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Flat Learning

One of the advantages of living in or near a big city is all the cultural and educational opportunities to take advantage of.

In the DC area, of course, we have the many different parts of the Smithsonian Institution.

Last week I got the chance for a semi-private look at the Museum of Natural History’s much-hyped (at least around here) new Ocean Hall at an evening reception.

It’s a very impressive space (but that’s true of the whole building) with some interesting displays. It’s obvious that the museum administrators have put a lot of resources into the room.

However, something was bothering me as I walked around the room. Something was very wrong with the exhibit.

It was flat.globe.jpg

The presentation certainly includes lots of displays and plenty of information, but overall the exhibition showed very little imagination and no interactivity.

The one display that stood out was a globe onto which was projected animation and video explaining ocean currents, shifting continents, and more about how the earth changes.

It was pretty much the only thing in the huge room that moved.

Let’s face it: museums are educational institutions.

Their primary job is to teach their visitors on the various topic on their particular theme, whatever that happens to be.

However, the traditional museum format, placing an object on display accompanied by a plaque describing it, is pretty much the equivalent of the traditional classroom lecture.

Knowledge is passed one way to the visitor (or student) with no opportunity for feedback or questioning.

Creating interactive exhibits is no doubt hard work and certainly costs more than static displays. But you can find excellent examples of this kind of interactive learning in museums all over the world.

Except here in DC, where the Smithsonian, supposedly the worlds largest museum, has a dozen or more impressive buildings in which, for the most part, you can look but not touch.

As with our educational system, our national museum really needs to create learning opportunities that are far more interactive and much less flat.


  1. Brett

    It’s a great point about museums being educational places. I went to the Jim Henson exhibit at the Smithsonian over the summer (http://edulicious.com/?p=133) and was really impressed at the variety of interactive activities you could do there. I came away with my head working overtime about what I saw there. Additionally, my daughter went to the Newseum on Tuesday and I watched her weather report (shot in front of a green screen) on the Internet on Wednesday. She came away with a lot from that place. Any ideas why everything was so “flat”? (logistics or other concerns?)

  2. Tim

    The Jim Henson exhibit was unique and atypical for the Smithsonian since it was largely created by the Henson organization. It was far more involving and interactive than most of what you’ll find in the museum.

    I agree that the Newseum, which opened last April, is very cool. It’s a great example of how to tell a story and make the visitor part of it. So is the Spy Museum, also in DC. Both charge an admission fee ($20 for the former and $18 for the later) but both also make you feel as if you’re getting good value while learning a lot.

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