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May 16, 2012



A well thought-out and lucid argument and one, I suspect, will have many who quietly agree and have felt this same way. I go the the Natural History museum in New York 3 or 4 times a year and I do so mainly, but exclusively, for reference as an artist and I've noticed over many years now that more and more the place is overrun by children. I mean OVERRUN! It is becoming increasingly difficult to sit/stand anywhere in that museum without hearing children yell, scream, run around, step on you, completely block your field of view, etc. even if you are not someone like myself trying to sketch something as opposed to just viewing. Of course, there will be the token arguements by others who see my view (and I guess yours as well) as curmudgenly, anti-child, selfish or any other narrow minded excuse, but they are missing the point. It's about making the experience of going to places like this less enjoyable, less fulfilling and more of a hassle than it should be (and not a trivial way either). Unfortunately, unlike the author of this article, I am not able to go to a smaller, more specialised museum to enjoy/use natural history, even in and around New York City, simply because there aren't any within a reasonable distance.
Excellent article and one I hope will resonate with certain people to address a particular issue.

Don Sayers

Unfortunately the National History Museum in London has already been spoilt. The dinosaur exhibition is now in a dark room with spotlights on the dinosaurs, and you have to follow a set path rather than meander as your whimsy takes you. Should you happen to lose your child you will never find them again, because the room is in darkness. The Victorian architecture of the room is also lost in the gloom. What is wrong with putting the exhibits in a well lit room and letting people look at them as they want?

If you are in the UK and you want to see a perfect child friendly, adult friendly, Natural History Museum, Go to Oxford: Glorious Victorian architecture, well lit with all the Dinosaurs you could ever want. There's enough "awe and wonder" and hands on stuff, to keep a kid entranced, with intelligent in depth descriptions of the exhibits for the adults. All for free, what more could you want?


Mandy Holloway

A natural history museum is nearly always an unnatural history museum, in the sense that the exhibits cannot be living organisms in their natural environment. Originally set up to display the variety and order of "natural creations" they are stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to creating a sense of awe about the bits of the world man didn't build. Movies and tv, not to mention foreign holidays and even zoos have a much more immediate impact. In a bid to rival these media, the natural history museums turned worthy and hitched themselves to the national curruculum or whatever fashions in education prevailed. Something was gained and a lot was lost. Removing a stuffed animal and replacing it with a graphics panel and a video of the critter in question tells a story - but it's not REAL, and dead or alive, children of all ages ask constantly, "Is it real?" Knowing that not only is this a "real" (dead) animal but also the actual one that Darwin caught and bottled, is maybe more interesting to the adult audience, and I think it's time the big people got a look in too. We underestimate children and think they need to have everything linked to the hooks they already have in their little heads, but we deny them the chance to be brought into contact with things they can't understand, mysterious things that send them home with questions. My parents took me to the Horniman museum when I was very small and though I didn't immediately grasp the significance, the old-style displays of skulls and mummified individuals from distant lands really got my attention. You don't have to get the message the exhibition curator has mapped out for you. People can and should be free to interpret an object in their own way as well as following it up to see what is known about it.
Oh, dammit ! You got me started !

Dan Gordon

Museums are not meant to be quirky 19th century relics. They are living institutions and change over time.
In the UK where museums are free, it's because they are publicly funded, so it isn't surprising that science education is a key part of a natural history museum's remit - the council, and the DCMS (department for Culture Media and Sport) want something tangible for their money. That means lots of children and young people, as well as some exhibits that are made to engage younger visitors.
Oxford University Museum, which I agree is beautiful, has been one of the core museums trying to devise and deliver science workshops for older school students through the Real World Science project, in an effort to encourage more children to study science at post-16 level.
Museum design can be a bit hit and miss, and I agree that original features are sometimes overlooked in today's redevelopment projects. However, if you talk to museum people they'll tell you tht they are quite happy to have taxidermy, and spirit specimens and human remains in the museum - generally videos and graphics are there to enhance the story, not usurp the object. although I'd concede that there are objects that are hard to display, like plants, where graphics are used more heavily.
But I suppose I feel that museums cannot simply be giant artworks or spooky junkshops. They have to serve different functions in today's world, and that means thay are inevitably going to change.

Charles Kruger

When I want a natural history museum, I go to David Wilson's brilliant, "Museum of Jurassic Technology" in Culver City, California. It is the perfect corrective to the disastrous situation this article describes and a performance art masterpiece to boot.

More traditional, but also a treat in every way, is the magnificent Conservatory of Flowers in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.

