Brain; The Inside Story



of an Exhibit

by Andrew Haight

Published on December 22, 2010

  • Description:

    The American Museum of Natural History’s latest exhibit, Brain; The Inside Story, takes the visitor on an in-depth tour by examining four of the brain’s major stories – in their terms – the Sensory Brain, the Emotional Brain, the Thinking Brain, and the Developing Brain.

    I visited the museum, alone, late on a Saturday afternoon and picked up the exhibit’s last possible timed ticket. No lines for me as I arrived and handed over my ticket stub. I stepped through the glass doors and felt transported to another place – sounds softened, colors went black and the temperature definitely cooled. I felt the carpeted floor and looked at the walls and ceiling, which had white wires hanging in massed, tangled clumps. I instantly knew: this was a new space.

    Light beams lit the wires in ways that made them dance and come alive. Small signs pointed out the display as an artistic representation of our own brain and what firing neutrons could look like. How exciting!

    The wiry mess delivered me to a video room. At first glance, the space looked like a standard video loop introducing the exhibit. The narration described how the dancer (projected on the screen) used different parts of her brain to prepare, train, and perform a dance piece. A massive, opaque, 3-dimensional “brain model” lit up different sections as the narrator mentioned them, this grabbed and held my attention much more effectively that more standard video introductions.

    I left the theater and entered the Sensory Brain section. The atmosphere shifted brutally from quiet calm and dark to bold, bright and loud. The carpeting disappeared and the walls were painted fire engine red. I quickly saw how the rest of the experience would unfold – text panels laying out clear concepts with interactive components available to illustrate complicated ideas.

    The information had a clear and structured organization. The next four areas covered content from senses to emotions, then thinking to brain development. Each area had its own color-scape and introductory section, which allowed me to skip ahead and back track without feeling like I had missed part of the overall exhibit’s message. This ability to move back and forth between concepts was supported by the gallery’s design. I could hear activities and voices ahead and behind me. I could even see the next gallery through gaps in the room dividers. I felt constantly intrigued about the next topic and safe in knowing I could go back and revisit something.

    The four areas delivered their ideas through text panels and illustrated the complex concepts with hands-on components and engaging activities. For example, Emotional Brain area illustrated how our innate reactions come from an evolutionary source, like human hair standing on end out of fear could be a trait evolved from canines.

    Easily the most crowded section of the whole exhibit, the Thinking Brain area explored language, motor skills, and problem solving. The most rambunctious activity had visitors listening to a foreign language and trying to repeat the statement while attempting their most accurate accent. Their attempt then repeated back over loudspeakers, much to everyone’s entertainment. I could hear this cacophony of laughter and amplified recordings from a good distance away, which may have undermined my interest in the Emotional Brain. Hearing the noise made me want to find out about the excitement. I left the Emotional Brain area and, needless to say, never made it back.

    As a solo visitor, I felt far more comfortable exploring the quieter, more independent activities. One, a puzzle moving blocks, really had me wrapped. I stood and completed the task after about five minutes of fiddling. Leaving the area feeling very accomplished, I noticed a family of five pickup where I left off. A great example of quality exhibit design: a single visitor or several could participate and still have an engaging experience.

    I arrived in the Developing Brain area with little energy remaining. Thankfully, the final closing gallery connected to it, which also provided the first place in the whole exhibit to sit comfortably. This room returned to darkness, had carpeting, and had a new video showing. All of which tied neatly back to the opening sequence. This video illustrated different talented people at work and how their brain operates while they complete their complicated tasks at a high level. For example, the great cellist Yo Yo Ma, had his brain functions tracked while performing. Different brain areas lit up just like the dancer in the initial video. I wondered, “How did my brain light up while visiting the exhibit?”

    Each part of the exhibit, from the content to the design, spoke to the main message. The brain is a complicated organ with many parts working together to accomplish simple and complex tasks. The different strategies employed by the exhibit engaged different brain functions and they layered onto each other throughout the experience. The Sensory Brain jarred my senses but did not subject me to extremely complex concepts. Then, in the Emotional Brain area, I reacted with surprise and excitement over the new tidbits of information I gleaned from the text, all while hearing the faint sounds emanating over the walls from the language activity in the next area. During the Thinking Brain area I had to listen and look, plus, I used my hands and thoughts to solve a block puzzle. In the end, I could revisit these experiences through the perspective of brain growth and development.

    The series of rooms told stand alone concepts about the brain. The holistic experience of feeling, hearing, and making sense of the physical space brought the concepts together. I found exhibit’s design to leave space for people to make their own connections refreshing. The museum did not need to tie up the exhibit neat and tidy at the end. It let me think. I left feeling smart.

Latest Comments (3)

good review

by Eric Siegel - December 28, 2010

I went to the exhibition also with the thought of posting a review, and also by myself. I share many of your reactions. One of the things that I found so impressive is how the design and development team came up with relatively non-technological experiences. The introductory art piece you mentioned was awesome, and way simpler than it looked. Really inspiring and inspired. Right after that there was a piece where you look at a pixilated image through these small glass spheres which simulates how the brain assembles information from the visual organs.

Another piece that really made me shake my head was one about synethsesia in which there were two large abstract objects suspended by string. One was kind of spiky and the other soft and curvy. The exhibit invited you to choose a name to each of the objects, one of which was like zinky and the other oomoobar. It is amazing how the pointy one was inevitably zinky and the rounder one oomoobar. A perfect example of synethsesia. Very clever.

Another fine exhibition from the David Harvey team at AMNH!

Eric says it all

by Kathleen Mclean - January 02, 2011

good review, Andrew. I really want to see this. I wish you had uploaded some photos—exhibitions are such visual experiences.

Another review of the Brain exhibitions (with pics!)

by Paul Orselli - June 10, 2011

There’s another thoughtful review of the Brain exhibition (with pics!) on ExhibitFiles:

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