Museum Exhibits That Didn't Work For You

I’ve been really fascinated by this topic in the last few years: what makes a good museum exhibit?

I’ve been to several exhibits where the material had lots of promise and was interesting, but I felt the museum really blew the presentation somehow.

Anyone had a similar experience? Care to analyze where the curators went wrong?

The Titanic exhibit at the OKC Omniplex.

While it had some interesting bits (letters, clothing, dishware, replica of sunken Titanic), it just seemed like a juniour high science fair exhibit.

History usually fascinates me. This bored me. The attempts to show “a day in the life” of the ship’s crew and passengers did not go into enough detail. The part of the exhibit dealing with the search for and underwater archeology of the sunken ship were on VIDEO! Geez!

One thing which really stood out to me was the costs of different accomodations related to today’s money. That was interesting.

No, I wasn’t expecting a Leonardo movie experience, but I was expecting to learn something. I went with a mixed group of about 10, including some children. We were all dissapointed.

There’s some sort of health exhibit at Natural History museum in Denver. It’s pretty boring, plus they have this game that’s supposed to simulate DWI. Now, I did it only once and drove it perfectly. Unfortunately, they would only let you do it once. See, the whole exhibit was card-based, to start various displays and whatnot, and it’d only recoginize your card once. Honestly, it wasn’t all that great.

I recently went to see the Einstein exhibit at the Museum of Natural History in NY. It was really blah. We waited on line forever to get in. I learned more about him, but the museum exhibit didn’t present it in any kind of special way. It was kind of cool to see his actual Nobel Prize and his report card, and everything, but it wasn’t really a thrill. The demonstrations of his theories just weren’t that great. Fortunately we had a free pass. I would have been really annoyed if we had had to pay.

I was left with the feeling that the material would have been better presented in an hour of Biography on TV.

I can’t put my finger on where exactly it went wrong. It just didn’t have any elements that were especially interesting, or that would have been unique to a museum presentation.

All of the major London museums are pretty good, and well worth a visit. However, they’re all plagued by the same two problems.

One is that they often strain to provide some sort of ‘inter-active’ element, such as a button to push or a lever to slide, when there’s really not much point. I understand the principle - interactivity makes it more interesting, appeals to kids etc. - but if you’re going down this route, then please think of something where the button or lever actually makes a difference!

The second is… when the buttons or levers are just ‘out of order’ and don’t work. This is a British plague anyway (as a nation, we must be the world’s largest consumer of ‘out of order’ signs) but it seems that museums are spectacularly prone to this malaise.

But don’t let these two relatively minor irritations put you off. If you’re visiting London, all the major museums really are world-class, and well worth a visit.

I was once at a (normally very good) museum that has an excellent collection of medieval manuscripts. They had on particular display a collection of medieval saint’s lives. Whoever had written the blurbs did not make the appropriate distinctions between celibacy (vowed to live without marriage), chastity (vowed to have legal intercourse only) and continence (living without sex, whether in marriage or out). I realize in modern times all these words all have much the same meaning but it wasn’t so 700 years ago, and it kept distracting me.

When I was a kid I loved going to the Pacific Science Center in Seattle. It was a bit of a drive for my Mom, so it was a definite treat and we only went about once a year or so. And every time it seemed like there was always something there that I was just on the verge of understanding. I remember the mathematics room. There was a gravity well with metal ball bearings about the size of golf balls; They’d come down a ramp at just the right speed and angle, and it would take them about ten minutes of circling before they fell out the bottom. There was a probability machine that dropped balls through a grid of pegs into bins at the bottom. They formed a perfect bell curve every time, and there was text and diagrams explaining why it happened the way it did. I loved that place.

I may have skipped a few years around junior high school, and when I went back it had changed completely. It seemed like every exhibit was targeted for seven-year-olds, and it wasn’t just a case of me outgrowing it. There was a big lever with handles at different points, so you could lift a two-hundred-pound weight and feel how the effort changed. I learned that on a teeter-totter with my brother. The old gravity well was gone and replaced by a smaller one, with plastic marbles you had to roll by hand. You were lucky to get one to last five seconds. There just wasn’t anything inspiring or challenging about it any more.

