life-size Blue Whale downstairs filled me with a sense of astonishment as well, and it was hard to believe that anything could possibly have been that big or that such creatures still swam in the oceans. Unfortunately, I did not get to visit the museum again until about 2002, mostly because of a general unease about New York City that my parents possessed and subsequently instilled in me as well. The dinosaurs were still there when I returned, even in greater number than before, but things were not how I remembered them.

Pterosaur
A crested pterosaur hangs over the distal portion of the Hall of Vertebrate Origins at the AMNH.

The fourth floor of the AMNH, containing its fabulous vertebrate fossil collections, was entirely renovated between 1994 and 1996. In addition to “Brontosaurus” getting a name change, a new head, and an extended tail, the halls were reorganized according to cladistics and opened up to the sunlight, great windows throwing plenty of light on the stark white walls. Indeed, rather than organizing the fossils by time period, as had been the tradition previously (a tradition of grouping by convergent structures being an even older European tradition, as in Cuvier’s museum), the curators and designers decided to group the fossils according to their evolutionary relationships, creating something of a path for visitors to walk through. In addition to this, various computer kiosks featuring video explanations of many of the fossils were installed, adding a new level of “interactivity” to the exhibitions. Despite all this reshuffling of old bones mounted on armatures, however, I can’t say that I especially like the newer layout.

Anyone who regularly visits this blog knows how much I enjoy my visits to the AMNH, but my familiarity with the institution has also made me a bit critical of it as well. While I do have my gripes about the Hall of Biodiversity exhibit and the sorely out-of-date Hall of North American Mammals (it is now so old that I don’t know whether the laugh or cry when I read the labels of many of the animals presented in the dioramas and reflect at the current state of their populations in the wild), the fossil halls do the most to inspire and irk me simultaneously, and much of what I have to relate deals with the great osteological collections.

Note: If you want to follow along, the floor plan is available online.

While I can understand the reasoning behind organizing the exhibits in terms of derived characters, the approach quickly goes to pieces and seems to be above the heads of many of the visitors. The first section of the fourth floor, the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, does an acceptable job at branching off along a main path into different groups of vertebrates, acting something like a progression through time as well (at least until the end where turtles, phytosaurus, crocodilians, mosasaurs, pterosaurs, plesiosaurs, etc. are all grouped closely together). The primary problem I have with this sort of set up (which is the same problem I usually have with cladistic trees) is that everything ends abruptly in a cul-de-sac, giving the viewer no indication of whether the group continued, went extinct, or who the direct ancestors were. Location in terms of both time and place are ignored, and while this may be able to be understood by the more scientifically-informed visitors, I don’t think it presents the best understanding of evolution to those generally unfamiliar with the topic.

Deinonychus
A head-on view of the reproduction of Deinonychus in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs.

Things start to get shakier once we leave the Vertebrate Origins hall. Although I don’t usually follow this route, the path directs the visitor towards the Saurischian Dinosaurs, the theropods Tyrannosaurus and Allosaurus dominating this hall. Apatosaurus is sequestered (even coralled) up against the wall, still frozen in its tracks, but visitors can not get anywhere as close to it as I could in earlier years. This hall leads the visitor to the Ornithischian dinosaurs, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, and Anatotitan giving their imposing presence to the hall. These dinosaurs didn’t seem to get the same refurbishment as the Saurischians; poor Triceratops is still holding its front limbs out at 90 degree angles in a “super sprawl” pose, and the Anatotitan pair still have tails that would have had to be broken in order to make them droop in the manner that they do.

The Ornithischian dinosaurs give way to “Primitive Mammals,” although Dimetrodon, Edaphosaurus, Lycaenops, and other Permian forms are the main representatives in the first half of the hall, the second half being a mish-mash of various unrelated genera and xenarthrans like giant ground sloths and glyptodonts. The Milstein Hall of Advanced Mammals follows, starting off with early primates like Notharctos to the right, saber-toothed cats and other unrelated convergent forms to the left, the pathway proceeding through titanotheres, sirenians, and other groups before culminating in the impressive mammoth and mastodon skeletons at the end (be sure to look carefully around the feet of the mammoth; there is quite a surprising specimen of a baby mammoth’s skin in a glass case).

Barnum Brown T rex
“Mr. Bones”, Barnum Brown, posing with his “favorite child” in the old Cretaceous Dinosaur hall at the AMNH.

