Tag Archives: exhibits

New space for old bones

This is bittersweet news for me.  The dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is closed for five years to make way for a total renovation.

I love the Smithsonian’s dino gallery.  It was the first major fossil exhibit I ever saw (so long ago that some of the occupants were probably breathing at the time).  There aren’t many museum experiences that could excite me more than walking through the NMNH rotunda, past that big bull elephant, and stepping into that massive hall dominated by a Diplodocus.

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What I loved almost as much as the skeletons were the dioramas in the rear of the gallery.  They were like little windows into a world I usually had to imagine.  I doubt they’ll survive the renovation, since they’re pretty outdated.  But to tell you the truth, once I got older I loved the fact that they were showing their age, because they took me back to the dinosaur books I read when I was a kid—books with dinos that hadn’t yet caught up with science, still lumbering around in swampy forests with their tails dragging behind them.

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The new exhibit should be pretty awesome.  They’re mounting a new T. rex, which I guess will replace the cast of “Stan” from the old hall.  Until then, Washington, D.C. is going to be a lot less awesome.  I really wish I could’ve visited this year, just to walk through one last time.

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Filed under Gratuitous Dinosaur Posts

History and prehistory in the City of Angels

If you find yourself visiting southern California and you’d like a good crash course in the area’s history, let me recommend a visit to the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. Most of us associate natural history museums with fossils and taxidermy, but the NHMLAC also has an exhibit called “Becoming Los Angeles,” which covers L.A.’s story from the arrival of the Spanish up to the present. It opened last year.

I’m not that familiar with the history of California, so this exhibit was an education for me. The section on the Spanish mission system is especially interesting; it explains the impact of European colonization on both the land and the people. The arrival of domestic cattle, for example, dramatically impacted southern California’s vegetation. Cows ate up the grasses that were native to the area while depositing foreign seeds in their dung. Hence the slogan emblazoned on souvenirs in the museum’s gift shop: Cow poop changed L.A.!

Becoming Los Angeles features some pretty neat artifacts. Here’s the table on which the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed in 1847, ending hostilities in the Mexican-American War in California. Of course, the war didn’t officially end until the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the following year.

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The exhibit also covers more recent history, including the city’s role in WWII and the birth of the local aviation and entertainment industries. Here’s another historically significant piece of furniture: Walt Disney’s animation stand, used to make the first Mickey Mouse cartoons.

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Other objects on display include Spanish crucifixes from the colonial era, Indian tools, and one of Charlie Chaplin’s costumes.

But hey…I didn’t go to L.A. to see history exhibits. I was off the clock. You guys know where this is headed, right?

If you like tyrannosaurs, you’re in luck. There are more T. rex mounts at the NHMLAC than you can shake a severed goat leg at. One of them is facing off against a Triceratops in the foyer.

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More tyrannosaur skeletons are in the main dinosaur exhibit. This is a really cool mount, because it’s the only place in the world where you can see three T. rexes of different ages posed together in a growth series. At two years old, this is the youngest known T. rex specimen.

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The second tyrannosaur is a twenty-foot adolescent. T. rex grew remarkably fast in its early teens, packing on up to 1.5 tons per year.

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And here’s the third animal, close to full size.

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Mamenchisaurus, a long-necked sauropod from China, dominates the first dinosaur gallery.

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Another Triceratops.

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Carnotaurus, the bulldog-faced meat-eater from Argentina. On a related note, on my last night in town my friends took me to an Argentine restaurant. Best thing about L.A. is the variety of dining options.

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A hadrosaur skull. The horny part of the “duckbill” is really visible on this specimen.

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Allosaurus vs Stegosaurus. I do love a good Allosaurus skeleton. The Denver Museum of Natural History has a very similar mount.

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An ornithomimid. I think it’s Struthiomimus, but I don’t remember exactly.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t have time for the La Brea Tar Pits, but the NHMLAC does have quite a few specimens from the site, like this saber-toothed cat.

