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New England Forests Exhibit At the Harvard Museum of Natural History

Posted by Oren Bendavid-Val on August 24, 2011 in exhibit reviews |

We have a new voice here at the TMSB. Oren is in the Museum Education MA program and he brings us a great review of a new exhibit. If you’d like to write an exhibit review and post it here, we’re happy to have it! Just write me directly – amanda.gustin[at]tufts[dot]edu.

They don’t make museums like Harvard’s Museum of Natural History anymore. The galleries are wall-to-wall with vitrines, populated with menageries of mounted or skeletal remains of animals – some extinct, some not, some soon-to-be. A motley group of large and medium sized mammals are crowded together, without environmental context, in great glass cases. In one room a section of a whale’s skeleton stretches across the entire length of a wall, with little more than a card by way of explanation. There is an entire room with cases and cases of glass flowers, seeds and leaves, gorgeously rendered to the most precise detail, for the sake of botanical study. The effect is that of a Louvre of outmoded natural history exhibits. It’s fantastic to behold, if you like that sort of thing – which, in fact, I do. It’s impressive and you can learn a lot, there’s no denying it. Still, wandering in the museum’s halls, gaping at the extraordinary collection, you sometimes get the feeling that the years of effort to modernize and contextualize museum exhibits, to make them user-friendly and interactive, have barely made their way into the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

But this past spring, in time for the United Nation’s International Year of Forests 2011, the HMNH opened a new exhibition. The New England Forests exhibition is different from what you usually see at the HMNH – it’s more interactive; you can touch it; media is quietly integrated throughout. (For the sake of full disclosure: I edited several of the exhibit’s videos on the touch-screen kiosks, working for an educational media group.)

Rather than isolating species of plants and animals, the exhibition stresses the interdependence within forests, as well as characteristics specific to New England forests. Not surprisingly there is good news and bad news. The forests of this region are vibrant, but unexpectedly young. They are growing rapidly, and this provides scientists an opportunity to learn how forests mature. As with so many other systems, the more we study forests the more we learn how intricate the interdependence of everything in the forest is. That can mean strength when life forms support each other. It can also mean fragility when a variable is introduced – for example invasive species, pollution or climate change. With development threatening to section off forests, weakening them further, New England forests have reached a crossroads. Policy decisions need to be made on how to manage our forests. As with forest life, in politics nothing works in isolation. For decisions to be made alliances must be forged, deals have to struck and budgets have to be divided and allocated.

The New England Forests exhibit doesn’t deal with politics, but it does touch on what some of the forest management options are. And it handles the complicated science of our forests with clarity. The beautifully fabricated exhibit takes up one modest room. It doesn’t change the character of the Harvard Museum of Natural History – and I wouldn’t want it to. But it’s nice to see an exhibit there that tackles important current issues with a contemporary approach.

For more information go to the Harvard Museum of Natural History website (http://www.hmnh.harvard.edu/). You can find reference to this exhibit if you click on the “On exhibit” link, and then on “Permanent exhibits.”

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3 Comments

  • Cynthia Robinson says:

    Oren, you are so right that this exhibition is a little oasis of context in a mostly old-fashioned natural history museum, and that both–the old and the new–are valuable. Each exhibition style showcases the other.

    But i was a little disappointed by New England Forests. I did not learn anything new. And that is not to say that i am an expert, but rather that the exhibition aimed at such a low level of knowledge. That seemed a pity in a museum with such a wealth of expertise at its disposal. Why couldn’t the exhibition serve both the novice and the more knowledgeable person?

    My other criticism is that although it is beautiful and did a good job of physically showing the flora and fauna of NE forests, in the end it looked like diorama. Recreating a exhibition style that visitors expect to see in natural history museums hardly seems like the way to excite them and wake them up to new insights about the complexity of forests, or the need to participate in decisions about their future.

  • Oren Bendavid-Val says:

    You make a valid point that the NE Forests exhibit falls back on a standard device of natural history museums (dioramas). Maybe it’s true that a diorama is a diorama is a diorama, even if it’s nicely fabricated and contemporary-looking. I can’t speak for the exhibit-planners as to why they chose to go that route – although I can guess some of their reasons.

    I suspect one reason was that they wanted to naturally integrate some of their collection into the exhibit. And I think this leads to an important point: this is an institution with a formidable collection. They certainly don’t lack for objects. Traditionally they’ve leaned heavily on the collection – interpretation supported the objects a little, if a all. But the New England Forests exhibition takes the reverse approach. It’s all about education and interpretation, with objects integrated to support the ideas. I think this is a big, if incremental, change for this institution – the proverbial tanker turning in the water.

    I have a different view of the content, though. Yes, some information might be widely known, or can be found in popular media. But in some cases – I know of the scientist case study videos in particular – the exhibit presents the latest findings of Harvard scientists and researchers working in the field today. For example there are findings about carbon storage specifically in NE forests; new understandings about how lichens colonize; questions about how nitrogen pollution will change symbiotic relationships between trees and fungi over the long term. I do know that over time videos will be rotated or replaced to keep them current. Maybe that kind of information should be more front and center in this exhibition.

  • Cynthia Robinson says:

    Hmmm. I wonder then, if museums need to more clearly label what is au currant. The physical displays (the dioramas) carry more visual weight than the media, which is clearly where the cutting edge scholarly work is. Multi-media is a wonderful addition to exhibitions, but not everyone uses it or has access to it. My idea of a perfect exhibition is one where the important ideas are what visitors encounter first, not last. An ideal, perhaps!

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