The New Face of Museums

New Dinosaur Hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County

Today, we get to see the shiny new face of Dinosaur Mysteries, the dinosaur hall at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. After an initial media event last week open to museum members, the exhibit opens to the public July 16, 2011 after three years of production effort by the Dinosaur Institute and contractors such as KBDA and myself.

Not only is the new exhibit now the west coast’s largest dinosaur exhibit, but it is also housed in two stately early-twentieth-century edifices, spanning two floors, with an open mezzanine to allow viewing of the central skeletons and the 20-foot-tall murals of dinosaurs and marine life (illustrated by yours truly).

Many of the dynamically and realistically mounted skeletons are composed of real fossilized bones rather than casts, featuring, among other things, a Tyrannosaurus growth series from chick to adult. What I find appealing as a scientist and educator is that the exhibit is organized in a way that encourages viewers to interpret the material in a scientifically question-driven way.

The exhibit also takes advantage of new digital technologies that are making museum visits around the world a much more enjoyable and interactive experience. The L.A. County Natural History Museum makes use of 30-inch digital displays with changing imagery that pans and zooms on restorations that I was commissioned to create for the museum showing what ecosystems probably looked like that are now preserved in the sedimentary rock of the Chinle (Triassic Period), Morrison (Jurassic Period) and Hell Creek (Cretaceous Period) Formations.

Swim the Ancient Seas of Ordovician Manitoba

Some museums have taken digital display technology to entirely new heights though. Among the leaders in the field is the Manitoba Museum in Winnipeg, Canada (which is also, by the way, home of the world’s largest trilobite). Last year, a phenomenal new exhibit opened, called Ancient Seas, and it must be seen to be believed.

Patrons take in the 3-panel panorama of the Ancient Seas exhibit at the Manitoba Museum. (Image courtesy of: Hans Thater, The Manitoba Museum)

It is best described by Dr. Graham Young, Museum Curator of Geology and Paleontology, and personal friend who maintains his own scientific blog, Ancient Shore, where among other colorful topics, the reader can find first hand accounts of scientific trips to hunt for fossils in the challenging Canadian subarctic. I recently had the pleasure to discuss the Ancient Seas exhibit with Graham. In his words:

The exhibit is a three-screen digital projection that depicts the tropical marine life that lived around what is now Churchill, Manitoba, about 450 million years ago. The creatures depicted in the video are all life forms that we find represented as fossils in central and northern Manitoba, and we have exhibited specimens of the fossils in front of and beside the video screens. I think that the exhibit is special because, first of all, the animators (Jilli and Lars at Phlesch Bubble) did a wonderful job of depicting the extinct life forms and placing them in their environmental context. It seems real enough that it permits visitors to suspend their disbelief. It is also special because it is depicting an actual preserved ancient place. Most reconstructions of past life use made up places; at Churchill we have an Ordovician boulder shoreline preserved in three dimensions, and the animators have placed the organisms into that place.

When we enter a museum and view a breathtaking exhibit such as Ancient Seas, jaw-dropping wonder often takes front seat in our minds, distracting us from the realization of how phenomenal an effort brought it into existence. I asked Graham to share with me the behind-the-scenes story of the production of the exhibit and his role as paleontologist:

I was involved in it from the get-go, really. We had seen an animation of the Burgess Shale that Phlesch Bubble had done at the Field Museum in Chicago, and it was suggested that we needed something of that sort for our Earth History Gallery.  I said that we would be able to do one only if we depicted that Churchill site, because it was the only place we knew enough about to do it justice.  So we came up with a specification for what would be depicted in the video, and we had to negotiate with the animators to determine what was actually do-able within time and budget.

I gathered together huge batches of scientific material, photographs, and diagrams, and sent them off to Jilli and Lars in Australia. They worked to develop digital models of the creatures, which they sent to me for review. In many cases, I didn’t think that I knew enough about the organisms, so I was able to draw on scientific experts in various countries to review the models and animations.  This is where it can be very helpful to have a scientist intimately involved in the process!  In some instances we had multiple episodes of going back and forth before we had a model which really depicted the creature the way it needed to be.  Jilli and Lars were very professional, very accommodating, and they put a huge amount of effort into ensuring that everything was as close to our conception of the creatures as humanly possible.

Then I also had to work with the designer to plan the space, and with the various collections and exhibit experts who prepared the specimens, made the mounts, installed lighting … I got to be involved in some way in just about every aspect of the exhibit.  It was a lot of work, but also a heck of a lot of fun, and it took about 18 months from the time the animators got started until we had the main part of the exhibit installed and open to the public!

A section of the Ancient Seas exhibit at the Manitoba Museum, featuring an Ordovician marine community. (Image courtesy of: Hans Thater, The Manitoba Museum)

The Future

The Manitoba Museum’s Ancient Seas exhibit is a prime example of the results of a progressive attitude that museum teams take toward exploiting developing technologies to creatively relate scientific findings to the public. Many museums are now utilizing not only touchable scale models, but also interactive motion-sensitive projections. But deciding how extensively to incorporate digital technology into museum displays is not a decision to take lightly; museum teams endeavor to share experiences with the public that the public might not be able to experience themselves. In the end, success will result from a careful balance struck between digital and real-life exhibits. These sorts of developments echo the view that Graham expresses about some of the directions in which he as a scientist foresees museum exhibits going:

…I really like the idea of having exhibits that allow the visitor to be more immersed in the experience.  I think we need to use sound and touch, as well as sight, to get experiences across.  I would really love to see some 21st century digital version of the early 20th century cycloramas…sort of dioramas in the round, but they can be wonderful exhibits (there is a superb old one in Iowa City).

I think that the best exhibits are the ones that choose the best medium for the material and the subject matter.  Which may mean some sort of video, or an interactive discovery experience, or simply a traditional artifact case.  We need to know what tools we can use, and be prepared to go as high or low tech as seems necessary.

Modern museums are like living things; they evolve to best suit their environment. This has the exciting implication that in our scientifically advancing era, museums are increasingly becoming an indispensable venue by which the public may access scientific research through a factually reliable, easy-to-understand and enjoyable multi-sensory experience.

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2 Responses to The New Face of Museums

  1. Pingback: A Remarkable Pregnant Plesiosaur | Evolutionary Routes

  2. Pingback: Milestones | Evolutionary Routes

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