Getting Real at the Natural-History Museum, Part 2

Brian Taylor

August 01, 2010

Last month I observed that natural-history museums—particularly the smaller, regional ones that are often affiliated with universities—are revitalizing themselves through an emphasis on the real: displaying actual artifacts rather than replicas, simulations, and technology.

My primary evidence for that claim is conversations with an increasing number of administrators, curators, and professors in the sciences and cultural studies, along with visits to museums that are in the process of questioning and revising the trends of the past several generations. One of those trends is the public's strong identification of natural-history museums with children on school field trips, who were described by one curator as "conscripts."

That's one of the challenges faced by Barbara Ceiga as vice president for public operations at the Academy of Natural Sciences, in Philadelphia: "The $64,000 question is, How do we attract the adults as well as the children, as well as adults with children?"

There is no easy answer, of course. "Some museums," Ceiga observed to me, "create a dizzying array of offerings for specific audiences. There can be story hours for kids and happy hours for grown-ups. Some places do this very well; others end up creating a dim sum platter of programs and exhibits that fragment audiences and dilute the intended message. Other museums put all their eggs in one basket and try to cultivate the folks that really like eggs."

Essentially, museums need to understand their own strengths. What is unique about your collections, institutional culture, staff, and relationship to other institutions and the local community? Ask those questions first, and forget about imitating the American Museum of Natural History, in New York, or the Field Museum, in Chicago. Show your patrons—even the ones who have been to the best museums in the world—something that they have never seen before. It doesn't have to be grandiose. It does have to be authentic.

Many small museums, in an effort to capitalize on the success of larger institutions and fads like the Jurassic Park moment of the early 90s, have made themselves into second-rate imitations. Their displays have a boring sameness, like standardized hotel rooms, rather than the complex accumulation of furnishings one finds in a home.

In a quest to stand out, small museums purchase replicas and displays from the same suppliers, which they lack the resources to update, while larger museums have moved on to new things. Ironically, the small-museum displays end up displacing real specimens. After a couple of decades, hardly anyone remembers anything about the museum's distinctive identity.

"I have a theory, albeit an untested one," said Ceiga, "that one of the ways to lure adults back isn't the latest high-tech gizmo, but rather the old-fashioned, nostalgic stuff that only visitors over a certain age can appreciate. At the academy, we have everything we need to create these kinds of exhibits. It's just waiting in storage."

I've repeatedly found that the most interesting things in natural-history museums are generally not on display but stored in the backrooms, where the public does not normally go. The University of Copenhagen's Zoological Museum has many beautiful and ingenious displays, including a large gallery with a flowing, undulating cornucopia of specimens illustrating the development of life from single-celled organisms to human beings. But what excited me the most was a tour of the museum's storage rooms with members of the staff.

Mogens Andersen, the assistant curator, showed me what seemed like a mile of jars of alcohol containing specimens of reptiles, amphibians, and fish. Like a magician producing a rabbit from his hat, our guide broke the seal of a large glass jar and I got to see, up close, the fangs of the Gaboon viper. It had been waiting there for a century, a biological emissary from another time. Many of the specimens in wet storage were already extinct.

Copenhagen's unseen collections include historic artifacts going back to Ole Worm's original cabinet of curiosities from the 17th century, including the deer horn embedded in wood shown in the frontispiece of his Museum Wormianum (1655; in this image, the horn can be seen at the center of the top shelf directly in front of the viewer). As it happens, Worm showed that the myth of the unicorn came, in part, from the circulation of narwhal tusks, and, in the museum's storage rooms you'll find a large rack of them, like pool cues, assembled over many centuries. The curators even have the complete skeleton of a rare double-tusked narwhal, made all the more fascinating by a label from the 19th century.

Perhaps the museum's most amazing "backroom" is actually an underground parking garage appropriated to store the enormous skeletons of whales, accumulated over centuries from the shores of Denmark and Greenland. I got to walk inside the head of a blue whale and to run my hand over the jaws of the sperm whale: a rare treat for an English professor who regularly teaches Moby-Dick.

The storage rooms of the Academy of Natural Sciences, the oldest museum of its kind in the New World, contain similar surprises, if on a smaller scale.

Edward Daeschler, associate curator of paleontology, showed me the Thomas Jefferson Fossil Collection. Housed in a special cabinet, it includes the bones of a mastodon recovered by William Clark from Big Bone Lick, as well as the giant claw of Megalonyx. The bones were evidence used by Jefferson to refute Buffon's theories about degeneracy: that American animals, presumably including its human inhabitants, were naturally inferior to European specimens. The varnished bones have the patina of Chippendale furniture, and some have period graffiti on them, like landmarks on the Oregon Trail. The Jefferson collection was exhibited recently, but, as the paleontological equivalent of the Declaration of Independence, it surely deserves a permanent space in the public galleries.

