Sunday, March 29, 2009

A modern museum

I recently visited the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. The newly renovated building, which is LEED platinum certified and took nearly 10 years and $500 million dollars to build, features a natural history museum, a planetarium, an aquarium, and a 4-story indoor rainforest. I approached this uber-modern museum with a critical eye, both as a museum employee and in light of my research into the history of natural history museums. What struck me most, overall, was the sheer modernness of it all: many of the traditional barriers between what happens "behind the scenes" and what the visitor sees were removed; more scientific information and research was presented, fostering a learning environment for the visitor; and the concepts of conservation, ecology, and global warming were omnipresent.

Visitors can watch a taxidermist at work in the lab behind glass, actually preparing animals. A camera is trained on the process, which is projected on a screen.

Another important divergence from traditional natural history museums is that there are live animals along with the dead ones. The African Hall, an original exhibit from 1934, has new living animal displays mixed in with the original taxidermy dioramas. At the end of the hall there is a colony of African penguins, which waddle, dive, and swim to the amusement of the visitors. The aquarium, with 38,000 live animals, would have been worth visiting just on its own.

Jellyfish tranquilly pulsing through their tank:

All this modernity made me think about the history of natural history museums, as the Academy of Sciences so clearly breaks with many traditions while still reflecting its heritage.

One of the earliest incarnations of a natural history museum was Ole Worm's collection in Copenhagen: These Renaissance-era collections were inspired by the vast amount of previously unknown things that were being discovered in the New World. There was little discernible order in the collections, which looked like explosions of natural and manmade items all crammed together in rooms and cabinets. As Lawrence Weschler explains in his book Mr. Wilson's Cabinet of Wonder,
The point is that for a good century and a half after the discovery of the Americas, Europe's mind was blown. That was the animating spirit behind, and the enduring significance of, the profusion of Wunderkammern.
As the times gave way to the Enlightenment, this pervasive sense of wonder began to be replaced by a desire for order, calm understanding, scientific certainty, and progress, thus changing the nature of collections. Descartes wrote that
What we commonly call being astonished is an excess of wonder which can never be otherwise than bad.
Naturalists such as Hunter and Cuvier created collections intended to convey "the rationality and orderliness beneath the profusion and confusion of forms." (Asma, Stuffed Animals and Pickled Heads) The shifts in taxonomy over the next couple hundred years had profound effects on the type of museum displays employed, and indeed on the fundamental concept of a natural history museum.

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