Sunday, March 11, 2007

No Looking, No Learning

No looking, no learning….

Hard as that is to believe, that’s what one of my students heard a harried mom say as she marched her son towards the exit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. The comment provided the funny end to a long day of museum looking, accompanied by students from my museum exhibitions class. We saw one surprisingly good exhibit we didn’t have on our schedule, one old favorite for unknown reasons, one not worth the hype, one worth the effort, and one that raises questions about what museums are.

At the American Museum of Natural History:
Surprisingly good—the new Spitzer Hall of Human Origins at the American Museum of Natural History. Beautifully designed and installed, this exhibit explores evolution—and our future. We saw it at the end of the day, but it still was, for all of us, the memorable one. Media installations—but not too many, and easy to watch; clever exhibit design that, as one of my students said, “allowed you to get it without reading” but plenty of deeper text for those who were interested; and perhaps most importantly, evidence of a passionate commitment to knowledge and understanding. That last characteristic importantly connects it with last year’s Darwin exhibit at AMNH. (My apologies--my photos didn't convey the exhibit well, but loved this one of visitors looking at models of their ancestors).

An old favorite—hard to say why, but there’s something about the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians that draws me there every time I visit AMNH. The objects are incredibly beautiful and meaningful far beyond the simple labels, but the installation, no surprise for something based on research by Franz Boas, is old-fashioned. It’s a reverent sort of feeling place though, and I’d hate to see them change it.

Not worth the hype: Gold. The exhibit raised lots of questions for us. We’ve been talking about the big idea in class. What’s the big idea here? Gold is cool? One student interested in geology was very interested in that section, and another liked seeing the Oscar statue at the end. The exhibit was crowded—and why, when you put objects in freestanding cased with waist-level labels, couldn’t you put those labels on all four sides so more people could see it? I didn’t watch the video, but my students who did thought that was the best part. Very ho-hum, despite some beautiful objects.

And, at the New-York Historical Society:

Sojourner Truth, Library of Congress

Worth the effort, but not perfect: New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War. The second of the historical society’s exhibits on slavery and New York had some of the same strengths and weaknesses as the first. Strength—a very clever opening video that makes the point of the exhibition very clear. Commerce or conscience—which would govern New York’s approach to slavery? The introductory label—written as an invitation from its president, Louise Mirrer, exemplifies the historical society’s commitment to the project. Loads and loads of text—not made easier by the fact that many of the objects themselves are books, pamphlets, or other textual materials. When asked, just after finishing the exhibit, about memorable objects—students named a small drawing, or a coin, or the orphan asylum book—small objects that spoke volumes.

This exhibit though, suffered from the same overuse of media as the first one. So much so, that the sound bleed from place to place made it difficult to concentrate. One large video about a dance hall seemed a waste, while a second about minstrel shows really drew me in to watch. An exhibit worth doing—and worth seeing. If you’re there, also don’t miss the exhibit A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls. It’s beautiful, and an amazing look at Driscoll and the women she worked with.

And I wonder….

We also visited the Children's Museum of Manhattan. Admittedly, none of us were children, nor did we have children with us. The place was packed, and families seemed to be having a great time. But if we think museums are about objects, those objects—of any sort—were in short supply here. I particularly loved though, the places where I saw parents and children working together. In a downstairs room, small groups of families worked enthusiastically on building block projects (at left) ; upstairs, a mother and son drove the fire engine.

I didn't see many people reading them, but I really liked the labels that helped parents think about how to play with their kids in ways that enhance learning.

But is it a museum?

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