Saturday, August 16, 2014

A Tale of Two Exhibits

Yesterday, I took myself to the Natural History Museum, intending to see two exhibits.  One was the interactive "Walk Among Dinosaurs!" and the other was "Once There Were Billions" about several species of extinct birds.  For all the hype about the ability to "meet" dinosaurs, the real star of the show is in the basement, with nary a sign to guide you to her.

Where: Natural History Musem

When: through September 2, 2014

What could be more exciting than seeing yourself face-to-face with prehistoric creatures?  You can "pet" them and make horror-struck faces and swerve to avoid being eaten.    Somehow, though, the whole thing fell flat.  The movie technology is fine, and I think the small kids in the audience enjoyed themselves, with the help of some fun-loving dads, but this just isn't my thing.  Perhaps you get what you pay for with these "augmented reality" displays, and since I paid nothing, well, you get the idea.

I appreciate that the museum has a big problem right now.  The dinosaur area, one of their most popular exhibit halls, is closed for a long time, and although it will doubtless be greatly improved when it re-opens, at the moment, they're scrambling to find something to fill this gaping void in their offerings.

Verdict: If you've got little kids, by all means go see this, as they'll doubtless enjoy themselves.  Adults can probably give this walk a pass.

Where: Natural History Museum

When: through October 2015

The second exhibit I saw was about as unlike the dinosaur walk as it is possible to imagine.  There are two big display cases next to the gift shop by the Constitution Avenue entrance, and the Smithsonian Library uses them to put up displays.  They tend to feature books from the Smithsonian holdings and artifacts from their warehouses.  Where the dinosaur walk used cutting-edge technology, this is heavy on text, and those display cases have been around since I was a child (possibly longer).

This display provides information and specimens of extinct bird species.  It is, in fact, all the info I had wished for when I saw the bronzes of these birds outside the museum and in the Haupt Garden.  Why, why is there no indication that this exhibit is here on the plaques identifying the statutes?  Just a few lines saying something to the effect of: if you're interested in these species and how they became extinct (spoiler alert: it's people), go see the display "Once There Were Billions" on the ground floor of the Natural History Museum."  How hard would that be?

Correction 8/23/14:  As it happens, I was in the Haupt Garden this week, and I saw that they do reference the "One There Were Billions" exhibit on one of the informational plaques.  So I take back my criticism for the lack of cross-referencing.  The rest of my rant stands.

If it were only a matter of a lack of cross-referencing, I would just shake my head and move on.  I've seen this before in the American History museum.  Come on people, help the tourists out.  They come for a day, they don't know exactly what you've got, give them some information so they can see things that interest them.

But it's not just that.  In this display case, is Martha, the last passenger pigeon, who died in (I think) 1914 in the Cincinnati Zoo.  I don't mean it's a model of her, or a photograph; I mean it's actually her.  Her body was stuffed after she died, and she belongs to the Smithsonian.  Usually, she's in a climate-controlled cabinet somewhere, far from the museum itself, but until October 2015, she's on display.  The last passenger pigeon!  And you can see her!  This should be big news; they should be promoting this all over their website and with big signs when you walk in.  Instead, nothing.  If I hadn't been reading the notes in the display case carefully, I would have missed her entirely.

What were they thinking?  If you're going to pull a specimen of this level of historical significance out of storage, why not make a big deal out of it?  Make Martha the centerpiece of a big display on extinction and the need for conservation.

Verdict: Go see this.  It's informative, it's small enough that it's easily managed in a lunch hour, and you can see the last passenger pigeon.

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