I’ve just returned from visiting two immersive experiences that provide a lot inspiration for how we frame – or could frame – our stories in natural history museums. The first of these is the City Museum in Saint Louis and the second, Meow Wolf in Santa Fe. Neither of these are natural history museums – or technically museums at all – and neither much in the way interpretation. However, they are both totally immersive, transporting the visitor to a complete university of their own making.
Accompanying me on this voyage of discovery is Javan Sutton, our museum’s Acting Director of Exhibitions and Digital Media. This post is a mix of both our impressions.
City Museum. Built over the superstructure of a dilapidated century-old shoe factory, City Museum was founded in 1996 by artists Bob and Gail Cassilly. It’s a mishmash of the detritus of the Gilded Age built environment of old St Louis, as the grand old edifices were pulled down to make way for modernization. Like a graveyard for the MGM musical Meet Me in St Louis, you can see on display a mix of marble cornices, balustrades and architraves from these once-majestic buildings. But this is just the beginning. There are trees made of railroad spikes, walls made of dead trees, concrete octopi and real seahorses. Basically, anything goes.
We would never turn our museum into the City Museum, but there are elements we can take away. No matter you look there’s something to engage you. There’s no wall or square foot of floor that’s left to chance. Blending art and play together was a way, in their words, of “Reviving Wonderment.” Sturdy useable ground forms that invite play (and you wonder if not a few bruises and scrapes). Animals and plants used in creative, artistic ways, contrasting with the built forms. Site lines carefully considered making the whole experience very photogenic.
While there was much to learn, it wasn’t perfect, at least not as a model for us. It was grubby bordering on filthy in many places, contrasting starkly with the brilliant images from when the place opened. While it definitely provided a cohesive aesthetic perspective, there was not – that we found – a philosophical or educational one, so entertainment is its backbone and raison d’être. While this is faithful to their goals, for a science museum like NCNMS, audiences expect to be told what they’re looking at and we have to have a specific reason to display it. We also work to develop an institution-wide perspective that leads our guests through a story arc, hoping that when they leave, they are connected to our mission and a bigger picture.
Meow Wolf, Santa Fe. In some ways similar to City Museum, Meow Wolf is an enormously full experience. Every wall, every floor and ceiling, and most of the space in between, is covered with something. Local artists partner with the developers of the experience in a wild ride for the senses. Unlike City Museum, however, there is a through line to the experience at there.
In the Santa Fe version, “The House of Eternal Return,” guests enter a large Victorian house, filled with photographs, newspapers, slightly disheveled furniture to unravel a mystery. What happened to Lex? Is he hurt? Is there some cult at work? What does the hamster have to do with all of it? Soon enough, by reading through clues embedded in newspapers, diaries, notes on the fridge, you realize that the house is not what it seems and are able to find portals into a Multiverse where nothing is what it seems. Verdant enchanted forests, fluorescent space ships visited by flying worms, a playable harp made of light. It all mixes into a fantastical riot of sound a color that is leans in unabashedly on pop culture.
We’re fairly sure we saw it all but, even after five hours, didn’t take up more than half of the complicated storyline. Fortunately, there are QR codes to download content from lots of the printed material and you can even buy one of the bedside diaries in the gift shop, to pore over after the fact.
Meow Wolf sits firmly in the realm of experiences that is almost filmic in its story line, but closer to an amusement park than a museum. It turned out to be a deeper (and, to us, more enjoyable) activity than City Museum. While it would be possible simply to enjoy it for its aesthetics, an then the St Louis experience would be similar. The plot, and the related activity are what, to us, elevate it. That said, if we have one criticism it would be that there’s no end point. You can, with dedication, figure out the story, but there’s no reward for doing so, except for a sense of satisfaction. After so much investment, though, it would be good to have a moment of celebration and closure.
Natural History Experiences. What do these design perspectives say about the display and interpretation of natural history information? Unlike (arguably) the visitor experiences described above, there are programmatic goals that go beyond pure entertainment. In our museum, for instance, we aim to communicate the science that is done by researchers within our institution and provide a platform for people to take action to conserve natural ecosystems.
And yet, the exuberance of the presentation of The City Museum and Meow Wolf is affecting in a way that, to be honest, natural history museums aren’t always. Will guests in the second quarter of the 21st century, used to 20-second Tik Tok clips, continue to be moved by – or even have patience for – specimens displayed without connection to the once-living individuals, signage with way to much text, or beige walls in over-cluttered galleries? In a world that’s rapidly becoming uninhabitable for many forms of wildlife (and in places for humans) we cannot afford to leave it to guests to extract the meaning we hope for.
We believe that to remain relevant our sector should take more from immersive experiences like those Meow Wolf and City Museum. The artistry used in those displays create lasting impressions. While natural history museums are not Walt Disney World, the experiences created by Disney’s imagineers elicit loyalty often bordering on fanaticism. Tying that level of engagement to, in the words of the NCMNS mission, ‘illuminating the natural world and inspiring its conservation,’ would take our sector’s relevance to a new level.
This is not to say that there are not impressive examples of blending aesthetics and education. A few that to us stand out.
The Grand Gallery of Evolution in the Paris Musée d’Histoire Naturelle
Micropia, part of the Amsterdam Zoo
Bug Lab, a traveling exhibition created by Te Papa and Weta Studios, Wellington, New Zealand
The International Spy Museum, Washington DC