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And while we’re on the subject of all things prehistoric, the grand finale of my L.A. trip was a pilgrimage to the original Jurassic Park ride at Universal Studious Hollywood.

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I was wearing a t-shirt from the Jurassic Park River Adventure at Universal Orlando, and some of the ride operators at the Hollywood version asked me which one was better. As a connoisseur of all things JP, I feel eminently qualified to address this question, so here goes.

In terms of the rides themselves, it’s pretty much a toss-up. The Hollywood version has a couple of neat outdoor effects that are absent in Orlando, an additional (albeit brief) encounter with the T. rex, and better-looking sauropods in the opening scene. On the other hand, I think the Florida ride seems a bit less rushed, which means much better pacing, a more coherent story, and a more effective build-up of suspense. For these reasons, I have a slight personal preference for Orlando’s version, but you can’t go wrong with either one.

Looking beyond the boat ride to the overall Jurassic Park experience, Orlando has one big advantage in that Universal had room to build an entire Isla Nublar there, complete with a replica of the visitor center, more dino-themed dining and shopping establishments, and some other attractions besides the main boat ride. But Hollywood still has plenty to offer. On the studio tram tour, you’ll see vehicles used in The Lost World and the water tank used to film the final Spinosaurus attack in JPIII. The die-hard fan should visit both parks—Hollywood because it’s steeped in the history of the franchise, Orlando because you can immerse yourself in the movie’s fictional universe. (Assuming, of course, you can ignore that darned Harry Potter castle looming above the treeline. Zoning laws, people. Zoning laws.)

And that’s a wrap. Back to business as usual.

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Remember that Civil War exhibit in Washington, D.C.

…that I talked about working on back in January?  Well, here’s an interview with my old pal and former boss Steven Wilson, the guy in charge of putting it together.

I got to see some pics of the finished installation, and it turned out really well.  The folks in our campus broadcasting department did one heck of a job on the video, too.  In addition to the stuff from LMU’s museum, they’ve borrowed some pretty cool artifacts from other institutions.  If you’re going to be in Washington between now and June, swing by Ford’s Theatre and give it a look.

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Neat Rev War exhibit opens in New Jersey this month

It’ll be at the Museum of Early Trades & Crafts in Madison starting Feb. 25, and it’s about the war’s impact on NJ civilians.  Too bad I’m not within driving distance; I’d really like to see it.

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Ford’s Theatre will host new exhibit from LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum

Cross-posted to the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum (ALLM) will display a new exhibit “Abraham Lincoln and the Technology of War” at the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C. Curated by Steven Wilson, ALLM curator and assistant director, the exhibit investigates the significance of inventions and new machines in the Civil War.

Included in the exhibit are artifacts from the B&O Railroad Museum, the Kentucky Military History Museum, the National Firearms Museum, the Center for Northern Indiana History, the Tennessee State Museum and the Vicksburg National Military Park-U.S.S. Cairo. Some rare items from the collection of the ALLM are a Greene bolt-action breech-loading rifle, Captain John Worden’s speaking trumpet and a collection of carte de visite photographs.

“Abraham Lincoln and the Technology of War” will open to the public on January 14, 2014.  The exhibit will remain on display through July 6, 2014. Admission is included with regular daytime visit tickets to Ford’s Theatre, which is free but requires timed entry tickets. Tickets may be reserved in person at Ford’s Theatre Box Office, through Ticketmaster at 800.982.2787, or online at http://www.fords.org.

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Two nifty exhibit ideas

The National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, MD just opened an exhibit on PTSD among Civil War soldiers.

The Mariners’ Museum in Newport News, VA isn’t letting any wall space go to waste.  All their public restrooms now feature cartoon panels about the history of using the toilet at sea, mounted so that you can read the text right there while doing your business.  I kid you not.

