Museums these days can be anything. Their exhibits flash and blink with new technologies. Visitors interact, push buttons, listen to audio tours, and even perform experiments. But the museum experiences I love are quieter enterprises.
When I step off Manhattan’s honking streets and into the American Museum of Natural History, I avoid the bright new dinosaur halls and head straight to the darkness of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. I’ve lingered on the benches here watching school tours walk swiftly through, on to the next, brighter, more exciting venture, and felt alone in my appreciation for the hall’s simplicity.
To preserve the paint on the wooden objects, the lights in the Northwest Coast hall are always dim, creating a nostalgic but reverent atmosphere. Towering totem poles line the center hallway while small alcoves lined with glass cases provide intimate spaces for observation. The smell of cedar surrounds you as you gaze into the vacant eyes of carved masks depicting animal and human spirits. Though the masks were used in dances, they have come to rest here, to be appreciated as things themselves. Without an accompanying video, we must use our imaginations to bring the costumed dancers to life.
While technology does not prohibit imagination, its use in museums seems to distract from museum objects—and from slow observation. Multilayered labels and computer accompaniments give away too many answers. Visitors are left with no time to wonder.
As a kid, I remember sitting for hours in front of a single dinosaur skeleton, sketching and making up stories about it in my notebook. The old exhibits provide space for imagination and creativity. In larger institutions like AMNH families and schools largely ignore these quiet exhibit halls. Only quirky museum-historian types like myself stay long enough to enjoy their aura.
At a small, old museum in a campground outside Colorado Springs, however, I found such minimally labeled exhibits are not as outdated as some may think. Behind a blue velvet curtain (ala Charles Willson Peale), a true cabinet of curiosity lies waiting to inspire wonder.
The May Natural History Museum of the Tropics remains much as it was arranged in the 1930s by a father-son team of collectors, James and John May. The single-room exhibit is lined with beautiful wood-framed cases containing some 8,000 insects pinned to ivory velvet backings. No modern interpretation is provided. Instead, you are left to gaze in wonderment at the hundreds of multicolored butterfly species that seem as vibrant and crisp as they must be in the wild.
Here, I observed families walk the aisles with the children as intrigued by the collection as any I have seen in a more technologically-oriented exhibit. They looked at the wings and the colors with more care than I would have expected. And, they asked questions. Why is this butterfly blue and that one orange? Parents answered as best they could. While their answers may not have provided the most scientific of explanations, the museum was providing “interaction.” This was hands-on learning between parents and children. And it struck me that what we often loose in high-tech, hands-on exhibits is a sense of communal and shared learning—and a tradition (at least in my family) of education as bonding.
The Hall of Pacific Northwest Coast Indians and the May Natural History Museum encourage curiosity. That they don’t give away all the answers earns them criticism for being outdated. But, to inspire is sometimes better than to educate. If these exhibits spark inspiration for the pursuit of more knowledge, they have done their job well.