Just over a year ago, the Field Museum opened the Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth. Not long after it opened, I visited the museum and toured this new permanent exhibition. While the hall is filled with the latest tech bells and whistles, it is the use of the collection objects and a wonderful behind-the-scenes video that made the whole place lovely to me. Demonstrations of how a collection can provide clues to changing ecosystems or lead to the discovery of new species are just the thing I look for in an exhibition in a natural history museum. Specimens are displayed as they appear in storage and visitors learn how they came to be in the museum and why they are important. If you want to know more about this exhibition, you can visit a description of it on the museum’s website at http://fieldmuseum.org/about/abbott-hall-conservation-restoring-earth. You can also view the behind-the-scenes video at http://vimeo.com/35709557 and visit the museum’s online version of the exhibition at http://restoringearth.fieldmuseum.org/index.html. One of the ways the museum highlights the collection within this exhibition is by allowing visitors to create their own mini collection of digital objects inspired by the artifacts, specimens, and photos in Restoring Earth. I did this on my first visit and the best part about the mini collection creator is that my collection is still there, on the museum website! Just go to the Mini Collection Gallery at http://restoringearth.fieldmuseum.org/index.html and search for Teresa Mayfield or pick any of the thousands of collections that other visitors have created. The best part is, when you select an object from a collection, you get a detailed description of the object and links to related museum pages to explore it further. I would love to see this concept expand to other natural history museums and to see the Field expand it outside this single exhibition and to actual digital assets rather than ‘representations’ (icons). Wouldn’t it be great if I could create a mini collection from all of the objects on display anywhere in the museum or even better from digital copies all of the objects in the collection? OK, that is probably a bit ambitious, but a girl can dream.
But this post was inspired by a more recent visit to Restoring Earth.
I revisited Restoring Earth over the Thanksgiving break with my family and I was excited to show them the great use of the collection and the video, which includes cameos of people they actually know. I also wanted them to make their own mini collections, but that was not to be. The fairly large space dedicated to this activity was an empty room with a single spotlight in the middle and a blank white wall. No explanation of what was supposed to be there or why it was gone; just an odd, empty space that was visited by untold numbers of holiday visitors. What a shame! A few searches by date on the mini collection website show that at some point on November 14, 2012 (barely one year after the exhibition opened) the exhibit stopped functioning. The set-up for this activity in the Field is probably more high-tech than necessary, allowing visitors to select collection items using their body as in an Xbox 360 game. A mobile application or website with touchpads in the gallery would accomplish the same goal. Do we really need video games to make our collections interesting? When the video games break down, do we plan a back-up so that we don’t have to leave an exhibit empty? Why not allow web visitors to create a collection instead of only browsing those created by physical visitors? Would the collection be better served by digitizing specimens and using the digital copies rather than creating ‘digital representation’ icons? It’s funny how my first visit to this exhibit just seemed like fun to me, but finding it missing made me wonder about what it actually does and if it could be expanded or done more effectively. I hope that the mini collection creator is restored to Restoring Earth, but I also would like to see these types of exhibit use actual specimen representations and be designed for as wide an audience as possible so that the museum collection is seen and understood by more people than ever before.