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Pivotal moments in the Civil War at the East Tennessee History Center

The Museum of East Tennessee History will debut a new Civil War exhibit tomorrow.  “Of Sword and Pen: Pivotal Moments in Civil War East Tennessee” features Andrew Johnson’s desk, original documents, and contemporary sketches.    They’re hosting a preview tonight with a lecture by Ed Ayers at 7:30, so if you’re in the Knoxville area you might want to check it out.

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Filed under Appalachian History, Civil War, Museums and Historic Sites, Tennessee History

Great stuff, lousy execution

Here’s an instructive tale for all you aspiring public historians out there who are thinking about a career in the museum biz.

This past weekend I went to a very prominent museum in a large U.S. city to see a “headliner” temporary exhibition.  The museum in question boasts a huge facility, a stratospheric budget, and a staff the size of a small army.  For the purposes of this little screed it shall remain nameless.

The museum entrance area—absolutely cavernous in size—lacked any directional signage, map handouts, or a docent to point visitors to their destinations.  There were plenty of signs advertising the special exhibit, but none telling you how to get to it.  We finally spotted a janitor, who directed us downstairs.  Judging by the number of bewildered-looking tourists in the lobby, I don’t think we were the only ones who were confused.

Once we got to the line for entry into the exhibit, we noticed a few people clutching small audio devices with headsets.  When an attendant walked past the line, somebody ahead of us asked him about the headsets, and he said, “Oh, those are the audio tours.  Did you want one?”  After shouting out something to the effect that audio tours were available, he disappeared and then came back with an armful of the devices, collecting the rental fees and making change out of his pocket while yelling directions to the crowd about how to use them.  As we headed inside, there were still people in the crowd who were asking around about whether there was some kind of audio tour, whether it was free, whether you could see the exhibit without it, etc.

When we finally entered the exhibition, we found that the whole thing was arranged in a linear fashion.  You had a wall of objects and text assembled in a straight line, sort of like a police line-up.  (“Do you recognize the artifact who stole your purse, ma’am?”)  This linear arrangement forced everybody in the gallery to queue up in order to see the material and then when you got to the end of that line of artifacts, you turned the corner to find…yet another wall of artifacts arranged in a straight line, and so on.

It was impossible to explore the exhibit at your own pace, focus on areas that you found particularly interesting, or step across the gallery to another display while the crowd died down elsewhere.  There was no choice but to stand in line and shuffle along with the crowd, waiting for the person ahead of you to move on before you could proceed.  One of the tricks of exhibit design is to arrange the material so that you minimize bottlenecks, but here the entire exhibit consisted of nothing but bottlenecks, laid out in a way that forced you to queue up single-file and wait for the person ahead of you to finish reading the text in their spot before you could move on.

The only exception to the police line-up approach was a huge, circular exhibit case in the last gallery, sort of like a gigantic coffee table with artifacts and text arranged around the perimeter.  That turned out to be even worse, because here the line of visitors had no beginning and no end—just a continuous circle of people in single file, moving from one object to the next.  In order to see any of the material in that case you had to hover on the outskirts of this ring of visitors and wait for an opening in the line to develop, cut in, and then join the agonizingly slow shuffle around the perimeter of the exhibit case in a great Circle of Life.

It was a real shame, because in terms of the quality of the material on exhibit, it was one of the best assemblages of artifacts I’ve ever seen in one place.  They had great stuff, but no idea how to arrange it in an exhibition; a wonderful facility, but no thought as to what visitors needed in order to orient themselves when they arrived.

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Now, eventually you do plan to have dinosaurs on your–on your dinosaur tour, right?

Check out Katy Lasdow’s write-up of her visit to the Boston Tea Party Ships & Museum. After forking over twenty-five bucks, sitting through a mock town meeting, pretending to dump tea chests from the deck of a replicated ship, and watching two holographic women talk about the coming war, she got to see a grand total of one original artifact.

“When does a museum stop being a museum,” Lasdow rightly asks, “and become something else?”

