Visitor well-being and NHM’s dinosaur exhibit

Dinosaurs at the London Natural History Museum, ca. 1970. Image courtesy of the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

The photo to the left shows the dinosaur exhibition at the London Natural History Museum (NHM) around 1970. It was, by all appearances, a classic dinosaur exhibit, with several large skeletons (Diplodocus, Triceratops, Tyrannosaurus, and Iguanodon, just out of view) arranged in a fairly open gallery. It was replaced in the mid-1990s by a very different dinosaur exhibit, which remains on display today with some minor modifications. The 1990s exhibit (I hesitate to call it “new” since it is nearly 30 years old) differs from the midcentury version in nearly every way. It’s vibrant, colorful, and sometimes cheesy, with cartoons and animatronic dinosaurs intermixed with the traditional skeletons and fossil specimens.

I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition between these two exhibits not only because they are quite different, but because they are different in a way that defies conventional wisdom about how museums have changed in the last half-century.

Before I continue, let me emphasize that I’ve never been to NHM (or to the UK, for that matter). My knowledge of these exhibits comes from photos and anecdotes, as well as this excellent walkthrough video (dinosaur hall starts at 52:25). These are no substitute for exploring an exhibit in person, so my critiques here may be completely unwarranted—please comment if so! In fact, my criticism is about a particular era of exhibit development, not any particular group of people. I’ll add that NHM’s newer paleontology efforts, including the traveling Dippy exhibit, are very impressive.

A representative view of the NHM dinosaur gallery today.

One often hears that natural history museums of the past were stodgy, but reliably educational and authentic. Traditional museum exhibits stuck close to their cabinet of curiosity roots, showcasing the breadth of their collections without excessive pomp. But sometime in the late 20th century, museums became overly focused on “edutainment.” Collections-based exhibits were sidelined in favor of theme park-inspired, attention-grabbing gimmicks. The NHM dinosaur exhibit would easily fit into this narrative: the grand hall of skeletons wasn’t flashy enough for modern audiences, so it was replaced by an exhibit full of cheeky pop culture references and roaring animatronics.

I don’t much like this narrative for several reasons, not least of all because attention-grabbing gimmicks have been a part of museums’ DNA since their inception. In the case of the NHM dinosaur exhibits, I suspect the conventional narrative is completely backward: the creators of the 1990s exhibit had educational goals front-of-mind, but the midcentury exhibit was probably more appealing to the museum’s audience.

The animatronic Tyrannosaurus, widely regarded the exhibit’s highlight. Photo by Øyvind Holmstad, CC SA.

Judging by online reviews and the comments I received when I previewed the photos in this post on Twitter, a plurality of actual, flesh-and-blood visitors find the current NHM dinosaur exhibit disappointing. It’s dark and cramped—so much so that the single path through the exhibit essentially becomes a queue on crowded days. The real and replicated specimens on display are underwhelming compared to peer institutions. And the dinosaur skeletons—all casts of medium-sized taxa—are mounted on overhead scaffolding and are hard to see (there used to be a walkway for viewing these at eye level, but it’s been closed for years).

What I find striking looking at photos and videos is how the exhibit’s design doesn’t emphasize the fossils or even the replications, but the graphic panels containing text and images. There are a LOT of panels in this exhibit, and they are the best-lit, most colorful, and most eye-catching part of the experience. I don’t know what the exhibit team was thinking 30 years ago, but I suspect that the way this exhibit turned out is the inevitable result of using learning goals as a primary measure of success.

Brightly-colored panels overshadow the fossils. Photo by Paul Hammond.

Museum leaders continuously struggle for funding and support, and have tried all sorts of metrics to quantify success and prove their institutions’ worth. Attendance, donations, and community reach all have their uses, but don’t capture the qualitative value of a place where people go to learn. Measuring learning is tricky (see standardized tests), but many museums have tried. Typically, this is done by developing an exhibit project around a set of defined learning goals—visitors should leave the exhibit understanding A, B, and C—and using exit surveys to test whether visitors learned what they were supposed to.

The problem with using learning goals to measure success is twofold. For one thing, you may well end up with a product like the NHM dinosaur exhibit. If visitors gaining and retaining specific concepts is your primary concern, it makes sense to focus on presenting ideas via words and graphics. Words are a more direct way to relay information than specimens, so the fossils end up in the dark or even out of visitors’ primary line of sight. And to make absolutely sure visitors are getting the intended message, they’re put on a narrow path that controls what they see and in what order. Unfortunately, reading text and viewing images is something accomplished far more easily (and comfortably) at home than in an exhibit.

