Animals: Machines in Motion

Review

of an Exhibition

by Erica Colwell

Published on September 03, 2016

  • Description:

    Animals: Machines in Motion- Interactive to the Max, but not Participatory

    Animals: Machines in Motion is a traveling exhibition about biomechanics created by the Field Museum of Chicago in partnership with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. I visited Animals about two months after it opened at the Museum of Science, Boston in early February 2016. Centered around biomechanics, there are a great many things to see, hear, touch, and do within the exhibition, though the lack of participatory experiences was disappointing since Animals had ample opportunity to allow visitors to add something to the exhibits using their own biomechanical machines- their bodies.

    The first thing the visitor sees when entering the Animals gallery space is a projection, much like a movie trailer, that introduces biomechanics with the tagline “The machine inside is built to move.” Instead of using a flat wall or a screen, visuals of humans and animals in motion as well as text are projected onto 3-dimensional cubes, giving them additional visual interest. This introduction, along with a majority of the text on the panels and signage throughout the exhibition, is presented in both English and Spanish.

    Animals flows from one thematic section to another, with each focusing on how different parts of bodies work to keep animals alive. The first section focuses on how animals protect their bodies (bones, shells, etc.), the next on how muscles pump and contract, another on how animals regulate their temperature, and so on. All of the sections included models, videos (some live-action, others animated), real biological specimens, and hands-on interactives. One such interactive is a life-size model of a giraffe with a “heart” that can be pumped by squeezing: the goal is to see how hard a giraffe’s heart must work to pump blood all the way up its seven foot long neck! Another exhibit featured a taxidermied cheetah posed mid-sprint, complemented by a high quality video of a cheetah running at full speed. The video could be sped up or slowed down, or even made to play backwards, by spinning a dial. One of the most popular exhibits was a chair in the center of a fenced off area where one visitor at a time could test how wing shape and length affected flight speed. By flapping different model wings while sitting in the chair, the visitor would rotate faster or slower. There were about a dozen children under age thirteen waiting for their turn to flap in the chair when I walked past. Many of the exhibits focused on one animal in particular, but the lesson learned could be applied to other animals, and often people. The sections as well as the individual exhibits flowed together cohesively while building upon one another.

    The exhibition’s big idea- that animals are machines built by nature, whose design has influenced how scientists and engineers build man-made machines- is clear, and each content section uses this idea as its thesis. The subject fits well with the Museum of Science’s mission statement since it bridges nature and the man-made, and clearly promotes interest in STEM topics in people of all ages. Despite Animals’ relevance, cohesiveness, and dozens of interactive exhibits, I was surprised to find no participatory elements in the exhibition. A large number of the interactives allowed visitors to control something, like contracting a model spider’s leg with an air pump, flapping different sized wings, slowing down or speeding up videos of animals in motion, but none provided visitors with the opportunity to let the motion of their bodies educate other visitors. With video screens and computer interactives around every corner, Animals was a very high-tech exhibition. Why wasn’t some of this technology used to let visitors record their movements?

    One of my favorite exhibits in Animals was a looping video on a large screen (which was actually made up of six smaller screens all mounted together) that showed the animated footprints of an animal, like an elephant, walking across the screens accompanied by the distinctive sound of an elephant’s footfalls. Then an elephant would be shown, walking in long, careful strides. This repeated with several different animals. I felt this video was brilliant in how simply it conveyed, without the use of any spoken words or text at all, the fact that animals with different body shapes move in different ways. That being said, watching this video made me want to show everybody my footsteps, and to see how they compared to the footsteps of other visitors. A participatory experience here could have emphasized how humans, including me and the other visitors experiencing the exhibition, all have a “machine inside.”

    I also found the comfort and accessibility in Animals: Machines in Motion to be lacking. There were few opportunities to sit, which means that visitors who have difficulty standing for long periods of time may have become uncomfortable early into the exhibition. I found myself wishing there were stools or benches in front of the exhibits, or at least those with video screens, so that I could relax and take my time.

    Animals: Machines in Motion delivered a lot of content in various forms. It used technology innovatively and included many interactives- two things visitors definitely expect from an exhibition at the Museum of Science. Overall the exhibition is vibrant and highly engaging, and the abundance of fun hands-on exhibits makes up for its lack of participatory experiences.

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