Ben - Proud Museum Worker

I wonder how one can claim to be a lover of natural history and yet not grasp the very simple concept that things must evolve or else perish. What good is a lovely 19th century style museum if no one visits it. If the exhibits that were once fascinating and surreal are now known and mundane, if the setup that was once fresh and livid is now stale and boring. Fuzzy headed academics with little experience of the real world often drone on about how great things were in the good old days and bemoan change of any type, but change must occur for institutions like museums to continue to be the centres of engagement, education and wonder that they always have been.

To suggest that a museum is worse for adding interactive displays (and why are interactive displays so bad by the way?) and removing some animal in a formaldehyde jar is to overlook 98% of the museum. When museums renovate, they usually keep most of the same artefacts and keep them on display. All that changes is that they update it, evolve, to make it more relevant. And by relevant I don't just mean flashier, I mean more accurate and actually, you know, scientifically true.

I shudder to think what the Natural History Museum would be like if all the original displays and signs were still there. The amount of information and knowledge gained on subjects such as hominid evolution over the past hundred plus years is staggering. The NHM in London has a human evolution exhibit that's about 15 years old and is already hideously outdated due to modern discoveries. The idea that nothing changes about the exhibits in museums is only found in those with no knowledge of how museums work. I guarantee that every artefact in the Natural History Museum in New York has had new findings and research since the museum opened. To suggest then that the museum stay exactly how it was is ludicrous. If that happened all the museums in the world would be full of outdated and in many cases just plain wrong information. Is that the intellectualism you claim to love?

So yes, remodel and redesign the museums. They need it. Nothing stays the same forever and the things that do almost always die off. And if you are going to remodel, why not use the latest technology? Why not have planetariums and interactive programs and audio-visual wonder? You wouldn't open a brand new business and have typewriters instead of computers or slate tablets instead of paper. Why do a certain type of snob have such a fear of modern technology invading museums?

Just because museums look more polished, brighter, better designed and have that pesky evil interactive stuff is to overlook the fact that they are still the same institutions with the same power and clout and intellectual appeal. If you visit a renovated museum and only see the cosmetic; the way they've changed the displays or used modern technology, then I really have to wonder if you ever saw the real museum at all.

And don't even get me started on the education is only for kids comment...

Merry Morris

Ben - You ask, What good is a lovely 19th century style museum if no one visits it? I say, What good is a modern style museum if millions of people visit it, but no one who visits learns anything above the elementary school level?

You say change must occur for institutions like museums to continue to be the centers of engagement, education and wonder that they always have been. I say changes that are made for that reason lack the necessary imagination, creativity, and uniqueness to maintain museums as centers of engagement, education and wonder.

You ask why having interactive displays in museums is so bad. I say because museums are supposed to create an atmosphere that will inspire an interest in times and places that had no interactive displays.

You say, nothing stays the same forever and things that do almost always die off. I say, Crocodilians have stayed the same for millions of years, without dying off. Roaches have done the same, at least regarding outward appearance.

You ask again, If you are going to remodel, why not use the latest technology? Why not have planetariums and interactive programs and audio-visual wonders? I say again, because the museums we are talking about are supposed to create an atmosphere that represents a time when the latest technology did not exist.

You say, You wouldn't open a brand new business and have typewriters instead of computers or slate tablets instead of paper. I say, it is fine to use modern technology for the business aspect of running a museum. For accounting. For record-keeping. For tracking statistics. But the museum itself should not need modern technology to make what it presents fascinating. Unless it is attempting to fascinate the wrong audience ... And maybe that is the whole problem.

Dan Gordon

Merry - who are 'the wrong audience'?

Ben - Prouder Museum Worker

Children apparently. Seems it's bad for children and families to enjoy museums.


Museums do educate above the elementary level. A lot. Working in a Natural History museum in the education department I know this for a fact. The displays are updated but the language used is still at the same intellectual level, just more accessible for a wider audience. It's just some people only see the cosmetic and this blinds them to seeing what's actually there while they moan about what's not. Museums aren't just for academics, they should be open to everyone and accessible by everyone. A certain-thinking branch of society seems to think that to make something more accessible to those who are poorer or less educated than themselves or who have children means to dumb it down. Unfortunately this branch of society needs to get out and mingle more with the rest of society.

In my role, I've educated in the museum everyone from age 4 - 84 at all academic levels. Post graduates, University professors, Doctors, biologists, royalty, never have any of them voiced a single complaint about the museum being dumbed down since its renovation, instead choosing to spend hours looking around and learning as much as they can.