The second problem is that learning goals don’t align well with the reasons visitors actually go to museums. James Burns directed me to longtime museum commentator John Falk’s newest book, The Value of Museums, which masterfully articulates this problem. “Virtually all efforts,” Falk argues, “have begun from an ‘insider’ definition of the importance and value of museums and the experiences they create.” From the inside, it makes sense that our institutions are repositories of information, and the purpose of exhibits and other outreach efforts is to share that information with the world. Learning goals follow as a sensible way to measure success. But visitors, by and large, are after something else, which Falk calls “well-being.” They seek out museums as places to activate wonder and excitement, to facilitate understanding about their world, and to provide opportunities to gather and share experiences with friends and family. Learning new information contributes to the well-being provided by museums, but it’s part of a larger set of experiences.

This half-mount Baryonyx cast was a new creation for the 1990s exhibit. Photo by Ripton Scott, CC SA.

With visitor well-being in mind, the choices made in creating the NHM dinosaur exhibit seem misguided. The emphasis is on reading panels, which is generally a solitary activity. Rather than encouraging groups to gather around displays that excite them, the layout necessitates a single-file trudge. With the exception of the animatronic T. rex, few of the objects call attention to themselves (and the coolest and most unique elements, like the Baryonyx and Scolosaurus, are in cramped, dark spaces).

Take a moment to scroll back up to the photo of the dinosaur hall in 1970. There is undoubtably less information in that exhibit, and learning outcomes may well be all over the place. But those four giant skeletons in that open, sun-lit room likely provided a much more memorable experience for the generation of visitors that saw them. And I might go as far as to say that the old exhibit was surely more successful, in the long run, at generating enthusiasm and lasting interest in life on Earth.

References

Falk, J. 2021. The Value of Museums: Enhancing Social Well-Being. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers.

Lindsay, W., Larkin, N., and Smith, N. 1996. Displaying Dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum, London. Curator 39: 4: 262-279.

Rader, K.A. and Cain, V.E.M. 2014. Life on Display: Revolutionizing US Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century. University of Chicago Press.

5 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

5 responses to “Visitor well-being and NHM’s dinosaur exhibit

  1. It’s utterly inane of the NHM to think people are going to begrudgingly accept that their attention is to panels, not so much the fossils themselves. They came for the dinosaur skeletons damn it!

    Honestly, from what I can tell (I haven’t been to England let alone London and NHM), the simplest fixes would be to get rid of the railing to allow for free-flowing, nonlinear visitor movement at their own pace, and bring in some skylights so its not as dark, if not open the windows. At most, knock down a few walls and bring the dinos down there to the floor, like literally every other museum in existence and time.

    By any rate, I do hear that museum is planning on making a new facility (can’t find the source) and i hear it will have a new dinosaur gallery. Let’s juat hope it will be way better then the NHM’s one.

  2. Michael Sisley

    Between about 7 and 10 years ago I spent two multi week excursions in London and the UK visiting my sister doing her OE. I spent much of the time at the NHM and was certainly not impressed by their dinosaur room, as you said, dark, cramped and full of flashy gimmicks. I was no impressed one bit, though I thoroughly loved the marine reptile hall!
    Took the Eurostar too Paris and their Hall of Paleontology was amazing as one of your “cabinets of curiosity”, sure that’s not the way too go as well in this day and age, but it has a better aesthetic. The New Walk Museum in Leicester was amazing too!

    But this is tame compared too New Zealand’s Te Papa, it basically implies/teaches creationism! Not Christian, and I’d let you put 1&2 together as I don’t wish too sound PC or even disrespectful of a mythology I like and enjoy more then the Bible. That and other actions made them loose most if not all of their scientific staff.

  3. jack

    i was just commenting somewhere else on this museum and that all the funding goes to other areas,and the dinosaur hall gets nothing. This dinosaur hall hasn’t changed in over 30yrs,the panels are worthless and no new fossil additions have been added ,and the only addition i know of was put in another gallery….its so out of date and yet is supposed to be 1 of the worlds best dinosaur exhibits…..its a known fact they are no plans to update anytime soon…and this is supposed to be the leading dinosaur museum in europe…

  4. I sadly have to agree with everything in here. The best museum in England for dinosaurs is the Oxford University Museum of Natural History — it has fewer exhibits than the NHM, but you can actually see them.

    You are probably already aware of this classic post, but here is Matt Wedel in uncompromising mood on trends in museum design, from 2007: https://drvector.blogspot.com/2007/09/i-am-not-muse-d.html

  5. Ben

    Yep, Matt’s post is a classic that I *mostly* agree with (to defend my profession, both the AMNH biodiversity hall and the NHM dinosaur hall are no longer examples of “modern” exhibit design). There are good “interactive entertainment” displays to be found, but those AMNH computer terminals are not entertaining and are barely interactive.

Leave a Reply to jack Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s