Creatures of Light – American Museum of Natural History

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit the exhibition on bioluminescence at the Natural History Museum in New York. While the exhibition seems to be fairly well received (see for example http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/culturelab/2012/04/luminous-life-on-show.html with only very tame criticism), I think the exhibition has done a terrible job in presenting nature, in every single room of it.

The first room of the exhibition is about fungal bioluminescence, and as every other room it is very tasteful. There is soft atmospheric music that fills the twilight around the well-sculpted objects. In the centre of the room is a group of old fallen trees on forest ground. Yellow-blue light filters from the fibres of the old logs, mushrooms grow with shining caps. A step closer however, little LEDs under paint become obvious, because all there is plastic. This sets the general theme of exhibition. Mock nature.

The second room is about fireflies. It is furnished with several enormous, but not very detailed plastic models, a row of computer screens with lots of text, and a dull electronic game, where the player is supposed to blink with a flashlight, and little firefly lamps would blink back. In this room there is not a single actual insect, dead or alive.

The third room is about models of light producing, cave-dwelling insects. There is a single insect in a plastic cube under a magnifying glass, without much obvious explanation. The models include two cave diorama with crystal stalactites that have LEDs at their tips. For interactivity one may stick his head from below into the diorama.

The fourth room is where visitors get a little excited, at the tank with actually alive torch fish. They show their nicely blinking bellies in an otherwise dark aquarium. Impressive. Sadly no tank with light, so no look at the whole fish. Unfortunately also Aequoria victoria, the very source of Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) is only represented by a plastic model. It only glows because of two UV lamps, as a child next to me found out slightly disappointedly.

The exhibition ends with a big-screen video about anglerfish and similar creatures of the deep sea. The video, unsurprisingly, doesn’t show anglerfish, but amateurish animations of anglerfish.

Surely the real glowing fungi are much fainter and may need a black curtain where visitors stick their heads through, fireflies may be tricky to breed in masses (enjoyable paper on this topic http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0044516907000391) and sea aquaria with fluorescent sea anemones (like Discosoma) and jellyfish are labour intensive, but all these don’t seem to be impossible to exhibit. Also there are dinoflagellates, where visitors could even stick their hand in a tank and see water glowing around their fingers. Or there could be a display of luciferin reacting with luciferase. Also, showing prepared beetles under binoculars is not really hard, and is a much better kind of interactivity.

This exhibition is a sterling example of a fashionable vice in science museums: not showing the real thing. Museums are meant to show what would otherwise be hidden and hard to reach for most of us. Such exhibitions however present second-hand nature, flashy cheap mockups. There is a layer of indirectness, nature becomes something distant when all there are plastic figures, diagrams, screen games and cute cartoon characters that don’t challenge too hard. Hardly something that motivates to take a net, go into a forest and catch insects. I think this is the product of laziness combined with lacking respect for nature.

For exhibits about Nature, and not about someone’s pale ideas about nature, I recommend for example von Hagens’ Animals Inside Out exhibition at the London Natural History Museum. While the explanations are a bit thin, the exhibits are all stunning preparations of actual animals. These fine works immediately show what’s important. While I wold have liked a bit more background, such well-done exhibits explain concepts by themselves to a large part without need for many words. For trying physics experiments yourself on actually working experiments and for some advanced knowledge about engineering, see Deutsches Museum in Munich. For anglerfish, see David Attenborough’s fine documentation at youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UXl8F-eIoiM.

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