Similarly, Hadrosaurus foulkii, one of the first dinosaur fossils found in North America (in marl pits near Haddonfield, N.J.), recently was shown in a temporary exhibit celebrating the 150th anniversary of its discovery, but, for now its historic remains are secure in another locked cabinet. Near the end of the tour, Daeschler showed me the discovery that has made him famous: Tiktaalik roseae, an almost 400-million-year-old transitional form between fish and amphibians—comparable to Archaeopteryx—that his team found on Ellesmere Island, inside the Arctic Circle. Replicas of Hadrosaurus and Tiktaalik can be found in the public galleries.

The academy is also notable for the Ewell Sale Stewart Library, which contains a world-class collection of books on natural history going back to the era when natural philosophers still speculated about the existence of dragons. One librarian observed, "If it's rare, it's probably here." There are also many unique items in the stacks. Among other things, the archivist Clare Flemming showed me the commonplace book of Joshua Spencer (1695-1718), a young Philadelphian and one of America's first naturalists, which was filled with his drawings and ruminations on nature. It reminded me of the notebooks of Leonardo, and it was one of many items of comparable interest in the library, some of which can be seen in an online exhibition.

What is it about such experiences in the backrooms of museums that make them so memorable and different from the public galleries?

In each of those cases, technology was not involved, nor was programming or specific educational outcomes. It was the sheer mass of accumulated materials, evidence of the passage of time, the awareness that I was seeing something unique, that I was being given a rare privilege by professionals in the midst of their daily activities, and that I could pass along some of what I had learned to other people.

In their book Life Stages of the Museum Visitor: Building Engagement Over a Lifetime (American Association of Museums, 2009), Susie Wilkening and James Chung emphasize two themes in particular, across the demographic divides: authenticity in museum exhibits, and giving visitors the feeling that the museum really cares about their experience and understanding of the exhibits.

Wilkening and Chung's thinking also suggests that my desire to revisit the site of my childhood memories with my own children, expressed in my previous columns, is actually rather common. Natural-history museums tend to have the most impact on children around the age of 7, as I was, and it is usually based on an encounter with a particularly impressive object. That's exactly what happened to me. I was imprinted by the academy's Corythosaurus like a newly hatched duckling, and I've been looking for it ever since and hoping to share that experience with my children.

None of this is to argue that museums should be entirely static. Change is necessary, reflecting developments in science. But the loss of some continuity destroys the intergenerational element of museumgoing and damages museums' long-term relationships with the communities in which they reside.

Only recently museums such as the Academy of Natural Sciences have begun to rediscover old-fashioned, cabinet-style displays. The main lobby has been restored to its former grandeur, and the fake Giganotosaurus has been removed and replaced by Elasmosaurus, a long-necked marine reptile for which the museum holds the type specimen. It is suspended from the ceiling, like the crocodile in Worm's cabinet of curiosities.

Authentic exhibits are not hyperbolic; they don't try to compete with the entertainment industry. Exhibits of real artifacts generate questions. They can be challenging and mysterious; understanding comes only with time, repeated visits, and interactions with the museum staff members and among visitors, particularly parents and children.

"When we talk about trying to create the natural-history museum of our memories, of course, we're not talking about rewriting those thousand-word labels that only a curator would understand," said Ceiga. "We'd like to recreate the 'aura' of being in a place that is truly special, and inspiring, and welcoming, and maybe even a little bit scary."

Plans for the academy include the creation of a Biodiversity Hall, which will showcase specimens that have been in storage for more than a century.

Some of the museum's plans can be achieved by 2012, its 200th anniversary, but much of it—part of a large-scale, multimillion-dollar renovation—may take at least two decades of planning and fund raising to accomplish. The proposals that I've seen not only bring back the best elements of the museum that I remember from my childhood, but also substantially improve on them. I hope to eventually see them with my grandchildren.

It seems clear that natural-history museums are not in decline, as I once concluded, prematurely. On the contrary, many of them are beginning a process of thoughtful restoration and innovation that should preserve them as vital institutions through the next century, assuming they can find the support they deserve.

For me, the generosity of so many museum professionals this year has been as rewarding and exciting as the childhood visits that prompted this series.

Thomas H. Benton is the pen name of William Pannapacker, an associate professor of English at Hope College, in Holland, Mich. He writes about academic culture.