Surely keeping things the same is the greatest symptom of a lack of imagination and creativity. It takes neither of them to refuse to change something.

On interactive displays, we're talking about natural History Museums. If your argument ( "to create an atmosphere that represents a time when the latest technology did not exist") about not having interactive displays is because it doesn't create the atmosphere of the times, surely the same argument should be made for doors, walls, metal fixtures, indoor lighting and the clothes people are wearing. Granted an outdoor freeform nudist natural history museum would be interesting, but since the dinosaurs and ameloids didn't have the advancement of writing, there'd be little more to do than just walk around and look. At the exhibits or the bodies of the other visitors I leave that up to you.

Yes crocodilians, cockroaches and hundreds of other species have stayed the same and survived. But more than 99% of species that have lived on this planet have gone extinct because the conditions around them changed and they didn't.

And again, who is the 'wrong audience' that you feel shouldn't be fascinated by museums?


An interesting discussion you're all providing. My initial reaction to this on facebook was as follows, which I think touches upon the "wrong audience" question:

" Additionally I would say that the kind of child that is going to grow up to be the kind of adult that appreciates the history of history museums, already likes the dusty weirdness and formaldehyde jars of conservative museums, even if its more an aesthetic bond initially. Computer fun screens and the rest of that garbage are an attempt to court a kind of person that just isn't, ankle-biter to adult, ever going to be that into you museum."

I stand by this. I was taking classes at the California Academy of Science as a child and the museum at that time was smart enough to offer early education on all sorts of topics, without watering the place down to a funhouse atmosphere. A kind of reverence was instilled in me and at least some of my fellow young classmates for the adult disciplines that were the engine behind the museum. A computer screen has no place front of house in a museum, or do you gentlemen think that young people are not getting enough time on computers? But then I also hate bars with blaring television sets.

P.S. to Ben, I'm the son of a working class couple, so please don't try to muddy things with accusations of class elitism. My dear Academy of Science now has a playpen, proudly advertised on the website as a place to "tire your toddler out." I can think of many better uses for that space and I don't see how one can argue that such rooms don't equal an infantilization of the museum. Evolution? I don't think so.

Dan Gordon

If we take that view though, we are failing the majority of the taxpayers who pay for the museum. I can only speak from the UK perspective, but a public museum in the UK is providing a public service.

Many people are drawn to the museum for the reasons you describe - a sense of wonder or an interest that they have come to learn more about. That is certainly why I first came to love Natural History musuems. These people are already engaged and receptive to the exhibitions, events and interpretation.

However, like it or not, a great many people come to the museum because they are looking after their grandchildren, or they are on holiday, or in town on a Saturday afternoon with their friend and looking for something to do. It seems to me that if we follow your argument we should make no effort to try to engage with them and tell them that there might be things in the museum that are worth coming back to look at, that might interest them and not just their children, that they can speak to an expert about it, they can find the answers to questions they've always had at the back of their minds.

A caricature of your argument would be that a museum is not a place where a visitor can put her toddler in a playpen while she goes and finds out about what her area was like in the bronze age. It is a 'conservative' place of 'dusty wierdness and formaldehyde jars' with no narrative. People can take it or leave it, and if you aren't interested madam, too bad. You clearly aren't 'into' the museum and you are therefore of no interest to us. There's an amusement arcade two doors down.

The thrust of the article above, it seems to me, is that Natural History Museums should stand in splendid isolation as fading memorials to a grand enlightenment project, festooned with peculiar objects, through which the aesthetically inclined can waft, hither and thither, stroking their chins. I can't help feeling that your argument ultimately leads to this too.

I find it disagreeable because it is so remote from how most people actually live and learn, and so seemingly opposed to the idea that a museum should try to encourage all people to learn about the collections of specimens and artefacts it holds.

The arguement about incorporating new media into museums is a very complex one. It is not always done well by museums and the speed with which technology advances causes problems for this type of interpretation. However, what is not in dispute is that the new media are here to stay. Today's young people have grown up with social media, the ability to make and share photographs and videos, to be in constant contact with one another through mobiles. We cannot pretend that this isn't there, as a previous commenter put it 'create an atmosphere that reflects a time when the latest technology did not exist' (that's the role of a living history museum like Iron Bridge in the UK or Skansen in Sweden - I'm sure you have them in the US too) and hope to stay engaged with the general public. There's a legitimate debate to be had about how we do this, though.

