The World Wide Diorama

The Hall of Bio-diversity at the Museum of Natural History in New York City, which opened this year (2000), demonstrates the movement of museum presentation in the direction of connectedness with electronic culture. Although there is no direct networking from the exhibition space to the exterior, there are several suggestive boundaries in the computer interfaces that were employed. The adjacent exhibits, dioramas produced in the 40s, and 50s, are an almost shocking contrast to the Hall, which engages, albeit cosmetically, many issues concerning the depletion of bio-diversity.

Whereas the earlier dioramas simulated and presented a few facts, the more recent exhibit provides kiosk-style CD-ROM-based interfaces with facts about various ecosystems, and a series of stations where one can view digitized video clips. While the overall impression of the space may still tend to bewilder with an abundance of unfamiliar stuffed-creatures and images, there is a discourse opened up — in the various charts, videos, and montages — that is reminiscent of the abundant environmental activism of the Internet.

Where this exhibit falls short is in its depth, since it neglects obvious possibilities for extending the learning process beyond the museum visit. The many statistical materials elegantly encased in plexiglass will become, quite likely, a sort of amber-encrusted artifact of the 1990s. Likewise, there is little that one can extract from the CD-ROMs that couldn't be presented with still photos and labels. In short, there is a lot of flashing light and whiz-bangery, but other than being moved by the light show, the Hall fails to serve as a resource for deeper reflection and research.

This is a consequence of the types of curatorial decisions -- and technical decisions -- that were made. Although the Hall of Biodiversity does not encompass Art, some of the observations that can be made about the Hall could be constructively applied to art as it manifests itself through the Internet.

Curiously, the Hall of Biodiversity supplied colorful glossy magazines for kids, devoid of the unsettling messages an adult might recognize in the exhibit. I sensed a disconnection,-- candy coated memorabilia. Moreover there were no forms of printed matter for the adults. Having read on one wall that Americans, in 1988, consumed 62 times more kilograms of paper than Africans, I agree that printing more magazines might not be an unmitigated good. But why not direct people's attention to more information online?

There is a sort of anachronistic silliness about balancing a notebook on the track-ball pad of an interactive museum display, so that one might take notes by pencil. The task would be much easier for the initiated to accomplish from home with a browser. And in fact, given the abundance of statistics and environmental information on the web, there would be more to find. Because in their apparent haste to mount the show, the Museum failed to provide more than a compelling surface. The interactive displays yielded little more than glorified labels.

In another corridor I discovered a machine that was intended to print out a cash register tape containing maps and directions to different parts of the (large) building. It's clear that the machine is little used, because its database concerning the whereabouts of "current exhibitions" was woefully out of date. Nevertheless, the machine suggests one possible alternative to the data collection problem: simply, that people could accumulate a series of printouts that contain references to other information, whether on the World Wide Web, or in books. I do not wish to suggest that the Hall would be well served by a dozen whirring dot-matrix printers; but there is a need for extension outward from the museum to the vast rivulets of related information on the Internet, and in books.

The interactive display stations were in fact styled after web interfaces. Having examined them rather closely, I am certain that they could have been made entirely in HTML, or in other words, for use over the Internet. The style of interface that they produced with CD-ROM authoring tools could be achieved also using Linux-based kiosk systems and HTML. This potentiality opens up enticing new possibilities that are completely missed by the Natural History Museum's project, and indeed, in most museum exhibitions. diarama