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.”