And finally, we do still have spirit specimens, and taxidermy, and insects. We never throw anything away! In fact many museums now have a policy of open access storage where the majority of the collections not on display can be viewed by the general public on regular store tours or by appointment. The Darwin Centre at the Natural History Museum in London is a great example. This is always hugely popular at the museum where I work and allows people to get much closer to the 'dusty wierdness' than they ever could in an old museum.



Thanks for your thoughtful response. You write:

"If we take that view though, we are failing the majority of the taxpayers who pay for the museum. I can only speak from the UK perspective, but a public museum in the UK is providing a public service."

This strikes me as a specious and dangerously self-permissive argument to go in precisely the Chuck E. Cheese direction that is being lamented in Justin's article. Who is being failed by keeping things grown-up? Both adults and children in my view. You seem to be advocating a race to the bottom on the entertainment track, as though taxpayer funding automatically demands some kind of carnival appeal. The reason things have gone in that direction here in the States is to get paying bodies through the turnstile and exits through the gift shop. It is somewhat amusing to hear defenders of these trends leave that part out and talk in lofty terms about a duty to the public instead, when ultimately the public is being failed.

I find your argument disagreeable because ultimately it underestimates the audience of natural history museums. You seem to think that without the playpens, technological bells and whistles etc. people would stop coming. Some people would no doubt. Is this really to be regretted? "People can take it or leave it, and if you aren't interested madam, too bad." Precisely, or is it your position that a natural history museum can actually be all things to all people? It seems to me that if you alienate the people who really love museums, but pick up a new audience of people that need the dumbed-down romper-room accoutrements then you've made an egregious administrative blunder. Can we agree that not everyone likes museums? Why throw yourself desperately at such people's feet?


Meant to say: "Who is being failed by not keeping things grown-up?"


Well, what a debate.

It seems to me that aside from the historical aspect of pining for how natural history museums were in the past the main disagreement seems to be around the idea that renovation and new technologies equals 'dumming down'and displays just for kids. In my experience that is simply not the case, complex scientific ideas and indeed often the history behind an object continue to be an important part of modern museum displays. As both Ben and Dan point out the displays can only be scientifically accurate if they are constantly reviewed and updated as new scientific discoveries are made. That is not to say that the history of the same displays is forgotten, in fact many museums will cover this as well.

Producing information in formats which are familiar to our young people is also not 'dumming down', again, in my experience technological interactives are there to help to elucidate the objects in a way that perhaps text alone cannot, they are not there for, nor designed to be 'carnival fun'and if our visitors enjoy themselves while interacting with science and objects in this way then great, why is it a problem? science and history needn't be dull and serious all of the time. Learning, investigating and exploring new ideas should be fun, that is how we inspire people to want to take their new knowledge further, to find things out for themselves and perhaps even to visit some natural history in its natural habitat.

In response to the discussion above about audiences, I am strongly of the opinion that we should encourage our children and young people to visit museums. How will we inspire the next generation of naturalists and museologists if make our children and young people believe that their natural history is not something to be visited or explored at a museum? Ask yourselves did you visit a museum as a child? did your visit insprie you? if you did how can you suggest that children today should not be given the same opportunity?

In addition, I do not think that responding to the needs of key funding stakeholders for museums is specious or dangerously self-permissive, in fact it is necessary to keep our museums open, particularly in these difficult financial times. I think the number of people visiting natural history museums today is testament to the fantastic and innovative displays that our modernised museums provide.

I leave you with this thought, at the museum where I work prior to our redevelopment we had somewhere in the region of 75,000 visitors a year, we now welcome almost half a million each year!

Ben - Prouder Still Museum Worker

Sorry Barbary, but you appear to have completely misunderstood what I meant by 'certain branch of society'. I was not referencing class in any way shape or form so don't start trying to paint me as some sort of class warrior. I was more referencing the types of people that exist almost solely within their instituations and are constrained by ideas of how things 'used to be', people who need to venture out into the real world more to broaden their horizons and ideas of what 'can be'.

'A computer screen has no place in the front of a museum'.....

Really? As in really really? The sole reasons given being the misconception again that computers equals dumbing down and that children use enough computers at home. Well first, those computer screens are for everyone, not just children, so let's move away from this erroneous idea that technology = for kids. Technology is for everyone of every age. And secondly, kids see using lightbulbs and use doors all the time at home, should we ban them as well. Why not argue that in the past people looked just fine using sunlight shining through windows so why use this lightbulb invention to illuminate the specimens.

