Site Evaluation: National Museum of Natural History

For my site evaluation I decided to visit the National Museum of Natural History. I’ve never really been a fan of natural history because I am not much of a science person, but I decided to stretch myself a bit with this visit. The museum is very interactive, which I thoroughly enjoy, and I had fun going to the different stations to see how well the interactive elements work for the visitors. There were also questions posted throughout the Ocean Hall for kids to answer and to help them engage with the exhibits they were exploring. The museum was very kid and family friendly with a lot of things to keep the kids engaged while the parents can enjoy the educational experience the museum provides.

The FossiLab in the dinosaur wing was a great way to engage the public. Unfortunately, during my visit it was not in use, but I got the sense that it was a very popular exhibit and much loved by the visitors. Visitors are able to observe the paleontologists at work as they clean and conserve the fossils. Visitors are also able to ask the paleontologists questions as they work so as to better learn what exactly is entailed in working with the fossils. The interactivity with the public does not end when the visitors walk away from the FossiLab, however. The National Museum of Natural History website provides more information about the projects being worked on in the FossiLab as well as more in depth information on the tools used to clean the fossils. While the information provided on the website is very interesting and informative, it still feels as thought it is lacking. A live feed of the paleontologists at work would be a great way to show students in a classroom or interested visitors what is happening when they are not at the museum in person to observe the work. There are good videos on the site that show how some of the tools work and the work being done to uncover a brontothere skull but these videos are rather boring and do not help the visitor feel engaged with what they are seeing.

A very good, but very small, exhibit in the Ocean Hall was Portraits of Planet Ocean: The Photography of Brian Skerry. Although it is a very small exhibit, it offers great insight into what life is like in the ocean. With beautiful pictures and video taken by Skerry, the exhibit is a gorgeous addition to the Ocean Hall. I was not even aware of just how much the public was involved in this exhibit until I looked on the website.  Visitors were asked to vote on which of Skerry’s photographs they would like to see in the exhibit. But more than just voting on the photos, the visitors could comment on the photo and see more information about the marine life in the photo. With 4,511 votes 92 different countries this voting process was a great way to involve the guests in creating a new exhibit for the museum. Visitors are even asked to submit their own ocean photos to the museum’s Flickr page. In the coming months, Skerry and museum curators will choose the best photos from the Flickr page to be displayed in the museum as well as on the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal page. By submitting and voting on photos, the public becomes greatly involved in the process of creating the exhibit. It helps them feel included and helps them have a voice in the museum itself. Every photograph submitted to the Flickr page is beautiful and would be a great addition to the exhibit.

The new temporary exhibit Genome: Unlocking Life’s Code was a great interactive experience. With museum employees posted everywhere to answer questions and engage with visitors, the exhibit offered a very educational experience about the Human Genome Project and the ability to map human genomes. But while the physical exhibit was great and I spent a considerable amount of time in there, the Smithsonian’s digital website for the exhibit was terrible. I expected to find interactive games and more information. Instead the website is far out of date and says that the exhibit is opening on June 14, 2013, which was 8 months ago, and it is closing on September 1 of this year; only 7 months from now. This site needs a definite update to provide the visitor with better information on the exhibit. The website would be a great opportunity to provide and interactive format for teachers, students, and interested visitors to learn more about genome mapping. The website for the exhibit itself, rather than through the Smithsonian, is wonderful. It provides virtual interactive tours, animations, videos, tools for students, and more in depth explanations about genome mapping. The Smithsonian site, however, only provides a small link on the side of the page to the Unlocking Life’s Code website. I almost missed the link and would have missed out on a very well done, informative digital exhibit. The link should have been much larger, or the visitor should have been brought straight to the Unlocking Life’s Code website when clicking on the exhibit on the Smithsonian website.

Another very popular exhibit was the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. The entrance to the exhibit hall is very well done as it provides a short introductory video on the evolution of humans. It also has an interesting light feature that helps to “transport” the visitor into the past and to the beginnings of human origins. While traveling throughout the exhibit, visitors learn about the origins of humanity in a linear time frame with small statues depicting the different stages of human evolution to give the visitor a good idea of what their ancestors would have looked like thousands of years ago. The entire exhibit is very interactive with stations to show the basics of the theory of evolution, a booth where visitors can see what they would have looked like as an early human, and stations where visitors can be put in charge of their own country and they must make decisions that work for the betterment of their country. This exhibit was by far my favorite and it also has the best digital presence out of any hall in the museum.

While the website does offer and interactive exhibit floor plan, it is less interactive and more informational. A visitor may click on a certain section of the exhibit and is provided with a few facts of what to expect in that section of the exhibit. The digital floor plan could be much better if they offered a short video tour or more pictures of that section of the exhibit. The website also poses a question to visitors: What does it mean to be human? The answers guests provide may be posted to the hall’s twitter page as well as on the website itself. This offers guests a great way to feel included in the museum. The website also provides an interactive human evolution timeline and an interactive human family tree. One very important aspect of both the physical and digital exhibits was that both addressed the issue of religion and evolution. The interplay of these two ideas is a very big problem for many in the religious community. By addressing this fact up front and providing more information on this topic, the museum staff helps to ease the tensions felt by many of their religious visitors. What could potentially be a large problem for many guests is dealt with in a tactful, educational way that helps address the concerns of the visitor. Overall the website is very interactive, informative, educational, and user friendly.

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