Hall of Mammals Africa

Part of Exhibition: Hall of Mammals



of an Exhibit

by Devora Liss

Published on February 27, 2011 , Modified on March 18, 2011

  • Description:

    At first glance, the Hall of Mammals appears to be a very stark exhibition. Mammals of all sizes are stuffed in life-like positions; some stand alone and some interact with other animals or prey. Others are positioned alongside an artificial branch or rocky outcrop. A tall, clear divider separates visitors from the animals, lending an additional layer of sterility.

    When I first entered the hall, I felt disappointed. Cerebrally, I understood that this was the only way I could get so close to these amazing creatures; yet this proximity couldn’t compensate for their artificiality. Despite the animals’ size, beauty, and the high-quality taxidermy, the hall still reeks of death. The animals are frozen in time; the serval eternally standing on its hind legs to swat at a passing bird, the giraffe forever splaying its legs as it drinks from the waterhole.

    I approached the first display case, which contained two lionesses pouncing upon an African buffalo. There was a small interpretive sign, divided into three parts. The first section covered each animal’s strengths in this encounter: the lioness’ claws versus the buffalo’s horns and hooves. The middle section contained a low-technology interactive of a lion’s paw, with claws that extended and retracted with the pull of a lever. The third section was a small touch screen, with the words “There is More Than One Way to Bring Down Prey.” Cartoon illustrations of six animals appeared; I chose the jackal, and a video of jackals stalking prey appeared. Beneath the video, text informed me that jackals hunt in pairs, and asked whether this duo will be successful. The video played until the jackals pounced, but spared me the image of tearing into their kill. Throughout the video, which lasted only a few seconds, two buttons remained on the screen: ‘back’ and ‘quit.’ These offer visitors an additional layer of control over the interactive, if they felt uncomfortable watching the hunt. Next, I chose the cheetah. This time, the text directed my attention to the cheetah’s muscles and agility as it hunted. This small screen held my attention for a few more minutes as I learned about the predatory behavior of animals beyond the lionesses on display. In addition, the video showed the animals in their natural habitats, which I would never have the opportunity to observe, even at the zoo.

    I moved on to the serval, antelope and wildebeest. The sign contained text about Africa’s shift from forests to grassland, which required animals to adapt. The adjacent touch screen read, “How to Avoid Being Eaten in Wide Open Spaces.” Again, cartoon animals appeared, and I chose the elephant. A baby elephant appeared on screen, with text about its ability to function immediately after being born. Next, I chose the zebra, and the video showed a herd, with text about how their stripes confuse predators. By taking the prey’s perspective, this interactive deepened my understanding of the web of life.

    Additional displays had technological elements besides touch screens. A video in front of the wildebeest showed footage of the animal eating grass, which transitioned into a cartoon about the wildebeest’s four stomachs, which assist in digesting the rough cellulose in grass. Despite being about digestion and bowel movements, the cartoon was quite cute, and was also accompanied by text on the screen. The video was looped, and I had to wait for it to reach the beginning. Presumably, videos break less often than touch screens, and so this would require less maintenance. Another device allowed visitors to push buttons and hear four distinct calls made by the South African galago (bushbaby).

    Other displays were low-technology. The sign in front of the oryx had flip-boards with information on its survival mechanisms in extreme heat. The pangolin display had a model of its armor to demonstrate how it protects itself against pests. Lever-controlled interactives showed the zebras’ and hippopotami’s adaptations: the hippopotamus could be submerged, leaving its eyes, ears and nose above the water line; the herd of zebras could be stripped of their stripes, making the animals easier to distinguish. Other signs had models of animal bones for visitors to touch and compare.

    With the exception of the bushbaby calls, every piece of technology in the Africa hall was silent. The use of text made the exhibition more accessible to low-vision visitors, but also avoided interfering with the hall’s soundtrack, which re-created the African climate using sound and light. The looped soundtrack played sounds of animals, followed by rolling thunder. The room grew darker as the “storm” rolled in, and rain drowned out the animals. As the storm ended, the room filled with clear light and bird chatter. This created a multi-sensory ambiance for entering the animals’ world, although the changing lights may be startling for deaf visitors.

    Compared with the immense animals, the technology components in the exhibition are miniscule. Yet they greatly increase the interpretation, when they’re operational. I was disappointed to discover a few broken interactives on my first visit, and was doubly disappointed when the same interactives, and others, remained broken on two subsequent visits. I was surprised that the museum hadn’t fixed the problems or placed an “out of order” sign. I wanted to follow up online, and discovered that the website included the wildebeest video and bushbaby cries, but not the touch screens; a missed opportunity to extend the visitors experience after leaving the museum.

    Despite my initial concerns and slight disappointments, I enjoyed my visit to the African hall. The technology greatly enriched the animals on display, as I learned about their behavior and habitats. But more importantly, the uniqueness of each interpretive sign was proof that the curators were driven by ideas, not technology. The diversity of interpretive methods employed created an exciting learning experience, as nearly every station offered a new way of learning about the animals on display.

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