Getting Real at Natural-History Museums

Brian Taylor

July 01, 2010

Four years ago, after an absence of more than 20 years, I visited the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia—perhaps the most familiar haunt of my childhood—with a child of my own, who, at that time, was 7 years old.

I was expecting to find the museum mostly unchanged. In particular, I wanted to see Dinosaur Hall again the way I remembered it: a cavernous, shadowy space, surrounded by cases containing artifacts going back to the era of Joseph Leidy and Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. And, in the center of the room, there would stand an enormous dinosaur skeleton that was almost entirely real.

Instead, much of the museum of my memory was gone. It had been replaced by a collection of cast skeletons in dramatic poses that were apparently selected to capitalize on the popularity of Jurassic Park, a 1993 film based on the 1990 blockbuster novel of the same title by Michael Crichton. Toward the back of the gallery, children could walk into a small room with a green screen and see themselves projected into a static video image of some predatory dinosaurs, a technological thrill that was as out of date as a movie that almost no child remembers.

Apart from Dinosaur Hall, there were still some places in the museum that were unchanged—most notably, the African, Asian, and North American dioramas that had been installed in the 1930s and 40s. But, over all, my long-anticipated return to the museum was such a disappointment that I felt compelled to write about it in somewhat sentimental terms (The Chronicle, October 13, 2006).

To me, the Academy of Natural Sciences seemed to have underutilized its most distinctive qualities—its vast collection of real specimens, its distinguished staff members, its world-class library, and its unparalleled history as the oldest institution of its kind in the New World—in favor of generic displays that one could expect to find at any regional museum. Even Chicago's O'Hare Airport has a fake Brachiosaurus that's more impressive—as fakes go—than anything in the academy's renovated exhibition space. Thousands of people walk by the airport's Brachiosaurus every day without really seeing it: They've seen it, or something just like it, plenty of times before. Replica dinosaur skeletons have become just part of the scenery of mass spectacle in the age of mechanical reproduction.

After a few minutes in Dinosaur Hall, my daughter asked, with a note of unaccustomed cynicism, "Is any of this real? Are there any actual dinosaur bones in this museum?"

I couldn't answer her question right away, and I wasn't sure I wanted to. I knew the Gigantosaurus was a cast, as was the Tyrannosaurus rex, and so, it seemed, after looking more carefully, was every skeleton in the room with one exception (the remounted remains of Corythosaurus, the dinosaur of my youth). At that point, my daughter began to lose interest: "At least we have real fossils at home." And so we do: none of them are mounted dinosaurs, obviously, but we have several drawers full of smaller specimens and plenty of books with pictures of real fossils.

Last month, for reasons I'll explain shortly, I returned to Philadelphia and brought an old friend to the museum, which he had not seen since a school trip in the 70s. Unprompted, he asked me the same question in Dinosaur Hall, "Are any of these real?"

Back in the era when the academy was founded, there was a famous institution in New York City called the American Museum. It was owned by P.T. Barnum, the "Prince of Humbugs," and it featured all kinds of fakes—such as the Feejee Mermaid—because, Barnum claimed, people liked to be fooled.

Natural-history museums like the academy emerged to provide exhibits that were reliably authentic and that could instruct the public and build the credibility of science in a period, like our own, in which pseudoscience had a strong hold on the general imagination. Of course, the replicas in natural-history museums, unlike Barnum's humbugs, present authentic science, but, over the last few generations, museums have become more willing to use substitutes in place of real artifacts. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

But how would you feel if you went to the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History to see the Hope Diamond and learned that it was blue plastic, and the real one was locked away somewhere in a vault? Or if you went to the National Archives to see the Declaration of Independence, only to learn that it was a facsimile, just like the one you could buy in the gift shop for $10? What if you waited in line to see the "Mona Lisa," only to read in the fine print on the museum label: This is a replica; the original painting is stored elsewhere for purposes of conservation and security?

