The Purpose of the American Museum of Natural History
Upon the opening of the American Museum of Natural History in 1869, the founders announced their intention of “…establishing a museum and library of natural history, of encouraging and developing natural science, of advancing the general knowledge of kindred subjects, and to that end of furnishing popular instruction” (The American Museum…, 285). That purpose is fulfilled every day that the museum is open. Through the uniquely designed, carefully organized and informative exhibits, the American Museum of Natural History acts as an educational institution that makes learning interesting and encourages further study in the fields of natural history.
The Design of Different Exhibitions
There are six different classifications of exhibits in the American Museum of Natural History, under which three to eight exhibits or “halls” are categorized. These are the Earth and Planetary Science halls (which for the purpose of this assignment will include the Ross Center for Earth and Space), the Fossil halls, the Animal halls (because these halls are very similar, the Mammal Halls and Birds and Reptiles and Amphibians Halls will be categorized under this), the Biodiversity and Environmental halls, the Human Origins and Culture halls, and the Temporary exhibits. Each of the categories of exhibits has its own unique design, which create different atmospheres in the museum but still fulfill the same purpose.
Earth and Planetary Science Halls
The Earth and Planetary Science halls consist of the Arthur Ross Hall of Meteorites, Morgan Memorial Hall of Gems, Harry Frank Guggenheim Hall of Minerals, Cullman Hall of the Universe, Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth, Scales of the Universe, and Heilbrunn Cosmic Pathway. The most prominent characteristic of the design of these exhibition is the seeming lack of linear organization. While the facts and the few artifacts available are grouped together based on topic (for example, all of the information on comets are grouped together), the topics themselves are scattered around the exhibits, similar to how, in space, there is little set organization. It also offers the audience the chance to discover new things for themselves, reproducing one of the thrills of science. These exhibits are also largely knowledge based, unlike most of the other exhibits, so they are more ornamental, utilizing eye-catching diagrams and other effects made by the museum to draw in the audience and make them remember the information presented.
The Fossil Halls consist of the Wallach Orientation Center, the Hall of Vertebrate Origins, Saurischian Dinosaurs, Milstein Hall of Advanced Mammals, the Hall of Primitive Mammals, and Ornithischian Dinosaurs. Entering these artifact-based exhibits feels like stepping into a paleontologist’s workspace, with bright, harsh lighting so that the fossils, mounted on islands in the halls, can be seen, with little extra ornamentation besides the simple plaques set close to the ground with basic information about each fossil. These rooms are made so that the fossils can be seen from almost every side and the plaques are set and phrased so that almost every age group can read and understand them.
The Animal Halls consist of the Primates Hall, the Sanford Hall of North American Birds, New York State Mammals and Birds, Akeley Hall of African Mammals (see fig. 1), the Hall of Reptiles and Amphibians, the Bernard Family Hall of North American Mammals, Birds of the World, and the Hall of Asian Mammals. Each hall is filled with taxidermies of animals from all over the world. Upon their collection for the museum, pictures of the animals in their natural habitat were taken. Those pictures are reprinted on a curved background (to give the diorama the effect of being infinite) and set back into the wall, behind a pane of glass. The animals themselves are skinned and then a paper-maché mold is made (so the animal will not deteriorate) which is covered with the skin. The exhibit designers then completely recreate the picture using faux plants, rocks, and other materials before situating the animals in their exhibit (The American Museum of Natural History, 286-287). With this method of display, the audience gets a unique and holistic sense of the animal and its environment.
Biodiversity and Environmental Halls
The Biodiversity and Environmental Halls consist of the Warburg Hall of New York State Environment, the Hall of North American Forests, the Hall of Biodiversity, and the Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life. Similar to the Animal Halls, these exhibits rely on dioramas. The dioramas consist of either exhibits on animals and marine life, the environment, or microorganisms in the environment. The Milstein Family Hall of Ocean Life is organized in much of the same way as the animal halls. The Hall of New York State Environment, Hall of North American Forests and Hall of Biodiversity rely, for the most part, on dioramas of segments of the environment or up-close models of microorganisms. As these halls are both knowledge- and artifact-based, due to the fact that they concentrate on both the microscopic and the visible, there are plaques set close to the ground which use simple language to spread knowledge to all age groups.
Human Origins and Culture Halls
The Human Origins and Culture Halls consist of the Spitzer Hall of Human Origins, the Hall of Northwest Indians, the Hall of South American Peoples, the Hall of Mexico and Central America, the Hall of African Peoples, the Stout Hall of Asian Peoples (see fig. 2), the Margaret Mead Hall of Pacific Peoples, and the Hall of Plains Indians and Eastern Woodlands Indians. These halls are by far the most complex and diverse, as each exhibit is meant to reflect the culture it is presenting. Through a mixture of music, artifacts, and in some cases, architecture, the audience is immersed in parts of the cultures they are learning about. These exhibits are heavily artifact-based, with the artifacts themselves organized by culture. This creates simple, immersive and interesting exhibits that are fascinating to look at and learn from.
While temporary exhibitions vary on a seasonal basis, the current temporary exhibitions are The Secret World Inside You, Dinosaurs Among Us, Opulent Oceans, the Butterfly Conservatory, and Countdown to Zero: Defeating Disease. Just as these exhibits vary, so, too, does the organization of each exhibit. This organization and the accoutrements that go with each exhibit largely depends on whether it is knowledge- or artifact-based. Artifact-based exhibits are organized around the artifacts themselves, as is seen the Animal, Fossil, Human Origins and Culture, and Environmental and Biodiversity Halls. Knowledge-based halls are often organized by topic; secondarily, the exhibit designers work with the space available, arranging around any extra technology or interactive aspects of the exhibit space (Spencer 2016). The exhibits are also organized based on the way that they fit into the space the museum has to show the exhibit (this is also the case with other exhibits, but is much more significant in designing temporary exhibits). Either way, the exhibits are uniquely designed so that they draw the audience in and make them interesting to learn from.
Why Exhibit Design Matters
Much in the same way that artists make intentional choices about the way that their art is formed, or the way that teachers carefully craft their lesson plans, so, too, must a museum exhibit designer shape the knowledge and artifacts so that the audience can make the most out of the information they are given. The way that museums display artifacts and what is displayed often shape how and what information is taken away. “In collecting some objects and not others, in describing and naming them, in displaying them in one way as opposed to another, and in constructing contexts for them, museums establish their sense of authority… [and] is a political act” (Katz 324). Exhibit design shapes the way that audiences learn, what they learn, and their opinions on what they learn in a museum.
The Effect of the Exhibit Design at the American Museum of Natural History
Each exhibit is made so that it pulls in the audience, with special attention paid to the strengths and weaknesses of the topic and content of the exhibit itself. This is most visible in the ways that artifact-based exhibits utilize lighting, music and props to create an immersive environment, while knowledge-based exhibits use technology and more interactive elements to pull in the audience. Also, each exhibit is made so that the audience wants to learn and it is easy for them to learn, usually by creating an aesthetically entertaining, organized exhibit. Different parts of each exhibit are also made to appeal to different age groups so that people of all ages can find something that interests them, and learn about it at their level. Even the smallest of children are left just as excited at the end of the day as they were at the beginning. Finally, each exhibit is uniquely created so that it is a new experience, with new information to gain, and the audience stays in a constant state of wonder. In this way, the American Museum of Natural History makes it easy and fun for their audience to learn, and fosters interest in the field of natural history, still fulfilling the purpose the founders stated upon the museum’s opening.
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