Technology adds life to museums

Once-staid experience now takes a page from theme parks with interactive exhibits and animatronics

April 06, 2006|By JANE ENGLE | JANE ENGLE,LOS ANGELES TIMES

What's shaking at museums these days?

Just about everything.

At the Lincoln museum in Springfield, Ill., the floor trembles and cannons belch smoke in the theater while in the library wispy holographic ghosts haunt the artifacts.

At the Pirate Soul museum in Key West, Fla., visitors experience the sounds and tumult of a high-seas battle after being menaced by an animatronic Blackbeard.

At the "Cosmic Collisions" show at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, guests feel the simulated jolt of a meteorite hitting Earth 65 million years ago.

The biggest kaboom you hear in these places isn't from artillery or space rocks. It's from the wall falling down between museums and theme parks.

Once devoted to displaying what detractors call "dead stuff in glass boxes," museums are adding bells and whistles to connect with young people.

The process started decades ago. Among the pioneers was Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, which opened in 1933 with, among other exhibits, a reproduction of a coal mine that sent visitors 50 feet down to a mine shaft.

Interactive experiences and gadgets were followed by sophisticated graphics, movies and multimedia.

Now comes a more radical transformation: the "experience museum," which borrows heavily from amusement parks, Hollywood and Broadway. More visual than verbal, more emotional than intellectual and unabashedly cinematic, the experience museum focuses on storytelling.

The highest-profile example -- and a harbinger of what's to come, its backers say -- may be the $90 million Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum complex, which has drawn more than 530,000 people since opening last April. (Scholars do research in the presidential library.)

Besides the museum's special-effects theater and haunted library, visitors encounter TV spots with issues from the 1860 presidential campaign; a Whispering Gallery echoing with comments from Lincoln's detractors; a dramatized slave auction; and a play area for small children.

Throughout the displays, the president and his family appear as life-size figures in various poses, including in the box at Ford's Theatre, as assassin John Wilkes Booth lurks.

And yes, there are artifacts: the president's handwritten Gettysburg Address, the Emancipation Proclamation, his shaving mirror and other personal effects. But the Treasures Gallery is only one room -- and not the first one.

The idea is first to engage visitors emotionally, which "really energizes the object," said Bob Rogers, founder and chief executive of BRC Imagination Arts, which designed the displays.

"What you're trying to do," he said in an interview at the company's Burbank, Calif., offices, "is to get guests to fall permanently in love with the subject."

Forget about telling them everything there is to know about Lincoln in reams of static text.

"We're not going to give them a Ph.D. in two hours," said Rogers. But he hopes they're inspired to learn more.

Indeed, the slogan for Rogers' company is "Showmanship meets scholarship."

But does it?

Some critics say it doesn't.

To John Y. Simon, a history professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, the Springfield facility presents "the Disney version of Lincoln's life."

"The concept is one of dumbing down the life of Lincoln so it can be appreciated by children of all ages," said the scholar, who has edited 28 volumes of Ulysses S. Grant's papers.

The displays, he said, downplay Lincoln's intellectual contributions, thereby "demeaning" him.

Simon contrasted the Springfield museum to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, which he thinks is more dignified.

In Washington, "schoolchildren fall silent," he said. "They are moved. And they begin to read the words of Lincoln" engraved on the monument.

Thomas F. Schwartz, Illinois state historian who will be the museum's interim director, rejected the professor's criticisms.

"John Simon is a wonderful historian," Schwartz said. "But he doesn't deal with museums."

In fact, as Simon noted, he toured the museum during its construction and hasn't visited the finished version.

Far from discouraging the intellect, Schwartz said, the museum whets visitors' appetites for knowledge: Books are the best-selling items at the gift shop.

"People say, `This is the first museum where I actually felt something,'" Schwartz said. "History has to be that. It has to be head and heart."

Jean Baker, a history professor from Goucher College in Baltimore and one of several scholars who were consulted on the museum, agreed.

"Such novelty is not dumbing down but rather is reaching out," she said.

Still, one can argue that compromises were made.

Although a computer-animated Civil War map ticks off casualties with precision, scholars don't agree on the exact numbers, Schwartz said. The museum tried to choose the best estimates.

In the Whispering Gallery, the printed quotes from Lincoln's critics are exact, but their words on the recordings "are paraphrased in a conversational tone, like gossip mongers," Schwartz said.

Whatever the issues at the Springfield museum, Rogers and others think it's the wave of the future for conservators of the past. Already on BRC's drawing boards are new visitor facilities at the Empire State Building and what Rogers calls a "radical urban history museum" in Liverpool, England.

So-called immersive environments, futurists say, are needed if museums are to compete in a multitasking world of 500-channel TV, the Internet, electronic games and adrenaline-fueled amusement parks.

Jane Engle writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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