Sep 012018

I went to the American Museum of Natural History in NY the other day and was shocked at how bad it was.

As a kid I went all the time, and some of the bits I remembered fondly (the dinosaurs, the blue whale) are still there, looking impressive.  But now that I’m an adult and should be better able to appreciate a museum, I found myself unable to appreciate this one.

Part of the problem stems from how much was the same.  It may be no exaggeration to say I have not set foot in the place since the 1980s.  But it may also be no exaggeration to say that many of the exhibits look like they haven’t been touched since the 1980s either.  The older ones are not only looking ragged from age (lots of lights were out in the exhibits) but they are also extremely dated in their presentation.  It was often hard to figure out what we were looking at, and even when there were words, they were frustratingly unclear (“The bowl just above”?  Just above what?).

Worse, descriptions they had were often awkwardly paternalistic in tone.  Museum practices have evolved in the intervening thirty years or so, yet quite a few of the exhibits have not.  Particularly in the exhibits for the peoples of the world, they bordered on offensive, but even to the extent that they weren’t, they still were often jarringly over-simplistic.  Great swaths of land, myriad different peoples, and thousands of years of humanity were all lumped together in some of these rooms, and yet somehow we were supposed to learn something from these exhibits.  We could not figure out what.  The room on Central American peoples wasn’t quite as bad as some of the others (and appeared to have been a bit more recently done) but the African one was worse than useless.  On one wall we found an undated map (in fact most objects on display in the museum were undated) purporting to show where in Africa various tribes lived, but it was obviously incomplete, did not reflect the habit of people to travel into other tribes’ regions, and in fact was actually more a map of governed regions than actually a map of tribes, as it was labeled.  Given that genocidal acts have arisen over tribal tensions, the map (and many other aspects of the exhibit) seemed to constitute educational malpractice in its utter failure to provide actual illumination.

Of course, I’m actually not sure why, in a museum about natural history, it had even bothered to have exhibits on peoples when it would never have the space to do them justice.  But even in the exhibits on actual animals, which would seem to be in the museum’s wheelhouse, the incomplete nature of the exhibits was conspicuous.  True, there were a lot of oceanic specimens, all sort of hung on the wall in an overwhelming way.  But I was interested in African birds, having actually been to Africa and seen some rather spectacular birds there.  But these specimens were nowhere to be seen.  Surely the museum’s collections themselves are not so limited, but there was little rhyme or reason to many of the exhibits explaining why the limited number of items presented were important for us to see at all, let alone more important than all the many items we could not see.

Even some of the more recently redone exhibits, like the dinosaur ones, suffered similar problems.  Although they were generally much better, they still tended to leave visitors with more questions than answers.  In one room, for instance, there is a gigantic dinosaur, which is a quite recent discovery.  The curators made a point of saying that they were only able to find 84 actual fossils, and the rest of the dinosaur was constructed by making models of what they guessed was missing.  Great, but it would have been nice to know which were the 84 actual bones and which were the guesses.  (This dinosaur also had noticeably long vertebrae in the neck, but if there was any description explaining why anywhere in the room it was not equally noticeable.)

The museum was so bad that it got to the point that when we were looking at the map, trying to decide what to see next, the decision really became what to allow ourselves to be disappointed by next.  And every time we managed to learn an actual, insightful fact we pointedly celebrated the rare feat it represented.  To be fair, we didn’t have time to get to every exhibit.  But by the time we left, we had lost interest in trying to.

It’s always hard to visit beloved places from one’s childhood, because it’s always hard for reality to live up to a romanticized memory.  But this museum didn’t disappoint because it fell short of nostalgic expectation; it disappointed because it fell short of the educational standards we ought to be able to expect from our museums.  The American Museum of Natural History is supposed to be a world class museum.  But I’ve been to world class museums around the world, and this one isn’t.  It certainly charges admission prices as though it is, although – and I appreciated this – you can pay your own price, which certainly helps make the education a museum like this is supposed to provide more accessible.  But any price is too high when that educational value turns out to be so surprisingly illusory.  Especially with its add-on fees for special exhibits (maybe they were actually educational?) it seemed far more like a tourist trap instead of the institute for learning it is supposed to be.