A Visit to the National Museum of Natural History

A Visit to the National Museum of Natural History

During our tour at the National Museum of Natural History today, I thought about how the museum conveys today’s urgent issues related to the Earth. Our guide, Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology and Senior Scientist, Hans Sues, notes there are time sensitive issues that need to be conveyed to visitors. I thought as a museum, “How do you stress that urgency?” I took note of the museum’s displays and the types of messaging displayed in large text. Coupled with the ways the museum’s convey their messages and stories, I thought about their high attendance numbers (50,000 a day!) and the types of visitors that this particular museum attracts: perhaps a number of out-of-town family groups, international tourists, and school groups. How does a museum with one of the biggest museum collection (only behind the Louvre) communicate their stories, especially the urgent ones? I think I may have find some techniques as shown through the galleries we toured today, the Ocean Hall and Human Origins exhibit.

Repetition appears to be key. For example, I noticed a repeat of a display in the Human Origins. This may have been more of an exhibit design feature to allow visitors to get an understanding of the exhibit from any entrance; there is not a designated beginning. Here is the repeated sign:

I found the repetition of the same sign to reinforce the ‘big ideas’ when you exited and it creates a ‘spike’ for the stories told in the exhibit.

Other techniques involved asking broader questions in bold text and often times were the title of exhibit display cases. At times, these questions felt like the museum was addressing ‘frequently asked questions’ but overall, I think they piqued curiosity and interest in the visitor. For example, a banner framing a wall in one of the Ocean Hall rooms asked, “How do we study something as huge and complex as the ocean?” Another use of questions explained how the museum knows what they know. A brief description would follow next to the evidence, which would be the object on display. It reinforces the idea that the museum uses facts and data, solidifying the institution as a trustworthy source.

Example of an exhibit label at the National Natural History Museum


Finally, bold statements in large font are made throughout the exhibits. I thought of them as ‘soundbites’ that the visitors could take away with them after their visit. Let them know there are urgent issues by just stating it. If thousands of people are visiting a day, it makes sense to have clear, bold statements especially for those visitors there for the highlights and moving quickly through the exhibits. From my own experience of visiting on Saturday, this type of clear messaging gave me a sense of the museum’s main messages and their stance on urgent issues of today such as climate change. Other bold statements empower the visitor as seen below.

All these types of exhibit designs help convey the museum as a trustworthy place full of wonder and inspiration.


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