27 November 2010
Out with the old, in with the new?
Posted by Jessica Ball
This is a phrase that comes up every winter, when people start thinking about resolutions for the New Year. (Or geolutions, as the case may be.) But it popped into my head the other day as I was touring the Buffalo Museum of Science.
Growing up in the DC metro area, I was definitely spoiled when it came to science museums, as anyone would who had the Smithsonian in their backyard. I visited the Natural History Museum so often that I could practically lead a tour through it. I remember what my favorite exhibit – gems and minerals – used to look like, before it was remodeled and made more visitor-friendly. It was a lot of showcases, shelves, maybe a few interactive things, but not as full of activities and eye-catching displays as it is now (and a lot of the other exhibits have now been updated in the same manner). Walking through parts of the Buffalo Museum of Science, however, reminded me a bit of the old exhibits at the Smithsonian: very traditional, wood-and-glass cases, shelves, dioramas, and very little interactivity. (Other parts of the museum were very much like the current Smithsonian, however, with lots to do as well as a wealth of information and attractive displays.)
Obviously a science museum (nowadays) has to make an effort to attract and retain the interest of the widest possible audience, and especially children, who are probably not going to be very interested by a diorama in a glass case. But to what extent do you update a museum which in itself is a historical artifact, like the Smithsonian and the Buffalo museums? Is it worth preserving some of the old, potentially less exciting exhibits to show what museum-going was like in the past, or should it all be scrapped in favor of newer, flashier exhibitions? Parts of the Buffalo (and Smithsonian) museums could be seen as quite old-fashioned, but the rooms and old exhibit setups themselves can have historical value.
I suppose part of it comes down to money: if a museum isn’t attracting enough people to support itself, then the historical has to give way to the modern. Not being trained in museum curation myself, I can’t speak to whether studies have been done on this particular subject, or whether it’s something that has to be addressed on an individual level. Does anyone have experience with this update vs. preserve conundrum – or is it generally not an issue?
I long for the old Museum of Geology at the Colorado School of Mines. It was 10 or so rows of 6ft high wood and glass cases packed to overflowing with various gems and minerals from the world over. Each piece was tagged with a typed (type-writer) note of when, where and what.
The new museum at CSM is great, but I just can’t seem to lose myself like I could in the old museum.
My favorite case was the one containing the Serpentinite group.
If you’re ever in Golden, CO, take time to visit the free museum at CSM.
I was struck by the same thoughts going to the Field Museum in Chicago in May. They have room after room of old-school displays — essentially animal specimens from around the world that were collected (and stuffed) in first half of 20th century. I found it very interesting and valuable to see how it was done many decades ago. But, maybe this is getting to meta? A museum about a museum.
As a former science teacher (with a geology major) who is just finishing a major in Museum Studies, your thoughts about museums are very pertinent. You’re quite right that the modern emphasis on interactivity is largely marketing driven, although there is also a body of studies that shows increased learning, retention and engagement when the experience is participatory. It’s interesting (to me) to consider the two directions that art museums are moving towards: one is interactivity, and the other is creating spaces for quiet contemplation of the art. I think there is a group of people – and we probably all grow up to become scientists – for whom contemplating case after case of minerals, butterflies (I remember the awesome oval gallery of butterflies in the NY Natural History Museum) or mammal specimens is akin to the same immersive experience that some people find in art. Modern museum thought is well aware of the need to appeal to different learning modalities, but they can’t forget the bottom line. You might find this post interesting: http://museumtwo.blogspot.com/2010/11/month-at-museum-part-2-marketing-not.html#