Look at that…whatever it is.

I had an unsettling moment today when it occurred to me that, perhaps, people don’t learn anything from museums.

I hope this is not true. I say this after having visited the marvellous Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, spending about 5 hours today perusing the galleries and shamelessly eavesdropping on people’s reactions to the exhibits. Kids were certainly excited about the exhibits and eagerly pointed things out to their parents. But what sorts of things did I overhear parents saying to their children?

In reference to a very nice mosasaur skeleton, with accompanying illustration: “That’s neat sweetie, look. It looks kind of like a crocodile I guess. It must be a crocodile fish.”

By that logic, I guess the early whale Zygorhiza is probably a crocodile fish, too.

Looking at Pteranodon: “Look at that…whatever it is.”

That is a Pteranodon, good sir, as the label clearly states. This comment particularly stung because of all the things I remember from my visit to the Smithsonian when I was 10, it was this Pteranodon keeping watch over the dinosaur hall that was most burned into my memory. Also, holy mackerel! Look at the wing below it!

In front of Ceratosaurus: “Look kiddo, T. rex!”

Ceratosaurus does not equal Tyrannosaurus.

I was heartened to see some parents slowing down, reading things to their children and asking them questions about the exhibits. But for the most part, most folks simply went ‘Wow! A dinosaur!’, snapped a photo, and kept going. The same was largely true for a lot of the other exhibits as well, particularly in the ocean gallery (although in that case, the comment was ‘Wow! A giant squid!’).

In other galleries, I was a bit surprised by reactions to the unknown or new.

At the binturong: “What kind of cat is that?” followed by immediately walking away.

At the Chinese pangolin: “What the hell is that? GROSS!” followed by immediately walking away.

I will not fault people for not knowing that Ceratosaurus is different than Tyrannosaurus, or not having any idea what a pangolin is. What I find distressing is the lack of desire to KNOW reflected by some of these comments. The reactions were not “What kind of cat is that? A binturong? Oh, it’s not a cat? Why? That’s neat!” or “Look at that…whatever that is…oh, it’s a Pteranodon!” The reactions were “I don’t know what that is and I’m not going to do anything to change that.”

These comments got me thinking about the role of natural history museums (and museums of any sort, I suppose), once again. I love museums. I think I learn when I visit museums, especially for topics I know little about. I may not get a lot out of most dinosaur exhibits, but I almost always find something new (e.g., the Smithsonian’s small but very good exhibit on the dinosaurs from Maryland, and I will talk about this more in a later post). But how do other people approach museums? Perhaps not everyone shares the same enthusiasm for all topics, and will breeze through the exhibits – and that’s ok. Perhaps museums are most effective at teaching when they are visited by school groups; school visits are probably more focused on a single gallery, may have the students filling out worksheets or booklets and therefore LOOKING at things for more than 5 seconds, and teachers may have access to curriculum guides and other resources not available to tourists or parents. Follow-up activities may help the students reflect on what they saw. For most regular tourists though, what are they getting out of the museum? I don’t mean this flippantly – I would be genuinely interested to know if there has been any research done on what people retain from museum visits, and how to deliver information in a museum setting most effectively. The museum was busy and bopping and full of energy, and everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely. But if you aren’t pausing, reflecting, asking questions and seeking answers, what are you getting out of the museum experience?

12 thoughts on “Look at that…whatever it is.

  1. That SUCKS. People do that all the time. Once when I was at Burpee Museum, an adult with some kids pointed to the ammonites of the Ordovician and said something like, “Wow, look at those fish!” It saddens me.


  2. I remember a visit to the Bronx Zoo – where they'd fit a long stream of artist sketches into the handrails along the exhibit. It was so simple, yet brilliant.
    The visitors tend to continue on if the animal isn't 'doing' anything. So the sketches of animal behavior countered this by offering quick visual gratification of what the typical uninformed visitor was hoping to see – eating, hunting, etc.
    And text accompanied this stream of images, so that the next step was at hand – informational context.
    Finally – it was great design, because the information really was “at hand”. On the railing. And at eye height for most kids, which forced their parents to interpret the questions they had in relation to what the railings said. Never since have I seen so many children catching their parents in those false explanations (must be a croc fish). It was beautiful.