The chief problem of the plan for the 4th floor is that the the layout of the museum does not allow for a neat phylogentic layout, barring the proper grouping of the vertebrates. The four halls create a square around the central area, and the visitors has to walk through various groups before coming to the next-of-kin in terms of evolution, the halls still giving the visitor the impression of moving through time (especially since most, if not all, the mammals exhibited lived after the demise of the dinosaurs). I think it would have been much better to stick to the old system of time periods but to somehow code or tag each group (maybe by putting them in corresponding sections of each other) so that visitors could follow who was related to who through time. Regardless of how it is done, however, the set up will be tricky as the fourth floor currently occupies all the space it is ever going to have, and being that it is already so densely packed with skeletons it is hard to conceive how future renovations might bring in new specimens while keeping the “classics.”

The feel of the exhibits is also different from how I remembered them. Originally there was a more relaxed tone, visitors being allowed to get very close to the specimens, giving you the feeling that you were really under the feet of dinosaurs. I can see how this can be a problem for security/safety/janitorial reasons (lots of garbage and debris often ends up under the mounts), but now visitors are kept at arms length from specimens by glass or other barriers. It no longer feels like the fossils are part of a common heritage, something that everyone has a right to observe and learn from. Instead, it feels like we’re being allowed a look at the fossils, specimens that we have no claim to. This correlates with a major shift in paleontology that has taken place in the last 50-75 years; fossil studies have increasingly come into the fold of “good” science, and it is doubtful if the bone sharps of old could have contributed what they did to science if they were born today. Where amateur collectors and those who possessed an interest and passion for fossils once built up the fossil halls and the science of paleontology, non-professional workers are often scorned or looked down upon today, and there are often battles between what is publicly owned, what is privately owned, and what should be done with fossils that are not in the hands of museums or universities. Regardless of where you stand on this issue, the AMNH halls reflect a step away from public access, I feel, making the bones some more cold and distant, objects to be studied but not really appreciated. The lighting probably affects this more than anything else from my perspective; the lack of contrast and shadow removes much of the mood, and it is harder to imagine the animals as they would have been in life when harsh light is thrown upon them. I much prefer the set up of the Royal Tyrell Museum near Alberta, Canada, the dinosaurs there taking on a life of their own in the shadows (click here and view the see two virtual tours to see what I mean).

So what of the computer kiosks? The fourth floor has a few kiosks here and there with a guide-ball and computer screen, users being able to click on various creatures or nodes on a cladogram to get more information. This is not a bad idea in and of itself, allowing those who are interested to learn something more, but it doesn’t seem to be a big hit. Children often think the screens should allow them to play some sort of computer game, and I have seen far more rapid and irritated clicking than attentiveness whenever a child has used one of the computers. The computers are also relatively slow, taking a good amount of patience, and when they’re working it is sometimes hard to hear what the person on the video screen is saying. I’ve learned a thing or two from the video kiosks, but overall they were not very exciting or interesting, and I don’t think they appeal the younger audiences at all (and if you’re talking about dinosaurs and can’t interest kids, the adults probably won’t be any more intrigued by a discussion of why theropods have so many holes in their skulls).

I had mentioned games just a moment ago, and from what I have seen from my last visit to the Philadelphia Zoo, educational games seem to work better to interest visitors to an extent. The game I checked out myself, which seemed to be fairly popular, was one at the Big Cat Falls exhibit, the user playing a Jaguar in the southwest of the United States. The goal was to direct the Jaguar step by step to migrating across an area while eating food but not getting shot by ranchers, each step taking a moment to explain why the big cats are rare in the U.S. Not everyone will stop and play, and it’s not the ultimate answer (I am somewhat ill-at-ease with the concept of children coming to a natural history institution to play video games), but it is still better than many other displays that I’ve seen.

Part of the problem is that “interactivity” has typically translated to “computers” for many museum designers, while I think the best answers as to how to get guests involved are far more low-tech. I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine who is working with a museum on an exhibition, and she had proposed setting up a battery of microscopes in order to allow children to look at various specimens first hand. This was shot down as being too risky/expensive because someone would have to be there supervising the children. Another idea of having a visible chick incubator so that children could see the animals being born was rejected as well, and giving children little cups with some seed so they could grow a plant at home was also turned down. As my friend and I agreed, these were the sort of things that drew us into science when we were young, being direct observers to something amazing that cannot be reproduced by computers.

Even beyond the aspect of computers, I am a bit saddened to see so many artifacts and fossils on display that are replicas rather than the genuine articles. Early exhibitors did a lot of damage to wonderful specimens by drilling holes in them in order to fit them onto metal armatures, but I feel like my experience has been cheapened when I look at a skeleton and I know that it’s only a replica. Great care should be given to the bones and they belong to the generations after me as well (it would do us little good if putting something on display helped cause its destruction), but I know I’m not alone in this sentiment. In fact, this is likely part of the reason why “Lucy” is touring the U.S.; almost every major museum has a cast or replica of the famous australopithecene, but the actual skeleton that came out of the ground is something of a scientific sacred relic, and I know that when Lucy is in New York I’ll “pay my respects.”

