November 11, 2009

What is old is new again

Despite working in Boston for ten years, I had never been to the Harvard Museum of Natural History. I visited two weeks ago and what a treat it is, like a trip back to an earlier world of museums.  The museum doesn't ramble like the the American Museum of Natural History in New York, but despite its much smaller size it packs in almost as much experience.

Contemporary museum exhibit practice is to give artifacts lots of space.  This happens for lots of reasons–a desire to focus attention on the object, a design aesthetic that values negative space, and, sometimes, a paucity of worthwhile objects. This is not the case at Harvard's museum.  The place is stuffed with great stuff, as you can see in the photo of the mammal room where the poor giraffe must share airspace with the right whale.

Many of the labels are hand typed and often include just enough description to give the object a little context.  Unlike contemporary exhibits, where the narrative is clear and the messages direct, the simple taxonomic organization of most of the exhibits at Harvard lets visitors discover as they go. This is the best kind of constructivist learning; there is a constant sense of discovery.  I especially liked the on duck in a case full of extinct birds where, at the very end of the label, in small type, it said "this is perhaps one of the museum's greatest treasures."

It is difficult (and perhaps unwise) to glorify the "cabinet of curiosities" approach to museology as it must have gone out of fashion a hundred years ago, but here is an instance where the old ways may well inspire visitors better than the new.  Of course, few other museums have the richness and diversity of the Harvard collections and it is the quality of the specimens as well as their volume that creates the sense of wonder and discovery.

The recently renovated Natural History Museum in Paris (if 1994 is still recent) creates a similar effect with the centerpiece Grande Galerie de l'Evolution featuring dozens of mammals parading through the three story atrium. This contemporary exhibit inspires the same sense of wonder as the Harvard Museum. It is beautiful, but without at least a little bit of context, it seems empty, even meaningless.  Little typed labels would distract from the aesthetic, but they might enhance the sense of wonder.

The Harvard Museum of Natural History is a reminder that despite our desire that people come away from a museum visit having learned something, perhaps the one thing they learn is that they want to know more.

This was certainly the outcome for me. I picked up a copy of The Rarest of the Rare: the Stories Behind the Treasures of the Harvard Museum of Natural History, which is almost as wonderful as the museum itself. Interestingly, the Abraham Lincoln Museum in Springfield, Illinois has the same effect on people, despite having a paucity of artifacts.  The museum store keeps a pallet of Lincoln biographies in the center of the store. I bought one of those, too.

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