Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals

Review

of an Exhibition

by J Campbell

Published on February 16, 2010, Modified on February 19, 2010

  • Description:

    The Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals is located off the rotunda at the National Museum of Natural History. This exhibit, completed in the early 2003, showcases traditional taxidermy in a non-traditional exhibition style for this subject matter. The usual dioramas, carefully painted habitats and ebonized wood frames are nowhere to be found. Instead, the animals are showcased behind clear glass partitions, with brushed steel fasteners and accents. This modern design provides an apt environment for my review, which will be on the technology used in this exhibit.

    The Hall of Mammals uses more technology than many other exhibits in the museum, however the tech presence is not overwhelming. I think, in general, the design has a good balance between using technology to inform and maintaining the specimens as the stars of the show. The first topic area the visitor encounters upon entering the center of the hall is that of the African Savannah. Along with having the most ’blockbuster’ animals, it also exhibits an impressive use of audio and video technology to create an immersive environment. The audio plays sounds of weather and insects one might encounter in the savannah, while video plays scenes from various times of day in the savannah. This is complimented by changing light patterns. This use of technology to create an immersive environment where the modern finishes are so at odds with the sights and sounds is impressive.

    In other areas of the exhibit, the most common use of technology is a preponderance of small video screens set in the reader rails. These screens, many under one-foot square, offer an expansion of the information found in the rail text through videos and interactive games. Unfortunately many in the exhibit are blank, or malfunctioning. During my visit I counted 5 broken screens. However, when they were functioning, these screens were often very informative! I especially enjoyed the brightly colored animation of wildebeest digestion, which concludes with the words ‘Poop! Poop! Poop!’. Apparently you are never too old for poop jokes! These screens could of course be improved by more reliability, but also by an increase in size. There is absolutely no way more than two people can use those screens at once and in such a high-traffic exhibit more accessibility would be nice.

    Another use of technology in this hall is the Big Buttons. In several areas of the exhibit large lighted buttons are used to scroll information on a band in the reader rail, and in some they control audio recordings. I was especially interested in hearing the bushbaby calls, but was disappointed because although the buttons worked, the din of the audio in the rest of the hall made it nearly impossible to hear them clearly. I feel this interactive might have worked better in a slightly more isolated area, or if some sort of sound dampening surfaces were used in the hall.

    This hall contains a large-capacity theatre at its rear. This theatre shows an educational video on the evolutionary and ecological connections between animals. The theme of this exhibit is ‘meet your ancestors’ and so this video seems appropriate to the subject matter. It is also useful to have a large are for people to sit in such a large and popular exhibit. To one side of the theatre is a section on Australian animals, which includes an interactive map which utilizes Big Green Buttons for people to make selections of what to display on the video screen. This technology seems more reliable than the often broken touch screens in the exhibit. While touch screens are very cool, I think that reliability and access to information for the visitor is ultimately more important than the ‘cool’ factor. For this reason, I really like the use of these button-controlled screens.

    Overall, I think the technology in the Hall of Mammals aids learning and creates an interesting immersive environment. However, the unreliability and small size of many of the video screens likely leaves some visitors feeling frustrated. If these things were corrected, the exhibit technology could live up to the expectations created by the very modern design of the hall.

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