Bones don’t even have to be put permanently on display in order to make an impression; the Page Museum, which handles the La Brea Tar Pit fossils, has a lab with a panoramic window that lets visitors see what the researchers are doing. This is a very simple thing, but I think that every major museum should have a similar facility that lets visitors look in on the work being done, and if workers can take some time out to answer questions or give a little talk, all the better. (The Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia has a smaller, but far more cozy open fossil workbench, too). Open labs allow the public an look into what paleontologists really do, and I really feel that it is a shame that more museums do not scientifically open themselves up to the public in a similar way.

Everything is not as harmonious behind the scenes as one might be led to surmise, as well. Often curators bang heads with designers, mini-battles being fought over what to include and what to leave out, exhibits being subject to an editing process just like films or books. Author Stephen Asma, in the book Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads, relates such an experience through a conversation with Dr. Eric Gyllenhaal of Chicago’s Field Museum as he tried to design the Life Over Time exhibit;

“…I have to say I’m not really impressed with having the scientists in on weekly meetings, because an inevitable part of any exhibit is that you have to trim the content down to what people will actually look at in the time that they have available to go through the entire museum. But this trimming is a very painful process for the scientists, and they tend to obstruct the process; and I say this even though I myself have a Ph.D. in geology. There are limits to what you can accomplish within a museum exhibit if you’re thinking about what you can accomplish with a normal visitor. The scientists wants to have way too much information included; it’s overkill.”

Eric started laughing and impersonating the curators. “‘You can’t leave that out, you can’t leave this out,’ or ‘This is too important an idea, you’ll be confusing people by leaving it out’-that kind of thing is endless. The scientists who consulted with us on ‘Life over Time’ for example, browbeat us with their buzzword, content. ‘You’re leaving out the content,’ they would shriek. And, of course, the content tends to be what people fill textbooks with, and textbooks these days are a thousand pages long. We like to pretend that students read these information-overload textbooks and get something out of it, but, you know, it doesn’t really happen that way. Even in college! But even though many of these curator-scientists have taught college, they haven’t caught on to this fact.”

Not everything is the fault of museum curators or designers, however. Those who visit natural history museums are responsible for their own education (or lack thereof) too, and you will only get out of a museum what you put into it in terms of attentiveness and a thirst for knowledge. Much like zoos, however, natural history museums are primarily a visual feast, a place to go and look more than anything else. David Quammen describes such a role succinctly in his essay “The White Tigers of Cincinnati”;

What is a zoo? Most essentially, it’s an arena of the visual. It’s a place to see wonders. The act of seeing is the primary zoo experience – whereas learning, thinking, and emoting are dimensions of encounter that come secondarily, if at all. We go there to look; in passing, we read a few labels and placards, of which the information content is low.

If you sit long enough to “people watch” at a museum (or a zoo), Quammen’s thesis seems all too apt. People go to see dinosaurs and move along without reading much because they already “know” what dinosaurs are; they’ve heard about them in school, seen them “come to life” in movies, bought models and toys, etc. The visit to the museum is a trip to see the animal life size, as close as we’re likely to get, and unless there’s a deeper desire for more knowledge “looking” is as far as it often goes. For now I’ll bypass the idea that dinosaurs are somehow childish and do not merit more comprehensive understanding by “proper” adults, but natural museums should appeal to the inquisitive child in all of us if they are to be effective at all.

Such desire for understanding is not always encouraged or rewarded, however, especially in a hustle-and-bustle world of deadlines and field trips. If you watch any group of schoolchildren visit the fourth floor of the museum, you’ll usually see one or two who are inordinately fond of the skeletons on display. They are not allowed to linger to indulge their curiosity, however, as they are told to keep up with the class, bumping into their classmates because they’re continually looking over their shoulders as they leave the museum. Indeed, it seems like curiosity is only allowed as long as it does not interfere with itineraries and the projected lesson plan. This is sad, especially because as the children get older and can move off on their own through the museum (typically in high school) they will probably show less interest in the things that so enthralled them when they were younger.

Museum shops can do some damage as well, and I am often surprised at the inaccurate models and toys being sold to children by various establishments. I have a Tyrannosaurus bobble-head on my desk that appears to be plantigrade, with a tail that for some reason is drooping onto the ground, and a head held up like that of a startled chicken. This is not the image of the carnivorous dinosaur depicted in the fossil hall, so why is it fit to pass off to children? Other souvenirs feature dinosaurs from all different time periods lumped together as if Jurassic Park had just let out for the weekend, and while I might seem like a crank in complaining about this, I wonder what sort of message it sends about 1) the role of scientific accuracy in museums, and 2) marketing in museums. Almost any item even bearing the image of a dinosaur is bound to bought by someone, and it often seems like the more dinosaurs there are on a product the better. Given that the most famous ones live in entirely different time periods, the presence of the dino-celebrities is more important than reflecting the ecology of one time period or another.

