Sailing Boldly Into the Known:
Our Dynamic Earth and the Cranbrook Institute of Science



And never the 'twain shall meet...

by Eugene Dillenburg
Exhibit Developer
Science Museum of Minnesota
August 24, 2002

Eugene Dillenburg has been developing exhibits for 13 years and is still at large. His last known whereabouts were gdillenburg@smm.org..

INTRODUCTION

“A ship at harbor is safe, but that’s not what ships are for.” So says one of those “inspirational” posters beloved of HR departments and no one else. Yet it aptly summarizes the successes and shortcomings of the new exhibit galleries at the Cranbrook Institute of Science in suburban Detroit.

Cranbrook, an educational arts community which grew out of the Arts and Crafts movement of the early 20th Century, sits on a beautiful 315-acre site in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan. The Institute of Science, a mid-sized museum primarily focused on natural history, was built in the 1930s, renovated in the late ‘50s/early ‘60s, and then sat for decades, largely impervious to the passage of time.

In the mid-‘90s, the Institute embarked on a bold plan to reinvent itself. They would gut the galleries and create new displays using the latest in educational theory and exhibition technique. But beyond that, they also set their sights on three lofty goals:

(In the interest of full disclosure, I should state my sources. Much of my information on the intent and internal workings of Cranbrook comes from having interviewed, unsuccessfully, for a job in their exhibits department in 1997; the rest comes from discussions this year with professionals who had worked on the project.)

Familiar with Cranbrook in its earlier incarnation, I revisited this past August to see how the New Institute project had come out. I was met with a series of handsome and professional displays in the best modern fashion. The thematic approach provided physical verification of Stephen Weil’s argument that the proper business of museums is not things, but ideas. And yet, I was disappointed to find that the other two goals - connections and aesthetic communication - had been severely compromised, perhaps abandoned mid-stream. The boat seemed to have run aground on a very familiar shore.

EXPERIENCE


Yes, but is it science? Floating images inside the Connections Theater set an affective stage for the exhibit. Unfortunately, few visitors enter.

Past the admissions desk and down a short, wide hallway, the black horizontal spine of a T. rex hovers over cases of mounted bird specimens. This arresting image is our introduction to Our Dynamic Earth, Cranbrook's three-part introductory exhibit. The three sections - "Life Changes Over Time" (birds, dinosaurs, and evolution), the interactive-heavy "Ice Ages Come and Go," and "Mastodons Did Not Survive" - form something of a chronological progression. Unfortunately, you cannot enter at the beginning. You must walk to the middle of the hall by the Ice Ages and then double back to the T. rex, who presides over what is more or less a cul-de-sac.

First, though, one is expected to enter the large wooden dome of the "Connections Theater" for a 15-minute presentation. We learn that vastly unrelated objects, like dinosaur bones, asteroids and bird feathers, are actually tied together in an elaborate story. Cool; kind of like that old PBS series, Connections. Unfortunately, relatively few visitors entered - which is a problem, as this is meant to introduce the entire museum - and none I saw sat through the whole thing.

Inside the dome, rather than facing forward towards a single screen, the audience sits in a circle around the edge. In the middle, white sheets of sheer fabric hang from the ceiling, and projectors from all sides shoot images in time with the narration (largely read in a British accent, for reasons unclear). The idea of being able to see layers of images on the different surfaces no doubt fits the "connections" theme very well. Yet that visual chaos (plus waves in the scrims) made it difficult to tell what I was looking at. (Similarly, the experience of seeing ghostly images rise from a central "campfire" was kind of cool, but had nothing to do with either connections or science, as far as I could tell.)

An arresting juxtaposition of T. rex with his modern cousins, though the lack of interpretation confuses some visitors.

Out of the theater and into "Life Changes Over Time," with helpful signs guiding me to the T. rex. Here, Cranbrook was going to lead the way for other mid-sized museums. Rather than try to create a dinosaur exhibit with no collections to support it, they chose to make an evolution exhibit, using objects as iconographic illustrations. As such, the T. rex and the surrounding birds were identified, but otherwise left gloriously uninterpreted. They were intriguing stage setting; the real story unfolded in the cases around them.

(Another disclosure: I love dinosaurs, yet am fairly indifferent toward birds. I barely glanced at the stuffed specimens, which were little more than props. I seemed not to be alone in this behavior.)

