AMNH’s latest exhibition uses big media to complement its big subject….
More than any of my local NYC museums, I find myself returning to the American Museum of Natural History on a regular basis due to the quality – and frequency – of their temporary exhibitions. Many of these are intended to travel to other institutions; all are designed with an ambition and narrative flow that I don’t often see in science center exhibitions.
The scope of that ambition often includes digital media, and I’ve been impressed with the inventiveness of AMNH’s in-house team in building digital interactivity around natural history topics. And so I set off to see the institution’s latest offering: T. rex: The Ultimate Predator.
On first entering the exhibition space, visitors come face-to-face with a full-scale model of a T. rex hatchling. It casts the ominous shadow of a fully-grown dinosaur on the wall behind it, and from time to time this shadow springs to life through animation; it’s a subtle effect, which plays out more theatrically later on in the exhibition.
Rounding a corner, we encounter some relatively traditional exhibitry; models of other dinosaurs in the Tyrannosaur family sit on a sleek black counter. The counter holds backlit graphic panels; the occasional interactive or smaller artifact livens up the content, but all in all, the exhibition remains heavy on reading.
A little later, the room opens up quite a bit to reveal a more free-form structure, with a full-sized adult T. rex skeleton sitting in the middle of the space, surrounded by a variety of models, fossils, and digital interactives.
I first headed over to a Virtual Reality station, where I waited behind six other visitors for what ended up being a full half-hour. Two staffers assisted visitors in putting on and removing VR gear (a third station went unused, perhaps due to technical issues). The virtual experience began in a minimalist facsimile of a dinosaur hall at AMNH, where my task was to assemble a skeleton – I used the hand controller to grab fossil fragments from a pile and put them in place, forming the T. rex‘s skull, teeth, and jaw. It was a pretty simple exercise – the bones snapped into place once I released them – but it did make me think about the dinosaur’s skull in a way I hadn’t before considered.
Once my colleague completed the skeleton’s leg bones, its vertebrae flew into place, and the room gradually dissolved, revealing a Cretaceous environment. The T. rex‘s skin and feathers materialized, and the creature came to life, stomping around, dining on unsuspecting prey, and roaring in our faces. While this was arguably our ‘reward’ for completing the skeleton, it was a bit underwhelming, as we couldn’t move around or interact with the creature. As with so many VR experiences, I wished it took better advantage of the technology’s immersive capabilities to let us get closer to the subject. Still, the graphics were top-notch, and the scale and duration of the experience seemed well suited to its context.
Next, I headed to the Virtual Lab Touchscreen Table. This multi-user interactive featured three fossils embedded into a tabletop with projection-mapped content surrounding them. At three distinct stations, visitors were invited to use a virtual tool (lasers, light, or a measuring tape) to assess and interpret one of the fossils.
This experience was well thought-out, and looked great, but… didn’t work. I’m not sure if the table used a depth sensor or internal cameras to track interaction, but neither I nor any of the visitors around me were able to successfully complete the tasks without the virtual tools jumping out of our hands. It’s a great idea for an interactive, but a custom interactive table is awfully ambitious for a traveling exhibition, so I hope that AMNH works out these technical issues soon.
I made my way around the full-sized T. rex skeleton to a station that focused on its anatomy; here, a series of push-buttons triggered projections directly onto the skeleton, highlighting ‘clues’ to dinosaur behavior. This was elegantly done, but the main attraction here was an even bigger projection.
The skeleton stood on an elevated platform, emphasizing its size and casting a harsh shadow on the white surface… but this shadow was in fact a projected illusion. Every few minutes, the shadow would animate, sneaking away to tell a quick story in shadow-puppet style. Here, the dinosaur crushed a triceratops skull in its powerful jaws, then fought with another T. rex over the kill, before peacefully stepping back into its original position. This effect was very well done; I can’t say that I’ve ever seen this before in a museum; it felt like a great solution to provide activity and engagement around the immobile, untouchable fossils.
After a set of exhibits and small-scale interactives about the T. rex‘s sensory powers, the exhibition concluded with a giant projection screen, which provided a colorful backdrop for the entire gallery. Roughly 40 feet wide by 8 feet high, the projection presented a vibrant view of a Cretaceous environment, contrasting nicely with the dark room and black cabinetry. From time to time a T. rex or Triceratops stomped around, but much of the time, the only activity was the fluttering of foliage in the wind.
The exhibition brochure tipped me off that this was in fact an interactive projection wall. I approached and did the usual hand-waving, but didn’t see any apparent response. I watched for about five minutes, observing other guest behavior, and couldn’t discern any interactivity, except for one point where the T. rex roared at a youngster. I’m not sure if the interaction was malfunctioning, or just counterintuitive, but – as with the touch-table – I hope the AMNH team is able to resolve this soon, as it’s a major piece of the exhibition, and while it looked great, it didn’t reveal anything new.
There’s an inherent challenge in presenting dinosaur exhibitions to contemporary audiences; fossils are static and usually can’t be touched – and dino-dig sand pits can only do so much. I admire AMNH’s ambition in creating large-scale digital interactives around the subject matter – especially for a traveling exhibition. I’m not a huge dinosaur buff (they know who they are), but I learned a few things about the T. rex from my visit, and, despite technical difficulties, I found the exhibition to be inventive and engaging.