of an Exhibition

by Paul Orselli

Published on July 15, 2007, Modified on July 15, 2007

  • Description:

    The traveling exhibition “Gold” is a wonderful example of a natural history exhibition that illustrates both the scientific and cultural aspects of the chosen subject. Gold is curated by the American Museum of Natural History scientist James D. Webster, Chair and Curator in the Division of Earth and Planetary Sciences. Charles Spencer, Curator in the Division of Anthropology at the Museum, acted as advisor.

    Aside from the inherent beauty of gold that naturally draws people to it, the Gold exhibition uses a number of simple, even elegant, display techniques to illustrate points of geology as well as ethnology.

    The exhibition, and its equally well-designed website, breaks the subject matter into six primary sections (see PDF exhibition map.) Each of these six sections pick a gold-oriented theme, such as human-worked objects made of gold, or physical properties of gold, and present displays (whether static or interactive) that neatly highlight key content points.

    Two favorite examples of simple, yet nicely done, static displays in the physical properties section: 1) a gold-colored cube (about one foot on each side) with a label that explains a cube this size of real gold would weigh about one ton! 2) A “gold leaf” room you can step inside. Gold is so ductile that just three one-ounce coins, like one near the label, could create all the super thin leaf that covers the walls of this exhibit area.

    The gold exhibition is not just a set of trivia (only one out of a billion atoms in the Earth’s crust is gold!) however, and this is where the displays of historical and cultural artifacts really shine. Artfully arranged cases display golden objects divided by geography and historical time periods. It is interesting and instructive to look for the common themes (such as animism) that appear. Another section of “Gold” highlights “salvaged treasure.” A striking example of a partially decayed wooden chest filled with gold coins is submerged in a small tank of water is shown. While the wooden case is horribly decayed after over a hundred years under water, the gold coins are amazingly shiny (showing gold’s natural tendency to resist oxidation.)

    The exhibition’s final section presents a collection of cultural awards (statues, medals, and the like) such as the Emmy, the Academy Award, and even a miniature Lunar Lander made of gold. The very last interactive lets you step on a scale to determine the worth of your weight in gold before you exit through the ubiquitous (sigh!) thematic gift shop of gold-related paraphernalia.

    My three oldest children and I enjoyed the “Gold” exhibition so much we went to see it again on a separate visit to AMNH.

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