[sub]I have since learned that the original mathematics exhibits were actually Mathematica, designed by Charles and Ray Eames, and that would be an impossible act to follow. I think there were three complete sets built, and I’ve found another one at the Museum of Science here in Boston. And it’s as cool as I remember.[/sub]

The Nevada State Museum in Carson City has a whole mess of neat stuff lying around… IN THE DARK!! Jesus, people! Turn on a freakin’ light or open these steel shutters that seal up the windows fer cryin’ out loud! The building itself used to be the mint, and the have lots of cool coin and money making stuff. Problem is, with the single 20-watt bulb hanging from the 18 foot celing, you really cant see much of it. The silver tea service from the Battleship Nevada is there, too. At least that is what I think that pile of stuff in the dark corner was. Hard to say.

You get the idea.

Fagjunk Theology: Not just for sodomite propagandists anymore.

The museum where I work is currently hosting a traveling exhibit from the Smithsonian. The exhibit consists of contemporary documentary photographs of Southern Appalachian women. The photos are good, but the photographer’s bias comes through loud and clear. It’s mostly old granny women sitting on porches. Based on the exhibit, you’d think that there wasn’t one young or attractive woman in all of Appalachia. It’s both discouraging and a little insulting that the photographer is reinforcing old stereotypes instead of focusing on the real social/economic/racial diversity of the region.

I went to the Met in NYC to see a Dali exhibit and one of the paintings was hung upside down. I thought the paintig looked weird. (weird for Dali) and a few days later there was an article in the times about how it was wrong.

Oh and the Hayden Planetarium has some great interactive stuff. A good lot of it is broken. The rest is over run by kids.

I was there a few weeks ago and while waiting for the show some tv moniters were posing questions to the crowd. One question was,

What does all life on earth need?
A. Light
B. Water
C. Air

The correct answer is Water. However some lady in front of me and my friends felt the need to CORRECT the museum and told her kid the correct answer was air.

Should I have been allowed to smite her?


To answer Zera:

I own a Remote Control of the Gods, so if you want anyone smote (smited?), just let me know. I need to get some new batteries for it, though. Where can I find a 1.2 billion volt size “G”? (Looks like an MS-76)

For the record, I hate the letter B

The National Prisoner of War Museum in Andersonville, GA, has an incredible collection, but they don’t do as much with it as they should. The most effective room is the Vietnam Room- it contains a same-size replica of a cell from the Hanoi Hilton, a tiger cage, and great sound effects (jungle sounds, Vietnamese music, etc.), but it is the exception. In most rooms, recordings of (not very good) actors reading from Civil War/WWI veteran’s diaries play on a loop, often with little or nothing to do with the exhibits in that particular room, and truly fascinating letters or items are just sort of tossed into a display case among hundreds of others so that it’s easy to miss them. Needs a major do-over.

It was very new when I was there, but the International Spy Museum left a lot to be desired. There was not enough documentation or explanation of many of the items and, again, they often emphasized much less interesting items over true gems. They may have improved since then.

Has anybody been to the Holocaust Museum? How well done are its displays?

As a person who helps design museum exhibits, I found all of your comments very interesting.

I have been to the Holocaust Museum, and I really enjoyed it. You enter the museum, and get your tickets for a tour group, unguided, but they only allow so many through at once. You’re moved to a waiting area in which children’s drawings on tiles depicting their feelings about the Holocaust cover the walls. I was there for hours and hours. This museum is rich in artifacts and meaning, well concieved, and placed with incredible visual impact.

You’re taken to an elevator, which goes up without needing to be told which floor. As we rode upward, the occupants were chatting, and laughing softly, but when the doors opened, silence hit all of us like a fist. In front of you is a huge photograph of corpses piled carelessly. It’s a gory, eerie sight which immediately changes you from a chatting tourist into a shocked, silent viewer of carnage. The point of the first sight is to show you what the Americans saw when they first opened the camps. You’re supposed to feel their reaction.

