Beyond Plant Earth - The Future of Space Exploration


of an Exhibition

by Katie Hillman

Published on March 24, 2012, Modified on April 20, 2012

  • Description:

    The American Museum of Natural History’s exhibition Beyond Planet Earth, subtitled the future of space exploration, begins by placing the visitor in the past – within the beginnings of space exploration and the space race of the 1960s. The darkened room, a sense of the floor rumbling, and the static ridden transmission audio made me begin to tap into my imagination and wonder what it would be like to be an astronaut.

    This sense of wonder was abruptly stopped when I realized the information panels were located about a foot off the ground. I was pulled back to Earth as I craned forward to read the text, and instead questioned why this information was so distant from the visitor. The rest of this initial hall, History of Space Exploration, seemed somewhat sparse and overly populated with large-scale photographs. One exception was the interactive station Smell the Moon. I don’t think I have ever before been asked to use my sense of smell in a museum exhibition before, and eagerly pressed the release button. (The label clearly explained that there actually are no scents on the moon because of the lack of air, but that rocks brought back into the ship had a particular scent). Afterwards I passed by several models of space technology, such as the Hubble telescope, which were displayed conventionally. I was unimpressed or more likely uninterested because a seven-year-old boy rushed over, yelling whoa and urging his mother to take his picture with the replica.

    I then entered the Solar System theatre, where not only did I get an overview of the planets in the solar system, but was asked to install the Beyond app on my iphone to access 3D images scattered throughout the exhibition. With the signage for this app installation and the 5-minute movie asking the question of why explore space, this area felt like a more appropriate exhibition entrance way than the slightly lackluster history of space.

    It was around the next curve of the space that things began getting interesting. The room simulated the South Pole of the moon, with both the floor and the walls designed to convey this particular landscape. The floor was less successfully in capturing this fantasy of walking on the moon, which crater decals stuck on the floor in certain places. I wish the same textured plaster that covered the walls could have also been used to create the floor, but I understand the logistical concerns of doing so. Again, the interactive components were sparse. After smelling the moon and touching the tire of a rover, I was craving more. I wanted to be able to open and go inside the expandable craft instead of viewing the 3D image of it on my phone.

    Next up on my travels through space were Asteroids, where the same technique of building an immersive environment was used. The Itokawa Asteroid loomed heavily over visitors and panels with its jutting rough edges, and seemed entirely too heavy to be hanging over us. I was anxious to play the Deflect an Asteroid game, using various tools to steer asteroids away from Earth. Though designed for one player, the video screen was large enough for my friend and I to view simultaneously (along with a few high-school students on a field trip).

    Thrillingly, I walked into the Space Explorer section where I finally had an opportunity to resume my role as astronaut. Though I did not have the opportunity to sit and try the Mars Explorer navigation tools due it only having three seats, the students seated there seemed to be enjoying it. I on the other hand was engrossed in the dioramas and information on the left hand wall that details what it would be like to live in space; it covered issues of trash disposal, bathrooms, food, gardening and social norms required by the astronauts such as how to sit around a table during meal time.

    I then walked onto Mars, the most successfully rendered environment in the exhibition. I took a panel quiz, twisting dials and ranking myself in various categories to see if I was capable of traveling to Mars (I was not). While the first quiz panel was broken and incapable of giving results, luckily there was a second one. An astronaut scanning the mountains of Mars with an x-ray scanner wore a newly developed space suit, which I think showed the greatest contrast between the past and future of space exploration.

    Visitors were then asked to think about potentially colonizing Mars, and what would we have to do to transform barren Mars into a habitable planet through images and an interactive game. Though this interface was large (suitable for three players) and great visual graphics, it was slightly boring. It all seemed so predetermined – the computer dictated what I had to choose, rather than allowing me to try out my own choices and potentially fail.

    The last room featured Europa, one of Jupiter’s rooms. It contained another video that I actually skipped due to the length of the exhibition, and a final room that contained almost nothing. A holograph of exoplanets was all that remained. There were text panels (again one foot from the floor) describing other holographs and images that were missing from the walls. Instead of leaving the exhibition thinking about why we explore space, I left wondering why I exited through this empty black room.

    Beyond Planet Earth wants to challenge their visitors and asks them more than enough questions about future destinations in space. It hopes to simulate environments and tools that will inform visitors’ thinking processes, but would fare better by focusing on less rather than more. The opportunity to collect 3D images was exciting and provides an opportunity to unlock more information and to share it with others upon returning home. You’re able to print out the images that unlock the 3D “augmented reality” and use them from any location, and you can thus share your experience with others and hopefully inspire them to visit the exhibition themselves.

    Though I vacillated between extreme interest and slight boredom dependent upon location, I appreciated Beyond Planet Earth’s immersive spaces and use of a multiplicity of senses. Overall I did enjoy the exhibition, and would return to simply to spend more time on Mars – relishing the chance to spend time inside one of AMNH’s constructed worlds instead of merely viewing it through the glass of a traditional diorama.

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