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Museology / Museum Schizophrenia

George Leonard wrote:

> What the postings brought out is that the "museum" now attracts 2
> separate-- and slightly hostile-- audiences.

And it is the duty of every museum to appeal to hostile visitors of every
kind!  ;^)

Seriously, in response to Dr. Thomas R. Holtz, Jr.'s question, I have already
proposed a few of the kinds of innovations that I would like to see in a
museum of the future.  It doesn't mean that some such ideas aren't already
being incorporated into natural history museums, or that these interactive
"gimmicks" are a substitute for more traditional skeletal mounts or
environmental dioramas with fleshed out restorations.  Speaking for myself, I
would be very depressed to visit a natural history museum of the future that
utilized  video displays to the exclusion of any tangible objects.    8^P
If a museum is big enough and has deep enough pockets (we ARE fantasizing,
here, aren't we?), I see no reason why there can't be room for many of these
ideas we have discussed here to be incorporated under one roof.  The ideal
museum exhibit appeals equally to the serious, mature visitors, and to the
fun loving family / field trip contingent.

Regarding this latter group, I would caution against dismissing the
opportunity to invite children to enjoy themselves at museum exhibits which
engage their developing senses and inspire a sense of wonder at dinosaurs and
other prehistoric life forms.  Kids are instinctively curious about the world
around them.  Why do parents have to "childproof" their homes?  Because kids
are born scientists.  Action; reaction.  Kids are always thinking: what would
happen if...?  What would happen if I pull on this cord that's hanging down
from the ironing board?  What would happen if I stick my finger into this
light socket?  What's inside this bottle with the cool skull picture on it?
What does fire feel like?  Do paint flakes taste good?  What would happen if
I squeeze this mouse as hard as I can?  See what I mean?  These are
experiments.  These kids are born scientists!  That is why parents have to
watch young children like hawks, so they don't kill themselves!

This same curiosity, if properly engaged and directed, can start kids on an
odyssey that leads to great things: a fascination with the world around us,
the ability to resolve problems, the capacity to invent, reason, make
informed choices, learn...  Need I say more?  If kids can get a good taste of
all the amazing research and discovery going on in paleobiology today, how
could they find it boring?  The trick is to give them a sense that science is
meaningful, that their minds are capable of figuring things out, and that
this stuff is not boring, but awesome!  I know that some would rather museums
not cater to kids, but doesn't that mean an awful lot of future adults are
going to fall through the cracks?  If museums can begin to present the scope
of what's going on in this field -- just thumb through _The Complete
Dinosaur_, _The Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs_, or check out the new feathered
dinosaurs for an inkling of what's going on -- how could people of all ages
not get hooked on paleontology, and science in general?  This is a dynamic
field!  (Am I preaching to the choir or what)?  Kids are smarter than some
people give them credit for, but most small children will learn more if they
are presented with something besides skeletons and signs they cannot read.
Give them something to do with their hands, their eyes, their ears, their
bodies; encourage them to actively participate in the museum experience, and
discover things for themselves.   If museums choose to abdicate this
responsibility, then the need will be satisfied by theme parks, and the
result will, as often as not, be science fiction, not science, until theme
parks evolve which focus on education in their mission statements, and
embrace the counsel of the knowledgeable paleontologists in a quest for

Having said this, I recognize that a museum is not a daycare facility, and
neither kids nor adults should be permitted to wreck displays.  Delicate
specimens must be protected from the general public, and hands-on displays
should be intuitively obvious, dummy proof, and super heavy duty.

On the other hand, woe to the museum that denies serious students the
opportunity to delve deeply into the science by dumbed-down displays which
offer nothing for adults.  What works for hyperactive kids with the attention
span of a gnat will not provide the hours of rich experience that patient,
discerning adults desire.   Ideally, there will be something for everyone, or
at least, most everyone.  Museums need not welcome vandals, young or

Ralph W. Miller III  <gbabcock@best.com>