In Defense of New Museums

As a museum* educator, I work with two kinds of experts: researchers who create knowledge and education specialists who disseminate knowledge. Both groups have ostensibly the same mission, which is to effectively communicate credible information about the world around us. Generally, both sides collaborate effectively, due in no small part to a shared enthusiasm for their work. But there is one issue (that has been raging for decades) in which researchers and educators frequently seem to be shouting past each other, complaining about what one another are doing wrong but not making much progress in reconciling their priorities. This issue is, of course, “new museum” exhibit aesthetics, the trend toward replacing traditional academically-oriented displays of specimens with dynamic, interactive leaning experiences that use specimens alongside interactive activities and multimedia to communicate specific educational messages to a broad audience.

*When I say museum, I mean natural history or science museum. Art museums are a completely different beast, and one I won’t pretend to understand.

From the perspective of many researchers and certain sets of museum-goers, these newer exhibits are frivolous lowest-common-denominator attractions better suited to amusement parks than serious institutions. For example, in a recent Tetrapod Zoology review of the London Natural History Museum’s Extinction exhibit, Darren Naish criticizes computer-based interactive exhibits because they “take up space that really should be spent on something far more worthwhile” and “give visitors the excuse to do the same old crap they do every other day of their lives (look at screens, play videogames, use touchscreens) when they really could be treated to a more unique experience.” Likewise, an all-encompassing rant about new museums can be found in this (admittedly 6 year old) post by Matt Wedel, which is well worth a read (seriously, read it now and then come back to this).

The Hunterian Museum as it appeared in the 1600s: all  of the specimens, not much else.

The Hunterian Museum as it appeared in the 1800s: ALL OF THE SPECIMENS.

But in direct contrast to Wedel’s insistence that the intrinsic value of real specimens is all museum-goers want or need, there are editorials like this one by James Durston, which I will charitably describe as provocative. Durston tells us that museums that only display artifacts for their own sake are “classrooms made of cold granite, the only sense of life emerging from the tourists.” He argues that most objects on display in museums don’t matter as much to visitors as museum workers think they do, and pleads for more context and more reason to care.

So what’s the deal? Are modern museums too focused on providing context for their collections, or not focused enough? Let me begin by explaining why modern museum exhibits look the way they do. A century ago, or even 50 years ago, exhibits were arranged and labels were written almost exclusively by expert curators. These exhibits were, by and large, created with an audience of “interested people” in mind, meaning either other experts or clientele with enough leisure time to learn the jargon presented to them. The majority of visitors who came through the door were not directly catered to, because exhibits were considered an afterthought to the real work of the museum: research and collections management.

In the past 30 years, however, the museum field has decided that it can do better. Museums shifted from inwardly focused, primarily academic institutions into focal points for lifelong learning that operate in service to a wide community of visitors. Go to the website of your favorite museum and check out their mission statement (it should be pretty easy to find). I just did, and the mission of the National Museum of Natural History is to “increase knowledge and inspire learning about nature and culture, through outstanding research, collections, exhibitions, and education, in support of a sustainable future.” Note that the museum doesn’t seek to increase knowledge and inspire learning just for a core audience of studious, well-read people, but for everyone. That means the museum needs to offer content that is interesting to all sorts of people, whether they learn best by reading and absorbing information, by physically doing something, by making choices for themselves or by discussing an issue with others. Preserving  and studying collections is no less important than in museums of yore, but these activities are understood to be in service of providing knowledge to the widest possible audience.

This shift in focus has inspired museum exhibits with more explicit educational goals, as well as attempts to create learning experiences that reach visitors other than those already keyed in to the customary language of academia. Drawing heavily on Gardner’s multiple intelligences, modern exhibits are intended to cater to diverse audiences that learn in a variety of different ways. In particular, hands-on mini experiments and computer-based games have become staples in science exhibits in order to reach visitors who learn better by doing than by observing. These interactive elements (we just call them interactives in the biz) are not appealing to everyone, but museums serve a broad community and have no business being exclusionary in the services they provide.

Beyond any moral or educational imperative, however, modern museums must be accessible because they are nonprofit institutions that rely heavily on public funds. They are funded based on the promise that they will provide educational resources for their communities, and that means serving more than a small subset of the population. Furthermore, ever-tightening budgets mean that museums need to be strictly managed. Educators have no choice but to establish clear standards of success for their exhibits, and to develop means to track attendance and audience engagement. Just to keep our jobs and keep museum doors open, we need to be able to clearly articulate who we are serving, how we are benefiting them and how we know.

The new Ocean Hall at NMNH: a $90 million new museum extravaganza.

The new Ocean Hall at NMNH: a $50 million new museum extravaganza.

If it was not clear, I absolutely agree with the goals behind new museum design. As  was argued in the American Alliance of Museums’ 1984 “Museums for a New Century” commission report, “if collections are the heart of museums, what we have come to call education – the commitment to presenting objects and ideas an an informative and stimulating way – is the spirit.” General audiences can certainly experience awe and wonder when presented with neat stuff, but museums can and should provide more than that. A hundred birds from around the world look impressive on a shelf, but they are much more interesting when the viewer understands the evolutionary processes and biogeography that produced such diversity. A little bit of context goes a long way to making such an exhibit is accessible and valuable to the widest possible audience.