And those cases were very nicely done, a dynamic mix of specimens, models, labels and video. Windows cut into their backs and sides offered multiple views of objects. Magnifying glasses mounted in front of key anatomical features helped illustrate the bird-dinosaur connection. The labels were very nicely written, striving to connect this difficult material with the audience. (After identifying a bone as the "carpometacarpus," they also told us it's "the tip of a buffalo wing." In the "Ice Ages" they described glacial dynamics as "a mountain of pudding," and I swear one label in the final section was written from a mastodon's point of view.) Unfortunately, this commendable effort was occasionally undone by poor placement, low contrast, and/or printing on clear surfaces, causing the words to disappear into the background.

A case featuring a nice mix of media, but text-on-glass is hard to read.

The physical interactives were often difficult. One wall featured a couple dozen carved bird models, all of the same species, with lights flashing on them randomly - a nice visual metaphor for diversity. But then I was asked to find the one bird "with different tail markings." With no further description. While some of them are eight feet off the ground. And all have their tails pointed away from me. Would you be surprised to learn I was not successful?

On the other hand the interactive videos, offering a trip through geologic time, were very tastefully done. The interface was almost intuitive - crank a handle to the right to go forward, to the left to go backwards, and the faster you crank the faster you move. (This interface was repeated elsewhere in the exhibit, and throughout the museum.) On-screen "magnifying glasses" showed the years passing by at different scales. The information was nicely layered, though at the micro-scale some of the text didn't seem to match up with the animation.

An interactive wall of birds. Can you "find the one with different tail markings"? No? I didn't think so.

And what of the vaunted "artistic" approach? It was surprisingly subdued. Everything was nicely designed without being over-designed - no large monuments to the artists’ cleverness. Everything had a purpose. Sometimes the meaning revealed itself to you; sometimes it took a little effort; and sometimes it hit you over the head. A floor-to-ceiling 3-D spindle diagram showed the relative numbers of dinosaur and bird families during different geologic eras. From across the room it looked very intriguing; up close, you found it was crammed full of information and interpreted to within an inch of its life.

The one big thing I felt was missing was any kind of immersion experience. Perhaps that's tough to do with an abstract theme like "evolution." But I had half-expected the artists of Cranbrook to come up with something amazing, and I suppose I was a little disappointed that they didn't.

The other two sections of the exhibit had much the same approach and feel, so I'll just hit some highlights. "Ice Ages Come And Go" was interactive-heavy, and not always meaningfully so. (One component seemed to be missing its instructions.) It spent an awful lot of time on seasonality, circulation and climate zones - minor parts of the story - while dedicating just one interactive video to the Milankovitch cycles, the true triggers of the ice ages. To be fair, this is awfully complicated stuff. (Disclosure #3: I had just finished working on some components about the Ice Ages in Minnesota.) The component nearly collapsed under the weight of all the information. But, once you played with it a bit, it was perhaps the best explanation of the topic I've seen. I wish I’d done it.

This computer interactive explaining climate cycles did a remarkable job of making complicated subject matter accessible.

The Ice Age section had just about the only overtly "artistic" flourishes in the entire hall. A wall of spinning tops, both videos and animated toys, introduced an interactive on the spinning Earth. A couple of large, internally-lit fabric sculptures, abstractly representing glaciers, gave the room a unique feel without overwhelming the space or overshadowing the content.

But what was missing was any connection to the evolution section. If the point of these mini-galleries was to introduce major scientific themes and then to show the connections between them, this felt very disconnected. Indeed, I was unsure if these were three separate exhibits, or three sections of one large exhibit. Titling and design consistency led me to conclude the latter, albeit tentatively.

Abstract glacial sculptures in the Ice Ages section. For a tangent on the museum's intention, click here.

(Each section of the hall had a central pillar with an overview label. Stand too close and a taped narrator reads the label to you, word-for-word. Annoying, but fortunately the technique was only used those three times.)

The final section, "Mastodons Did Not Survive," made much clearer connections - Mastodons were of course ice age mammals. And there was a faint reprise of evolution in the discussion of the various extinct beasties. A fair number of fossil bones were used, rather effectively, as guides for visual learning. Otherwise the space relied heavily on paintings and models. A full-scale reproduction of a mastodon served as an icon for the space, with a few abstract tree sculptures to give a hint of atmosphere.

