April 18, 2011
The way I look at dinosaurs now isn’t the same way I looked at them when I was five or 10. Like the above video from a Sydney school shows, kids still feel that mix of joy and fright when they get up-close-and-personal with dinosaurs. That kind of interaction can be used to educate—as museums such as the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles and the Utah Museum of Natural History do with their dinosaur shows—and it can also be tapped for theme park scares.
Though the video shows an actor in a dinosaur puppet costume, it reminds me of the popular robotic dinosaur displays I saw when I was about the same age. I was simultaneously enthralled and terrified by them. Years before computer-animated dinosaurs were a regular staple of TV and movies, they were the closest thing to living dinosaurs I had ever seen. I still remember peeking out from behind a wall at the robotic Tyrannosaurus and Triceratops in a temporary exhibit at the Morris Museum, fearing that they might snatch me up and eat me if I got too close.
I have mixed feelings about those animatronic dinosaurs. As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in his essay “Dinomania” in Dinosaur in a Haystack, the ranks of jerking, growling robots are welcomed into zoos and museums in the hope that visitors will then wander among more educational exhibits and learn something before leaving—but this is more of a hope than a reality. Presented in the right way, galleries of animatronic dinosaurs could be very educational, but often they are more akin to theme park attractions than anything else.
That’s the trouble with dinosaurs. Not only were they living animals that are objects of scientific study, but they are also malleable cultural icons that can terrify as much as enlighten. Mixing the two—using their monstrous appearance to educate—is a tricky act.
[Hat-tip to Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs for the video]
June 1, 2010
Ten years ago Chicago’s Field Museum unveiled the skeleton of “Sue,” the most complete Tyrannosaurus rex yet discovered. She has been a sensation ever since. Tyrannosaurus skeletons are the stars of many fossil halls, but Sue is something special, and to honor her the Field Museum has launched a new exhibition which attempts to bring Sue back to life.
According to the exhibit’s website, Sue Escapes, the celebration of the Tyrannosaurus has several different parts. In addition to a gallery of animatronic dinosaurs (including Tyrannosaurus, Triceratops, and Velociraptor), Sue gets some screen time in a 3D documentary called Waking the T. rex. Special events such as sleepovers and lectures will be tied to the celebration, as well, which will run through September of this year.
The new Sue experience certainly has a lot of flash to it—I can almost hear John Hammond, the tycoon behind Jurassic Park in the novel and films, saying “Spared no expense!”—but does it deliver on the science? Animatronic dinosaurs and 3D films can be a lot of fun (although, admittedly, they were more fun when I was seven years old), yet these forms of “edutainment” are often designed to be spectacles to draw in visitors with the secondary hope that they might learn something along the way. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould lamented this practice of modern museums in his essay “Dinomania” for the New York Review of Books, asserting that, all too often, it dilutes the core of what museums are meant to be:
I may epitomize my argument in the following way: institutions have central purposes that define their integrity and being. Dinomania dramatizes a conflict between institutions with disparate purposes—museums and theme parks. Museums exist to display authentic objects of nature and culture—yes, they must teach; and yes, they may certainly include all manner of computer graphics and other virtual displays to aid in this worthy effort; but they must remain wed to authenticity. Theme parks are gala places of entertainment, committed to using the best displays and devices from the increasingly sophisticated arsenals of virtual reality to titillate, to scare, to thrill, even to teach.
I happen to love theme parks, so I do not speak from a rarefied academic post in a dusty museum office. But theme parks are, in many ways, the antithesis of museums. If each institution respects the other’s essence and place, this opposition poses no problem. But theme parks belong to the realm of commerce, museums to the world of education—and the first is so much bigger than the second. Commerce will swallow museums if educators try to copy the norms of business for immediate financial reward.
By bringing theme park attractions into museums, especially when they are not well-integrated with the natural wonders such institutions contain, museums may undermine their own core purpose—to educate. Special effects may get more people to shell out an extra five or ten dollars for the museum, but do they really do anything to help people feel a sense of wonder about the natural world? Is simply increasing the volume of visitors to a museum doing anything to better educate the public? The new Sue experience sounds like a fun gimmick, but it appears to be another collision between theme park and museum culture in which the spectacular details of nature take a back seat to (relatively) cheap thrills.
Have you seen the new Sue exhibit? What did you think? Have your say in the comments.