While running errands this morning a thought came to me: a natural history exhibit in a museum is a lot like a stage performance*. When watching a play, the viewer knows she is seeing a performance, but it willing to suspend disbelief so long as the fantasy is well-created. To varying degrees, most modern natural history exhibits engage in the same theatrical relationship with their audiences. Exhibits re-create reality within the museum environment, and visitors accept the performance as truth.
*Actually, I thought “movie” first, but theater is a better analogy because the actors are real and present.
Habitat dioramas featuring taxidermied animals are the most obvious example. Dioramas like the lovely east African savannah scene at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History pictured above are exactingly detailed microcosms modeled after actual environments. The backdrops are typically based on photographs of real locations. The teams that collected the animal skins would also take samples of leaves and even molds of tree bark, in order to exhibit the ecosystem in toto. And of course, the mannequins on which the animal skins are mounted were sculpted by artists with a strong foundation in anatomical science. And yet, the diorama is clearly not real. Visitors know that they are not looking at an actual game reserve that has been somehow frozen in time. Many viewers might mistake the animals as being “stuffed” (they are in fact sculptures with tanned skins fitted onto them), but they still recognize some element of artifice. The animals clearly didn’t end up in the glass-enclosed box on their own accord. And yet, visitors accept the illusion, because they keep coming to museums to learn about the world around us.
The same holds true for most other displays. These dioramas at the New York State Museum are not literally historic Iroquois villages shrunk down to 1/20 scale. The Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops pictured below are not really fighting, nor did they die in a death struggle. Even the Apple Store-eque NMNH Hall of Mammals recreates natural behaviors against a sterile backdrop. Unless the museum is displaying completely decontextualized specimens lying prone on a shelf, there is some degree of theatricality in the exhibit.
The theater analogy begins to go astray, however, when we consider that the performances in natural history exhibits are informed by reality. For the most part, exhibit designers do not place specimens in completely fictitious scenarios; the theatrical element serves to illustrate something real. Perhaps exhibits are more akin to a movie “based on a true story.” But like those movies, there is an undeniable selectivity in how museum workers tell their stories. Why are the zebra in the CMNH diorama chilling amicably with wildebeest? That is certainly something that real zebra have been known to do, but zebra have also been known to drown lions, trample foals and chew on the cars of obnoxious tourists. For that matter, why does this diorama not include any sign of human pastoralists, who have lived in the same environment as these animals for thousands of years?
Exhibits have human authorship, just like any other document. The manner in which any specimen or object is displayed is inherently subjective, and there will always be emphasis and omissions, intentional or otherwise, that change the way the exhibit is interpreted. Before you misjudge me, dear reader, this is not an argument that there is no objective reality. I wouldn’t even say that it is impossible to understand and perceive objective reality. Scientists do it all the time. But when it comes time to communicate that information, we are creating something new, and choosing what we incorporate and how we express it. Getting back to my original point, we’re putting on a representational show. And that means that what we’re creating only works as long as our audience is willing to participate in the performance.