My former boss used to say, “A museum is a communication device.” I agree. A museum should do more than collect and display artifacts; it should use the tools at its disposal to contextualize those artifacts. The days when an exhibit consisted of a conglomeration of artifacts, labels, and pictures are over. But the use of artifacts and other objects to communicate and instruct is still the distinguishing feature of museums. That’s what separates the museum exhibit from other means of communication and instruction.

There’s no magic ratio of artifacts to gizmos that works for each and every exhibit, but when there’s only one artifact in the whole building, one wonders why they decided to call it a museum in the first place, whatever the quality of the information being conveyed or the nobility of the planners’ intentions.

To read a couple of my older posts along these same lines. click here and here.

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Messy endings

The Center for Education and Leadership at Ford’s Theatre opens this month, and The New York Times paid a visit (hat tip to Brooks Simpson).  This article merits quoting at length.

After you leave a reproduction of the deathbed in the Petersen House, you enter the new building, as if emerging into the Washington streets the morning after Lincoln’s death. Church bells are tolling; broadsheets are plastered on walls. The panel text makes the atmospherics even more vivid. We learn that when Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor, heard what his brother had done, he said, “It was just as if I was struck on the forehead with a hammer.”

Mary Todd Lincoln was so mad with grief that White House pallbearers went barefoot, so sounds would not distress her. She neither attended the Washington service nor accompanied the coffin on its 1,700-mile railway journey to Springfield for burial.

That journey is evoked in a gallery space resembling the train car that carried the coffin. And touch-screen monitors give us the details: seven million people viewed the body where it was shown along the way, or congregated along the tracks; 300,000 in Philadelphia alone. There were hints of Lincoln’s legacy in the tributes, and signs of unfinished business too. In Washington the 22nd United States Colored Infantry headed the procession; in New York the City Council refused to allow blacks to march at all. Its ruling was overturned by Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.

In counterpoint to the funeral train, we get a survey of Booth’s flight through the Virginia marshes. Parts of his diary are transcribed onto touch screens. Booth was bewildered by the manhunt: “I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.” He is tracked to a tobacco barn that is set ablaze and is shot by an overzealous soldier; his co-conspirators are hanged. Reconstruction begins, falters and ends.

In a panel about Lincoln’s vice president, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, we see how quickly the world Lincoln opposed oozed back into place. As president, Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation, approved of “Black Codes” limiting the freedom of former slaves, and wrote, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.”

Was Booth, then, ultimately triumphant? He certainly altered the shape of Reconstruction. As a result, the exhibition points out, by the 19th century’s end, Lincoln was recalled differently from the way he had been just after the war. At first he was remembered as a liberator, undermining the culture of enslavement; later memorials emphasized instead his devotion to the Union.

But we also learn of Lincoln’s afterlife and nearly universal appeal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower kept a complete set of Lincoln’s writings in the Oval Office. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “it was time” for Democrats to “claim Lincoln as one of our own.” The only portrait that the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen kept in his home was one of Lincoln, while Mao directed his followers to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Here too is Lincoln’s popular heritage, in Lincoln Logs, cartoons, knickknacks.

This is a radically different approach than the cabin-to-coffin exhibit at the ALPLM in Springfield, which ends on a note of somber resolution—the war won, Lincoln’s place in national pantheon secured.  The narrative at Ford’s is less reassuring.  This exhibit starts with Booth’s bullet, and then takes the visitor through the post-war debates over the changes Lincoln implemented.  The story meanders through an America still dealing with the ripples of Lincoln’s presidency, a nation taking steps both forward and backward, both toward the transformations wrought by Lincoln and in the opposite direction of Black Codes and the collapse of Reconstruction.

And the way in which people remember Lincoln, in this narrative, is not set in marble in April 1865.  Instead, the world contests his legacy down through the years, finding multiple meanings and dropping the ones that become inconvenient.

It seems to paint a messy, complicated, and often ambiguous picture of history and historical memory.  In other words, it sounds like it’s worth a visit.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, Civil War, History and Memory, Museums and Historic Sites