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.
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, the story goes, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.