Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why I love the American Museum....

I love the American Museum of Natural History. I was in NYC this past weekend and spent some time on the fourth floor of the AMNH. For those of you who haven’t visited, this floor hosts what may be the most awe-inspiring and beautiful collection of mineralized bone ever displayed. I could spend hours just wandering through the Hall of Vertebrate Origins. If there is anything, anywhere, that better illustrates the shockingly bizarre diversity of vertebrate body plans through time, I haven’t seen it. I really like the fact that the AMNH still believes that bone and stone are preferable to the interactive “discovery center” exhibits that dominate the majority of natural history museums these days. When I go to a museum, I want to see disarticulated ichthyosaurs that speak of rotting flesh on the bottom of a Kansan ocean. Give me wrinkled duck-bill mummies, blocks of dead fish from Eocene swamps, or tangled Coelophysis skeletons from Ghost Ranch. Call me a purist, but I don’t like my fossils soiled by dinomation and artistic reconstruction. When I was an aspiring young paleontologist, I found inspiration in the fossils themselves, and I find it a bit sad that so many museums have moved away from this in favor of the sound and fury of faux dinosaurs. I can't be the only one who feels this way...(?)

As an aside, I also think the AMNH has done a fabulous job of grounding this paleodiversity in a phylogenetic framework. Trees are everywhere. My suspicion is that most museum visitors take away very little from this, but I found it to be wonderful.

7 comments:

Glor said...

It is a shame that legions of childhood dinosaur enthusiasts don't produce more evolutionary biologists. Are animatronic dinosaurs and scientific over-simplification to blame?

Did you visit any Simpson landmarks? I've heard Ward Wheeler occupies his old office.

Luke J. Harmon said...

I'm not sure. As a parent of small children, I'm inclined to stand up for "museums 2.0." I do see your point, Dan, and I enjoy the same things you highlight. But I wonder if interactive exhibits have the potential to reach a broader audience of kids. Of course, there are real and important differences among interactive museums in terms of real scientific content.

Susan Perkins said...

If you think there are trees on the 4th floor, you should see the 5th floor!

This is an interesting dilemma, I think - and AMNH is a bit of two minds, I would say. The 4th floor Vert Paleo hall is absolutely a classic, purist depiction of vertebrate evolution. But then when we have temporary exhibits, including an immensely popular one recently on recent developments in dino biology, there is always an emphasis on having several interactives and more video-type things. We have a new exhibit opening at the end of May on Extreme Mammals - can't wait to see what they come up with for this one.

Dan Rabosky said...

I guess that I am not sure whether the interactive exhibits are the best path. On the one hand, I see the appeal of painted dinosaurs with moving parts. I was at the NHM in London in Nov; they have largely moved away from AMNH-style fossil halls - it was a much different museum than I'd expected. Does this reach a broader audience? Dinosaurs have always been insanely popular, and many of us were inspired to become evolutionary biologists by non-animotronic dinosaurs! Seeing the real fossils had the effect on my 5-year old brain of making me want to dig fanatically in my back yard for stuff. Except that everything in my backyard was carboniferous limestone containing nothing but brachiopods and crinoids.

But I distinctly remember, as a kid, going to my first dinotronic exhibit at the Cincinnati Museum and being underwhelmed. I was disappointed in the fact that there were so few fossils. I started my "career" at the Carnegie Museum, which does have old-school fossil halls (or it did, anyway).

Dan Rabosky said...

Susan - I think the "two minds" of the AMNH is good. It feels pretty balanced, and I think there is something for everyone there. Interestingly, it seemed like maybe the halls of ornithischian and saurischian dinosaurs were more jammed with people than anywhere else in the museum...and those halls are nothing but bones (and an Edmontosaurus mummy, some oviraptor eggs, etc). It would be interesting to see some data on how well this more traditional exhibit is connecting with kids relative to the new stuff. Though I trust Luke's intuition here much more than my own!

Dan Rabosky said...

Rich, no Simpson landmarks. But I did see some fossils collected by Roy Chapman Andrews & his team during the AMNH Central Asia expeditions (1920s), which was almost as good. I read almost all of his books when I was a kid... it is adventure paleontology at its best!

Jake Esselstyn said...

The traditional vs modern approach to museum exhibits probably affect attendance at one another. My daughters seem to prefer the modern, interactive approach because they get to grab hold of things. But yesterday we were walking past the traditional mosasaur fossils on display in Kansas, and I couldn't pull my 5-year old away from them. She hadn't seen the more modern exhibits for a while, and I guess this must have allowed her to find the old dead stuff fascinating.