    The animals where presented per ecosystem – not the typical “cat house”, which I also loved.


  3. At the Smithsonian I have heard people refer to the Eremotherium ground sloths as “T. rex (famous for its immensely huge arms… :-S); the Pliohippus horse herd as “Hey, look! Velociraptor” (!?!?!), but my favorite there was a father and son looking at the stem-pinniped Enaliarctos:
    Son: Look at that fish skeleton.
    Father: No, that isn't a fish.
    (Me (thinking): Good!)
    Father: It can't be a fish. Fish don't have bones.

    'Cause apparently fish comes only in canned and breaded stick form…

    But I think trumping all these was at the Yale Peabody Museum, where there is a mastodon mounted with a small scale model life reconstruction (about 30 cm high) in front of it. A mom, pointing out to her kids: “Look at how much bigger the mastodon [pointing to the skeleton] was to a modern elephant [pointing to the model]..”


  4. This post is a thing of beauty. I *have* to wear headphones when I go to sketch at a museum.

    I have been in the Harvard Museum of Natural History and can confirm that EVERY articulated skeleton on display is a dinosaur. Got the fun experience of overhearing a man tell his adorable toddler daughter, “Look at the dinosaur” while we were all looking at a *zebra* skeleton.

    Which was mounted right next to a stuffed zebra. Yeah.


  5. Thanks everyone for all your comments – there are some interesting trends, from this admittedly small sample size. If skeleton = dinosaur for most people, then what is the best way to convey that dinosaurs are a subset of the skeletons presented? Skeletons being dinosaurs does actually make some sense. Most people have no experience with animal skeletons outside of a museum, and you go to the museum to see dinosaurs. Therefore skeletons are dinosaurs.

    Also…fish don't have bones…what do you know…

    starman – I'm not really sure how calling folks the 'hoi polloi' helps. As I said, I won't fault museum visitors for not knowing something – everybody has a different knowledge base and different interests. It's probably also worth pointing out that there is no admission fee to the Smithsonian museums, which makes me wonder if the act of paying/not paying admission factors into the museum learning experience.


  6. Not all parents are interested in the learning experiences that a museum could provide. It is just a way to amuse the “kids” while they, the parents walk around in a daze. So very sad!


  7. I once visited the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto with my school. In the dinosaur exhibit, our tour guide kept confusing saurischians with ornithiscians and vice versa. I called her out on it, but she insisted she was right. So we made a bet; when she got home after work, she was to look up any dinosaur book or website she could get her hands on. If she was wrong, she had to eat her shorts. (I was fourteen and impressionable.) Suffice to say, I was grinning all afternoon.


  8. If this was a few years ago(where I'd likely be more like the museum goers mentioned), I'd be more tolerant, but this is just ridiculous. How do they just carelessly slap on “T-Rex” or “dinosaur” on every creature? It can be maddening at times.


  9. I know, for my family, and it feels like with a lot of groups, the problem is usually because they're trying to hurry through to see everything. This is especially bad if they're not from the area, and thus this is their ONE chance to see everything; why waste time reading a plaque when there are so many other exhibits to see before we have to leave forever? I remember being hounded by my parents because I was trying to read the plaque for something because, well, we only had a few hours before we had to leave and go to wherever we were headed.


  10. I agree with this post, although I think your view of school trips to museums is sadly overoptimistic, or else schools really do field trips differently on the East coast. Every school trip I ever went on to a museum was, without exception, a slap-dash speed run led by a teacher who knew no more about the subject than what was written in our textbooks. Students are actually restricted from stopping to read plaques all the way through or stopping to admire a display other than the assigned ones. We were given some type of worksheet to fill out, kind of like a scavenger hunt, where we had to find out what year a given painting was done and fill in the answer (for example). Staying to look at the painting after finding your information would hold back your group. Stopping to look at a different painting you were drawn to would get you gentle-but-firm redirection to the task at hand. It was pretty obvious they feared we’d get up to mischief if we weren’t kept going-going-going.

    I think the school administrators were under the impression that learning how to *navigate* a museum was equivalent to learning the subject matter *presented* at the museum. It would be like an elementary school teacher taking her class on a ‘field trip’ to the school library, teaching them how to use the card catalog. then ushering them back to class before they could check out any books.


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