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A Little Museum Learning

Fossil hall

The week of Thanksgiving I took advantage of the tourist lull to visit the new Fossil Hall at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History. More frequently called the Dinosaur Hall, the space reopened last June following more than three years of construction and was pretty crowded for the first few months after the grand reveal.

The new exhibition (that’s the main hall at the top) is certainly brighter and more open than the previous version. The layout is better. Information for each display is well written and interesting. As you would expect from the Smithsonian, the hall features some very impressive artifacts.

And the whole presentation is rather flat, not interactive, and a little dull.

Museums, especially large, well-funded ones like the Smithsonian, should be more than just a building in which to display old stuff. They are educational institutions, with a primary mission to help their visitors understand history, science, arts, culture – whatever is their particular focus.

However, the Smithsonian seems stuck in the traditional approach to that mission. It’s right there in the mission statement for the Natural History Museum: “Opened in 1910, the museum is dedicated to maintaining and preserving the world’s most extensive collection of natural history specimens and human artifacts.”

Although they have little bits of interactivity spread around the District Mall, most of what you find in the displays is an artifact on a pedestal with some static text and graphics on the side. Maybe they include a short film or some buttons that reveal additional information. What’s missing is a real effort to attract the visitor and encourage them to interact with the information.

It’s not as if the institution’s designers don’t have some great examples of hands-on, engaging museums from around the world to use for inspiration. They could start with a visit to The Exploratorium in San Francisco or the Ontario Science Center in Toronto. Or, on a minimal travel budget, go look at the Spy Museum, The Newseum,1 or even National Geographic, which incorporates 3D imagery into their relatively tiny main gallery.

Don’t get me wrong, the new Fossil hall is well worth a visit if you find yourself in DC. It’s just that after the many years of planning for this redesign, I was expecting something more.

Meanwhile, across the Mall, the Smithsonian is in the first stages of a seven year renovation of the Air and Space Museum. The website for that project says the galleries will be “reimagined for immersive learning”, so I’m hoping to see more interactivity and imagination in the new exhibits. But, based on the missed opportunities in the dinosaur hall and the overall very traditional history of the institution, I’m not expecting to be surprised.

A couple of other thoughts…

The director of the Museum of Natural History says that “[v]isitors will also be called upon to consider the very real challenges our planet faces and their role in shaping a desirable future.” during their visit. However, that challenge is largely missing.

In one small area you can watch a movie about the effects of global warming. But the focus is on how people in The Netherlands and New Orleans are finding creative ways to adjust their lives in the face of rising seas. There is little about human activity being primarily responsible for climate change, and what we should be doing to directly address the problem.

Some people suspect a big reason for that oversight is represented by a sign at the entry to the hall. The full name of the exhibit space is The David H. Koch Hall of Fossils—Deep Time. It’s named for the billionaire who wrote a $35 million check to pay for a large part of the remodel.

The Koch family, of course, made their fortune through investments in the fossil fuel industry. They’ve also spent hundreds of millions over the years buying legislators who would block efforts to regulate and restrict the devastating side effects of their work. And lower their tax bill, of course.

Finally, as I left the Museum, it struck me that DC now has another museum, only a short walk from the new Fossil Hall, that tries to tell the same story of our prehistoric past. Except that the Museum of the Bible wants visitors to believe that all of it happened less than 6000 years ago. I won’t be visiting it very soon.


1. Unfortunately, the Newseum is closing in a couple of weeks. But that’s due to the financial problems (and some bad decisions) of their parent organization, not the quality of the work. The museum itself does a much better job of involving their visitors in American history than the Smithsonian museum with that name.

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1 Comment

  1. Karen Richardson

    I had the opportunity to visit The American Writers Museum in Chicago now long after it opened in 2017. It is small but I was impressed with the way they used analog and digital technologies to create interaction. Some of the pictures show the interactive exhibits: https://americanwritersmuseum.org/visit/exhibits/

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