You could say that a fake skeleton educates as well as a real one, and it surely looks as good for publicity purposes. But one of the fundamental attractions of natural-history museums—and museums in general—is the aura of authenticity and the power they have to inspire the imagination, particularly for children, in an era that is increasingly characterized by the virtual and the simulated. That was not true when fossil replicas were first introduced—the changes were made with the best of intentions—but it is surely the case now.

Visitors to "DinoLand U.S.A.," part of Disney World's Animal Kingdom, are not expecting an encounter with the real, quite the opposite. The conspicuously simulated demands no reverence. You go there to climb on some cargo nets with your kids, scream at the audio-animatronic T. rex, eat ice-cream bars shaped like cartoon mouse heads, buy a DVD of The Land Before Time XI ("Invasion of the Tinysauruses"), have a good time, learn almost nothing, and not, for one moment, have anything like an aesthetic, spiritual, or philosophical experience.

It had taken many generations for museums to cultivate a kind of cultural capital that shaped visitors' expectations in advance, similar to the experience of making a pilgrimage to a famous cathedral, full of relics. But in the last few decades, many natural-history museums have tried to emulate the entertainment industry, focusing almost exclusively on children and tourists—attempting to generate spectacles that do not cultivate quiet reflection and cannot sustain repeated encounters. The result has been a dilution of the museum's formerly well-established identity: one that had cross-generational appeal and a deep connection to institutional histories and the local community.

More and more, the large-scale renovations of the 80s and 90s seem to have been shortsighted. The children came, in large numbers, for a while, back in the 90s, but there has been a reduction in the visitors who come back regularly throughout their lives and who become lifelong museum supporters.

I've made these criticisms before with the expectation that I was making no friends in the world of natural history, particularly at the Philadelphia academy. I assumed it was doing the best it could with limited resources and economic and demographic forces beyond its control, among other challenges.

I am a lifelong lover of museums, but my observations were those of an outsider, and I figured that exempted me from some of the constraints and subtleties that affect the observations of museum professionals. I could go on, in a curmudgeonly way, examining my pet peeves about museums ("Revisiting Natural Science," The Chronicle, December 12, 2008) and my recommendations for change ("Preserving the Future of Natural-History Museums," The Chronicle, October 30, 2009) without the slightest worry that anyone would take them seriously.

And then, last December, I received an invitation from Hanna Strager, head of exhibitions at the Natural History Museums of Denmark, to come to a symposium in Copenhagen to give a plenary talk that might provoke some discussion about the museums' plans for a national natural-history museum that would showcase their truly awesome collections, much of which were in storage. They knew that I was a nonexpert, but, much to my surprise, the things that I had been complaining about and some of my suggestions had been on the minds of at least a few curators in Europe, and, as I soon learned, in the United States. I wasn't exactly saying anything new, but it made a difference to hear the criticisms come from outside the community of curators—like visiting the Louvre with a caveman.

Shortly after I returned from Denmark, I received an e-mail message from Barbara Ceiga, vice president for public operations at the Philadelphia academy. I was expecting some harsh criticism, but, instead, it was a gracious and overly generous letter of affirmation. Ceiga had arrived at the academy in 2006, after some years at Field Museum in Chicago, where she was among those responsible for the monumental installation of "Sue," possibly the greatest real T. rex skeleton in the world. My columns, it seems, had provided external evidence in support of changes that most agreed were necessary though not yet fully conceptualized or financed.

And that's how I ended up on the doorstep of the academy last month: for a tour of the museum, including the back rooms, and, just as exciting, introductions to the curators, librarians, and administrators. The conversations I had that day—in addition to my experiences in Copenhagen—have convinced me that my perception of natural-history museums as being in decline needs to be revised in light of changes that are, hopefully, coming soon at the academy and many other museums.

Some of the specifics of that transformation—and how institutions such as Denmark's National Museum and the Academy of Natural Sciences are adopting those changes—will be the subject of another column.

But, for now, it seems clear that the changes will, most of all, turn away from the simulations of the last couple decades and emphasize the captivating power of the real.

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.