Last Sunday, before Computers in Libraries, I had time to kill after joining my sisters and mother for an early lunch of tapas at the always-fantastic Jaleo in northwest Washington. Kill time? In Washington? That means one place for me: the Smithsonian. Growing up in northern Virginia meant school and family trips downtown, and there was always, always something fascinating to see and do in the museums on the Mall (and heck, my first job was at a Smithsonian unit: four summers at the National Zoo).
It’d been too many years since I’d been to the National Museum of Natural History, so I decided to check out the new Sant Ocean Hall and hit the slightly-less-new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals. There, amid the exhibits on biodiversity and mammalian inner ear structures, the displays of snow-adapted animals and of bottled cephalopods, the models of whales and the specimens of white-footed mice, I found an unlooked-for reminder of just why it is I love working in museums.
They inspire such a palpable and immediate sense of wonder.
And so often they do it in the simplest way possible: by putting cool objects in front of people.
None of the exhibits I saw was filled to the gills with whiz-bang gadgetry. Sure, there were small video screens and the occasional touch screen, simple interactives and the requisite orientation films–but so often I get the sense that some believe that without producing the equivalent of quick-cutting, hyper-animated, Grand Theft Auto-inspired museum technology infostraviganzas, no child–no modern person–will ever want to set foot in a museum again.
Could have fooled me, that’s for sure.
I couldn’t stop smiling as I wandered through the exhibit spaces. Here was a teenage girl jumping back and squealing after lifting the door on a shrew’s-nest of earthworms. There was a posse of what looked for all the world like tattooed skinheads snapping cell phone pictures of themselves in “Going to Sea.” Everywhere were little kids with mouths agape, eyes popping, and fingers pointing.
And the stuff that was getting them so excited was, again, so essentially simple. Phoenix the whale, right overhead. The giraffe arcing its neck by the door. The bats–and more bats. The giant squid.
They tugged their parents over and said, “Oooooh. Look!” again and again. And the parents dutifully looked. And took pictures, as if the animals were alive. And a lot of them read the exhibit labels and told their kids–or their college buddies or their spouses–more about what it was they were looking at.
It wasn’t about the technology. It was about the stuff.
Computers are great. Heck, computers are at the heart of the work I do. But it’s good to be reminded from time to time that computers aren’t the end of what we do; computers are a means to the true end. The best museum technology helps the institution accomplish one of the its most essential missions: evoke wonder.
The tech needn’t be complex. It just needs to be true to that mission.
The wonder will follow.
And to be sure, there’s nothing really revelatory in the above for most museum professionals. I would wager a lot of us–whether we’re librarians, curators, maintenance workers, managers, interpreters, visitors services personnel, or something else–got into museum work because of just this sort of feeling. But I will say this: it did me a world of good to lift my head from the day-to-day work I do and see the amazing effect of the work we do together as “museum people” on the visiting public.
So I say: get on out there and check out another museum in action. Preferably a place for which you have no responsibility whatsoever. You’ll probably get recharged, just like I did.