In practice, however, I will concede that many attempts at broadening the appeal of natural history exhibits are pretty bad. Some modern museum exhibits use technology in terrible ways, and many attempts to increase interactivity are bafflingly pointless or even counterproductive. For instance, a dinosaur exhibit I visited earlier this year includes a green-screen stage where visitors can place themselves in a scene with dinosaurs running around. The result is not only painfully dated, but it has no educational purpose and may well encourage people to think that humans and dinosaurs once co-existed. Likewise, an exhibit on human evolution features a glorified photo booth that makes visitors’ faces look like other hominids. This non-educational attraction is consistently the most popular element of the gallery, distracting visitors from the fantastic displays and specimens all around it. More generally, an increasing number of exhibits are incorporating profoundly pointless touch-screen computers that let visitors browse photos of the specimens on display right in front of them. Just because an exhibit element is hands-on doesn’t mean it is actually helping visitors interact with exhibit content.

One reason lousy interactives keep being designed is that our evaluation procedures* are not always great at separating good exhibits from appealing ones. A good interactive provides informative content in an engaging way, while an appealing one is engaging but lacking in content. Many visitors may speak highly of just-appealing interactives, but that doesn’t mean these belong in museums. The aforementioned budget woes are also a factor here: interactives that draw crowds for any reason are a big help when scrounging for ways to fund research and preservation. There are tough calls to make when deciding between what visitors most want to see and what is actually worthy of an educational institution. There are no easy answers, especially when museums are consistently hurting for funding.

*Do note, however, that actually testing whether exhibits are meeting their educational goals has finally become commonplace…for far too long museum workers just assumed anything they made was good enough.

Nevertheless, when an interactive display works, when visitors’ eyes light up with understanding by working out a scientific problem for themselves, the process is absolutely worthwhile. Earlier this year, I raved about the low-tech brilliance of an activity in the Academy of Natural Sciences that let visitors physically act out the difference in upright and sprawling gaits. And the NMNH Human Origins exhibit features a fantastic computer game where visitors play the part of a future world leader and experience firsthand the challenges and consequences of overpopulation, food shortage and invasive species. Exhibit interactives, both technology-based and otherwise, are difficult to pull off, and many museums have failed at the task. But we owe it to our visitors to try.


Filed under collections, education, exhibits, history of science, museums, opinion, science communication

10 responses to “In Defense of New Museums

  1. Ben

    Looking back at this post, I’m realizing that I neglected to clarify that museum curators still play a leading role in creating new exhibits. Curators usually choose the educational goals and many have proven to be brilliant broad-audience communicators. Experts are museums’ most important resource, and I maintain that there is no more engaging source of information than an actual scientist.

  2. Ben, excellent post. I think museums need to find a good balance. I’ve seen some modern museums that are starting to take the interactivity to the point where they are no longer displaying any actual specimens. Instead the displays they do present aren’t much different from the types of things that kids can simply see at home on the Internet. One of the appeals of a museum today is being able to see the real artifact with your eyes.

  3. Ben

    Thanks for the comment!

    The problem you mention about finding a good ratio of contextual signs to specimens is a tough one (I struggle with it often). In modern science exhibits, we want to tell a an over-arching story or communicate a concept, rather than just display a bunch of decontextualized specimens. But once we’ve filled the space with big, lavish text panels or interactive activities about natural selection or plate tectonics or biodiversity or what-have-you, there is much less room for the specimens. And like you said, the specimens are the the part of the exhibit that visitors must come to a museum to see.

  4. Mike Huggins

    (Just came across your post) – That’s a very well thought out posting about this. One of the best “old school” museums I have seen in recent time is the Oxford Natural History Museum (as well as the adjacent Pitt Rivers Museum) in Oxford, UK. I am probably biased toward specimen displays, which are the main attraction here, but I found the overall organization and context to be really good. Maybe it helps to have a basic understanding of the history of the science of geology to appreciate this, but I thought everything dispayed was fascinating; and the surroundings are truly magnificent. I hope you have (or have had) a chance to check it out some time; it’s well worth it (My photos from there: )

  5. Michael Sisley

    Just be glad you haven’t been too Te Papa the “national” New Zealand, then they don’t have enough dino fossils too fill a shoebox! Heck the guy who designed it all now regrets it.
    Granted they have a nice model of a Hast Eagle attacking a Giant Moa.

    I’m all for short films and computer screens but overloading it is just claustrophobic… then so is fitting every space with specimens.

  6. Michael Sisley

    I see 6 years ago I let a comment here about Te Papa, now it’s worse, they entwine religion and mythology into the natural/earth science departments, non-Abrahamic religion, but still religion.

    I honestly encourage you too look into creationist museums that defile secular science, as it’s a little mainstream here.

    • Would that religion be Maori’s?

      I admit that even though I don’t believe in their religion and should probably stay neutral on the matter, Maori’s traitional religion has suffered from being supressed and belittled by white euopean imperialists, so cut them some slack, and maori culture and mythology is inheritly linked to nature heavily.

      Besides, I’m a sucker for mixing world cultures and nature together in same space, at least in the sense of “Nature shapes and inspires culture” or “This is why thry believe in it”

      • Michael Sisley

        Yeah, it is sadly and for the very reasons you mentioned. Although the history is more complex, many Maori friends of mine say it’s more complex, have no issue saying many of the conflicts were as much the fault of tribal elements as crooked businessmen
        The Te Reo teachers at my high school, were some of the few who treated me with respect and it was returned.
        I cut plenty of slake, but don’t when it comes too explaining the forces behind nature to the supernatural, gods and spiritual powers, that is not how the universe works. Almost all cultures have links with nature.

        Aesthetically that is very well said and I agree with you and from a cultural and anthropological makes a great deal of sense.
        But religion and science are separate entities. One based on observation and reason, the other on myth and faith.

  7. Ben

    I feel like I should weigh in, but honestly this is a topic where my perspective has been changed a lot over the last decade, and I don’t know what my opinion is right now. I’ll let the two of you carry on. 🙂

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