At our museum, the sorts of classes you describe have never gone away. Now we can't hope to match an institute like the California Academy for Science in terms of what we provide, but we never ever dumb down the science in our museum. We design all of our children based activities to engage, educate and also always stretch them as well. We also do a lot of research with Universities, local societies, national and international experts, all behind the cosmetic facade of half a dozen plasma screens and a QR code.

And I think the posts by both Dan and Sarah show a key point - several of the people here seem to think that the people that run museums and work in them are solely after getting the most number of people through the doors ("throwing yourself desperately at people's feet") and care about nothing else. Wrong wrong wrong. People who work in museums do so for two reasons and two reasons only....
1. They love the natural history/archaeology/art within their museums with a passion.
2. They love sharing their knowledge and passion to enthuse the visitors.

The only reason they try to appeal to a wider audience is to get even more people appreciting the indepth never-dumbed-down science in the same way they do. People who, once they're eyes are oepned to the wonders of nature, will never be able to clsoe them again. So try to remember this next time you visit a museum and maybe you'll see the real reasons for those changes you'll spot.

Ben - Prouder Still Museum Worker

And hooray for the playpen by the way. Finally parents who love museums can still visit them without having to arrange babysitting or worry that their very young child won't cope. No longer do mothers who want to visit museums have to stay at home because their museum would rather pretend they don't exist.

Gary Hoyle

If I may interject here, I believe that all of you are in essence correct. Museums must be relevant to the present and therefore should keep an eye to the future, but at the same time they should preserve at least some of their history. I have worked for 28 years as a curator of natural history and exhibits artist for a well respected museum in the northeastern United States. I now freelance as a museum consultant and exhibit designer and artist. One thing that has disturbed me about museums over the years, especially natural history museums, is, that when change comes, precious little thought is given to older exhibits that have proved to be the benchmarks in the history of the institution. Often the result is a museum filled with trendy exhibits that mimic trendy exhibits in other institutions throughout the country. The historical uniqueness of that museum disappears or is at least compromised. Because the institution's mission is dedicated to science, natural history museum administrators are apt to ignore the obvious. A natural history museum that does its job well affects the culture and in turn becomes part of cultural history. Therefore, some of the older exhibits may actually be viewed as cultural icons [not to mention that some early wildlife dioramas are important within an art history context]. I have seen children and adults awestruck by exhibits using the latest technologies, and I have seen them equal awestruck at the curio cabinet type exhibits of the 18th and 19th centuries. A thoughtful marriage of the two is possible as long as a museum recognizes the importance of its history and plans a place for it as it embraces the future.

Elizabeth Hamilton

Oh wow wow!! I am so utterly thrilled to have DISCOVERED you via the NYT's Stone and your last contribution on "Western" philosophy. But don't worry, I am not about to plant a flag in your chest and claim you for my King or Queen nor will I hold you so tight in my mind's arms that your kitten breath ceases.

As for the Museum national d'histoire naturelle, there was once an even quirkier institution here in Paris called the Musée de l'homme. I had a friend who was a tribal scholar who came here in the early 1990s to search for relics and remains of her no longer extant people. I had the great privilege of touring the back rooms and corridors with her where there were haphazard piles of boxes and crates splitting at the seams, full of wonders and all covered in dust. I don't remember much except for a stack of musical instruments in one room and a feeling of awe and shame, yes, shame that it was once deemed appropriate and desirable to collect, catalogue and display non-white peoples and their artifacts like so many caterpillars.

My friend did end up finding more than she was looking for. One day in one of those back rooms, a young student she was working with grabbed at a long dark skein drooping down from a box on a high shelf. What came clattering down on the other end of that skein was a human skull she recognized as one of her own because of the mother of pearl implanted in its forehead.

The strangeness of that place and its initial project must have been evident to many people besides myself because president Jacques Chirac, a collector of African art, had the "art" part of the museum's collection moved to the present day Musée du quai Branly that bears the uneasy title "Museum of the arts and civilizations of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas". The other part of the Musée de l'homme's collections, the part which could not easily be deemed art, --such as, but not limited to, I suppose, skulls and other body parts-- is scheduled to be shown again in the Palais de Chaillot sometime in 2015.

Tamar Lindsay

I realize this discussion is long ended, but I want to add a comment. I once took an eight-year-old girl to a museum that had a planetarium. She was expecting to see the show that her previous school trip had been shown, in which cartoon versions of the moon and planets had spoken to the audience. What we saw was the adult-level astronomy show of the month. She was fascinated and developed an interest in learning about the universe that the cartoon version had not produced.

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