Another day at the museum

June 8, 2010 • 12:56 pm

by Greg Mayer

Last summer I made a visit to the Smithsonian’s United States National Museum of Natural History (aka the USNM), which I reported on here at WEIT. At the time, a couple of special evolution exhibits, tied to the Darwin bi- and sesquicentennials, were scheduled to open in September, and during my visit in March (mentioned at WEIT here and here), I was able to see both of these temporary exhibits.

Darwin’ Legacy, in the lobby at the 10th and Constitution entrance, consists of two large cases containing items from the Smithsonian’s archives and libraries– books, manuscripts, photographs– including a number of illustrations from the Zoology of the Beagle. It is arranged in what is called the “cabinet” style (referring to the origin of many museums in older “cabinets of curiosities”). This style is characterized by a high density of items of a diverse nature, each well-labeled. It is the style of exhibit which I generally prefer. Rich in its content, the exhibit merits close attention, and repays repeated viewing. Darwin’s Legacy will be up till Oct. 17.

Contrasting with this exhibit is Since Darwin : The Evolution of Evolution, which is designed in a more recent style, that might be termed “interactive”, although this is only one part of the new style. Steve Gould characterized this style as having fewer specimens and more overt pedagogy.

The exhibit, though lacking interactive features, does have few specimens, and a more didactic labeling and design, emphasizing bright colors and large fonts. It begins with Darwin’s life, work and predecessors, moving to an explication of artificial and natural selection, and islands as laboratories of evolution. It then discusses the tree of life, recent developments in evo-devo and genomics, and closes with a brief account of new species discovered by USNM researchers. Throughout the exhibit, panels are devoted to highlighting USNM scientists working in evolutionary biology, such as my colleagues Helen James and Hans-Dieter Sues. The newer exhibit style may be seen clearly in the following photograph, which shows the relative paucity of specimens, and a reliance on illustration, and large-font, but widely spaced, text.

The exhibit does, though, of course have specimens, and I liked the integration of text, image, and objects in two cases on snails and the domestication of dogs.

Since Darwin will be up till July 18, so you should see it soon if you get the chance. Neither of these temporary exhibits are worth a trip to Washington (though worth seeing if you are there). Probably worth a trip is the new Hall of Human Origins, which I just missed on my visit in March (see the NY Times‘ Edward Rothstein’s review here). I hope to see it myself this summer. A colleague who just came back from Washington reported favorably on it. He mentioned that in a small lecture space within the exhibit there was some presentation on climate change going on; this is curious, since the exhibit’s principal funder and namesake, David Koch, is a well-known global warming denialist.

On a final museological note, I can also recommend the National Museum of the Marine Corps, just south of Washington in Quantico, Va. The museum covers much of the history of the Marine Corps, although it has obviously been constructed to allow future expansion. When I was there in March there was a special exhibit on the photojournalism of Eddie Adams, famed for his photo of a Viet Cong being executed by a South Vietnamese policeman. The museum as a whole leans to the cabinet style in terms of the density and diversity of objects, but does have much didactic labeling. There are some interactive elements as well. In an interesting but not wholly successful exhibit designed to simulate coming ashore in a landing craft, the walls of the craft vibrated strongly as each (sound only) machine gun round struck the craft.

Note the painted sand and sea, just as in the USNM’s African waterhole “diorama”, in the Marine Corps museum’s lobby.

3 thoughts on “Another day at the museum

  1. a minor peeve.

    There is a state called “Washington” If you are going to refer to the other “Washington”, please call it “Washington DC” or simply “DC”, so that people not only grasp where you’re talking about, but remember that our state actually exists. (If that didn’t make sense, imagine someone from WA on the east coast answering a local’s question where they are from. I assume you can imagine the automatic confusion because of this exact short hand so often used by people in general)

  2. The BBC showed a very interesting series of programmes recently about the Natural History Museum in London. They mentioned that the museum is in the process of switching back from its emphasis on didactic displays to more emphasis on specimens.

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