There were still problems with some labels that were too high or too faint. An interactive which asked you to match an animal with its food was color-coded, but used soft pastels that were virtually impossible to discriminate.

Overview of "Ice Ages" section, featuring warm wood panelling and a life-sized mastodon.

Some of the design touches made me smile. A mounted flying squirrel in a Plexiglas box hung in the air overhead, suspended from the top of a case. A model comparing growth rings in a mastodon tusk to a pile of ice cream cones made perfect and immediate sense. The last wall in the gallery, on Paleo-Indian, had windows cut into it allowing a peek into the next exhibit, on Woodland Indians of historic times. These details piqued my interest, wanting me to look closely and learn more. When they were supported with content, I felt very satisfied. When they weren’t, I left feeling nonplussed.

An interactive compares a stack of ice cream cones to the annual growth rings of a mastodon tusk. Not visible in this photo, a human molar -- donated by the designer -- offers a comparison. (According to one staff member, "It's not the only time we had to pull teeth from him.")

Having spent two hours in Our Dynamic Earth, I hurried through the rest of the museum. It seems that the plan to create interconnected, thematic exhibits had either been abandoned, or revised beyond all recognition. If there was a connection between Our Dynamic Earth and Life Lab or Motion Gallery, then I confess I missed it. And the notion of using limited collections as examples of universal themes seems also to have been variously interpreted. Some exhibits were object-free; others resembled open storage. The inclusion of physics and technology exhibits in what had been primarily a natural history museum indicates a certain change - perhaps even loss - of focus.

On the other hand, Every Rock Has A Story revealed some pretty interesting geological connections. Reading Objects was about as fine an introduction to material culture as you are likely to find. And Water Is Like Nothing Else is like nothing else - a serious attempt to communicate affectively, through aesthetics rather than didactics. A series of encased kinetic sculptures show water in its various forms, while "fun facts" on the wall amaze us with water's ubiquity. Perhaps only a topic this familiar and universal can lend itself to such an evocative approach.

VISITOR EXPERIENCE

A critique such as this is based on my view as an exhibit professional. But museums don't build exhibits for their colleagues; we build them for our public. And the public has a very different agenda from the professional busy-body. Visitors want to be comfortable in an exhibit. They want to feel competent. They want to be engaged, they want to find meaning, and finally, they want to be satisfied.

(I have borrowed these criteria from The Judging Excellence project, which was described in the Exhibitionist last year. For a fuller explanation, you can read the rest of this website. Oh, and one final disclosure: I am an advisor on the project, and webmaster of the site.)

Comfort, I felt, was a bit of a mixed bag. I found the layout a bit confusing, there was no place to sit, and some labels were hard to read. On the other hand, the exhibit was well-lit, had plenty of space for walking, and an open floor plan that made it easy for me to judge how much time and effort it would take. I felt they handled controversies fairly, and the exhibit took pains to be inclusive. I'd rank this on the high side of average.

In terms of feeling competent, while I found some individual components a bit dense with information, overall the exhibit did not feel overwhelming to me. Text was well-written, if a touch dry for my taste. I found the examples, illustrations and metaphors all simple and graspable. The interactives were uneven, ranging from the too-simple to the impossible, but I felt instructions for all were clear, even intuitive. (Though one Cranbrook staffer opined “intuitive leaves most visitors unsatisfied or worse, feeling stupid.”) I'd rate this as good, maybe even very good.

Touchable replicas of mastodon bones outside a case holding the real thing, with labelling explaining features visible on the fossils. (Planned remediation will move the graphics closer to the replicas, in hopes of making this even more effective.)

Engagement seemed to be their strong suit. Visitors really seemed to like this exhibit. I saw lots of reading, reading aloud, using interactives, families working together, calling to one another, etc. I saw very little inappropriate behavior. Only the theater seemed weak in holding power. And exhibit held me for two hours - granted, I was doing a review, but I never felt bored. This is very good, bordering on excellent.

Meaning, whether made or found, was something of a disappointment for me. The relevance to my life, the "so what?", remained hidden. The exhibit managed to draw connections between birds and dinosaurs, between glaciers, mastodons and Indians, but where was the connection to me? This felt no better than average.

