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?