I really do worry about the present state of natural history museums. When I walk the 4th floor of the AMNH, I usually have a general idea of who dug up what and when, being able to spot what has changed since the displays were put up and what is still accurate. Most people don’t have the same background as I do, though, and I can only imagine what they’re getting out of the displays. We all bring out our understanding of nature to natural history museums, our prior knowledge directly influencing our experience. Last February, for instance, I stood in front of an ungulate bone bed section, a jumbled mass of mammal bones preserved under glass. The woman next to me said to her companion “Oh, I’ve heard about this. This is evidence for The Flood, right?” before moving off. She didn’t read the placard, nor did she study the assemblage; all she did was recognize a potential example of something she heard or read at one point or another and moved on. Maybe it’s because I’m a pessimist, but I feel that many visitors to natural history museums do the same thing, merely taking in the familiar but paying little attention to detail.

How can we save our natural history museums? Times are pretty tough right now, staff layoffs being common and some museums, like the aforementioned Academy of Natural Sciences, which recently sold off parts of its mineral collections in order to keep the doors open. The famous and nearly-complete Tyrannosaurus “Sue” was purchased by the Field Museum in Chicago for $7.6 million dollars after it went up for auction, but not without help from the California State University system, Walt Disney Parks and Resorts, McDonald’s, Ronald McDonald House Charities, and a few donors, part of the deal being a McDonald’s being placed in the museum (as well as the fossil prep lab being called the “McDonald’s Fossil Preparation Lab”), a cast being made for Walt Disney World’s Animal Kingdom Park, and two more casts going on a traveling tour put on by McDonald’s. Even beyond such deals, corporate logos are starting to sneak into natural history institutions, the big cat exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo being named the “Bank of America’s Big Cat Falls” with a big Bank of America logo at the entrance, whereas previously corporations were relegated to a name on a list of donors made available to those inquisitive enough to ask for the list. As some have predicted, I have the feeling the corporate sponsorship (even ownership) of natural history museums will become a bigger problem in the coming years, and museums may go from research institutions to huge curiosity cabinets, being more about displays and making money than learning. Such an event occurred just recently in my own state, in fact, the New Jersey Aquarium in Camden changing over into private hands and becoming a for-profit institution under the new moniker of Adventure Aquarium, education being secondary to sensationalism.

I sincerely hope that we do not lose our natural history museums. Speaking for myself, I know I probably would not be as interested in evolution and paleontology if it was not for early visits to the AMNH, and I know there have been many much more intelligent and prominent scientists like Stephen Jay Gould who can trace back their own feelings of wonder to the 4th floor fossil halls. Small, home-grown institutions like the Museum of Osteology and the Black Hills Museum of Natural History offer some hope, continuing a tradition put forth by many paleontologists from the turn of the 20th century, but such institutions are usually small and difficult to reach. Even if the larger natural history museums never fully decline and the great dinosaur skeletons remain, we should work hard to promote responsible, accurate, and interesting representations of the history of life on earth, as it is possible for the history of an institution to overtake its intellectual mission of enlightenment, towering masses of bones collecting dust and being petrified in the position of their last revision from ages before.

[The preceding rant was inspired by this rant]

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13 responses

14 09 2007
Daniel

I don’t really have anything constructive to say, but: Thanks. That was a good read. Makes me want to look around for what museums are in the area; I normally just check ‘em out on vacations.

Enjoy the blog.

14 09 2007
laelaps

Thank you for the kind words and comments Daniel. I absolutely love natural history museums (as if that weren’t already apparent….), and I would recommend having a look around at what’s in your area. Some might require a bit of travel, but the better institutions are well worth it.

15 09 2007
Chris Harrison

Ok Brian. Just how many of you are there?

Are you sure you even spend time going to your classes? You’re nuts man.
Course, I won’t complain.. just sayin’.. . you definitely blog up a storm.
Awesome post.

17 09 2007
Oldfart

I don’t know, man. Unless expenses of the type encountered by natural museums have increased faster than inflation, the explanation of the demise of these museums must be tied into the fact that parents would rather sit at home in front of the boob tube watching TV or playing Everquest or WoW than take their kids somewhere to see something educational. Consequently, gate receipts are probably way down.

24 04 2008
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