And finally, satisfaction. I struggled with this final, overall assessment as I wrote the first draft of this critique, and then I got my answer. While in Michigan I hooked up with my buddy Derek and his family, who live outside Detroit. Hearing that Cranbrook had installed this new exhibit, they asked me if it was worth a visit. Without hesitation I said "yes." For while I wouldn't call it a must-see, it's definitely a "should-see," especially for anyone passing through the area.

(At the admissions desk I overheard one mother, who had just paid seven dollars a head to bring her brood in the door, exclaim, “This is ridiculous! It’s more expensive than the zoo!” Well, I’ve been to that zoo. I think Cranbrook offers something closer to value for money.)

BEHIND THE SCENES

So, how to make sense of all these divergent impressions of the new Institute, and in particular its intro exhibit Our Dynamic Earth? As a museum professional, I found a great deal to admire. First and foremost, kudos to Cranbrook for having the courage to reinvent itself, to shake off its sleepy past and so fully and firmly embrace contemporary educational theory and exhibit practice. Small vestiges of its previous life remain - a handful of woodland dioramas, a justly renowned mineral study collection - to link with its past. But everything else is bright, shiny and new, in the best possible ways.

Interface for video interactives.

Second, congratulations to the designers, developers and fabricators. These are handsome exhibits, well-planned and professionally executed. The idea of basing exhibits on theme rather than collections make the content much more accessible. Certainly there are some problems - as noted, the confusing layout, the difficult interactives, the occasionally illegible graphics - that need to be fixed, or at the least avoided in the future. (Insiders tell me that remediation is underway.) But I would not hesitate to hold up Our Dynamic Earth as an example to other museums of comparable size as an example of what can be done, a standard to aim for and perhaps try to exceed.

And yet. . . Knowing the back-story; knowing the plan to create mini-exhibits united by a meta-theme; knowing the dream of communicating aesthetically and emotionally; I have to wonder: what happened here? The envelope feels largely unpushed. There are a few nice touches here and there, but they amount to little more than decorative flourishes around the edges of a well-done but fundamentally standard late-'90s exhibit.

I contacted several people who had been involved with the project, some of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity. What follows is a composite: no one person said all of these things, but none of it was contradicted, either.

My sources cite the usual suspects: leadership and budget. The New Institute project had largely been the brainchild of the director, Dan Appleman, in collaboration with campus architect Dan Hoffman. Sadly, Appleman succumbed to cancer mid-way through the development and design phase. With the visionary gone, the vision began to unravel. Meanwhile, there was also a change at the very top of the Cranbrook community, which had a ripple effect on the Institute.

Taking a final peek at a specimen from another, unexpected angle.

The budget - fairly tight, as they always are - had been based on doing development, design and production work in-house, drawing heavily on former art students from Cranbrook Academy. While this young and largely inexperienced staff generated many wonderful new ideas and fresh approaches, the steep learning curve and numerous dead-ends ate up a lot of resources. The new administration saw its charge as getting something built, and by all accounts did an excellent job with the funds remaining. But they did it by retreating to safer waters, shelving many of the more ambitious plans.

(This retrenchment continues - plans for future revisions seem to focus on traditional collection displays, rather than thematic exhibits.)

CONCLUSION

As a museum professional, I enter any exhibit with certain expectations. Our Dynamic Earth met most of them very nicely. As a professional with inside information about exciting new plans and intent, I was rather disappointed - it was pretty much the same old same old. And as a visitor with no inside scoop, just looking to make good use of a summer's afternoon, I was pleasantly surprised and, ultimately, satisfied.

In any interpretive exhibit, the content is the bottom line. And Cranbrook’s thematic approach really brings the content to the fore. Their other dreams, of multiple connections and affective learning, sadly have gone unrealized. But Cranbrook has built a beautiful ship -- if they navigated one sea, and floundered on the other two, can we still count their voyage a success?


CITATIONS

Serrell, Beverly et. al. “A Tool for Judging Excellence in Museum Exhibitions.” Exhibitionist, Vol.20, No. 1, Spring 2001.

Weil, Stephen. “The Proper Business of the Museum: Ideas or Things?” Rethinking the Museum and Other Meditations. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, 1990.


We are indebted to Eric Johnson and Heather Hall of the Cranbrook Institute of Science for their help in obtaining permission to use these photographs. All photos 2002 by Eugene Dillenburg.



This page updated January 25, 2003.



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