You pass through halls of artifacts depicting the almost casual anti-semitism of Germany, educational materials, films, etc. The building is intentionally laid out in a confusing, winding, spiraling manner, to confuse you as a person who was taken to the camps would be confused. It spirals upward, like smoke in a chimney.

You see an actual cattle car in which the Jews were transported. You see Zyklon B tablets in a glass jar, and a crematory oven door. You see photographs from the hideous medical experiments through viewers, in a way, like peering through a microscope. You see camp uniforms dissapearing up a chimney.

You are assigned an identity card which tells the story of one Jew, male or female according to your sex. At certain points, you check on what happened to this person, ending in a hall of archives in which scholars are still recording the experiences of the Holocaust. The day I was there, there was a woman who was searching for records as to what happened to her great-aunt.

In one room, a pile of shoes taken from the Jews gives you somewhat of an inkling of what numbers truly mean. There is a glass hallway in which the names of the towns wiped off the face of the earth by the Nazis are engraved in the glass. The sheer number is overwhelming.

In one hallway is a chimney, lined to the top with pictures of the victims . . . a visual reminder of how these smiling children, and gentle-looking grandmothers literally “went up in smoke.”

At the end of the tour is a hall of rememberance, in which you are invited to light a candle to the victims. I looked through the visitors log, and was struck by how many times the only entry from a guest was “Never again.” I think that these people were simply rendered inarticulate by the sheer impact of what we had seen. It’s a powerful experience, and I’m not the only person who left in tears.

I’m in total agreement about the Holocaust Museum. I wish I had been able to spend even more time than the several hours I managed. That, ladies and gentlemen, is how to do a museum.

As far as exhibits that don’t work… I do love the Smithsonian, but the “interactive elements” in the American History wing are lamer than a three-legged dog. It’s like, “Ooh, twist these handles to experience how difficult wringing laundry was for the colonists!” Sorry, but I don’t find laundry exciting, no matter what time period it’s associated with. And there was a whole segment on one house that was really old, and went through all these time periods, and it traced the house’s history. That particular exhibit was simultaneously too general and too specific. If I recall correctly, half the information was “then, there was another war” and the other half was “then, they re-wallpapered the guest bedroom.” Yawn. Interesting if I was actually inside the real house, boring on paper.

The best museums are the full-on interactive deals like Old Plymouth Village, the Campbell House and the Shaker Museum. You get to ramble around, see animals, be inside the actual buildings. My favorite is when they’ve hired actors to be historical characters. I realize that’s not practical for the Smithsonian, though.

Wow. That sounds incredible.

Lissa, your post alone made me cry. I plan to visit that museum in the near future.

One museum that I really enjoyed was the Immigration Museum in Boston. At the start, you are issued a passport, and it is stamped as you enter different parts of the exhibit. It’s interactive, without being obtrusive.

The Holocaust Museum is quite well-done. Perhaps one of the best things that have are people up at the top (where it starts) gently telling yourself to pace yourself, because there is a lot to see and one shouldn’t try to see it all in one visit.

I broke down when I saw the pile of shoes. It was just all too much at that point.

The thing I love about the Holocaust museum is how they used architecture that was reminiscent of a jail or internment camp, yet made it beautiful.

I shouldn’t try to type at 2:45. I hope at least some of you can understand that garbled first paragraph.

The traveling Van Gogh exhibit that hit D.C. a few years ago. It was a free exhibit, but was so popular that the timed-admission tickets for the entire day were usually gone within a hour and were being scalped on the street for up to 100 bucks apiece.

I paid 40 bucks for a pair of two, considering the price worth it since these particular Van Goghs had never been in America before and might never be back.

Alas, they crammed as many people in on each time schedule as they could, and you frequently had to look over the heads of 20 shuffling people to see any of the paintings. Overhearing crowd conversations revealed that about half the people didn’t really give a fuck about Van Gogh and weren’t interested in paintings in general, but felt the need to come simply because it was a “hot” event.

All in all, pretty frustrating.