In order to get to the newly revamped exhibit, which opened on February 10 with a tech-savvy face-lift, I had to use a museum floor plan to navigate my way past dueling moose in the Hall of North American Mammals, around some rats and badgers in the Small Mammals display, and through a corridor of totem poles in the Northwest Coast Indians exhibit. Then I made a wrong turn and found myself staring down an enormous model of a centipede in the Hall of New York State Environment. I was a little bit grossed out, but clearly my sentiments were not shared by the three small children who were jumping around with excitement at the sight of giant bugs.
"I love the big worms! They are so awesome! They have ten thousand thousand legs!" one of them squealed.
Kids absolutely love the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), which exhibits everything from meteorites to stuffed elephants to dinosaur fossils, and the recent success of the Ben Stiller movie Night at the Museum, which was inspired by the museum, has only upped the craze. Attendance at the AMNH is soaring: when comparing the winter of 2006 to the winter of 2007, "there was a 15 to 20 percent increase" in ticket sales, according to Michael Walker, the museum's senior publicist. When I visited the museum on a weekday morning, it was packed full of visitors, mostly school groups on field trips. When I walked into the 9,000-square-foot Hall of Human Origins, there were so many children around that I felt like some kind of ill-fitting endangered species.
But even though younger visitors to the museum might gush over giant centipedes, this is the digital age, and looking at something behind glass just isn't enough anymore. After all, the dioramas in Night at the Museum were really only cool when they came to life after dark thanks to a mummy's curse. (There are, by the way, no mummies in the real AMNH.) Consequently, the museum has been gradually revamping its exhibits with digital video displays, touch-screen computers, and redesigned dioramas to fit the past decade's advancements in technology.
The AMNH's famed dinosaur halls, which take up the entire fourth floor, were closed for three years for an extensive makeover in the mid-1990s. The Hall of Biodiversity was renovated several years later, and the Halls of Ocean Life and Meteorites were tweaked in 2003. The Spitzer Hall of Human Origins is just the latest step: previously known as the Hall of Human Biology and Evolution, it had been long overdue for a face-lift.
"This seems to be a trend among not only natural history museums, but science centers and even art museums around the country (are showing) more of an interest in getting an interactive element into the exhibitions," Walker said.
Consequently, where the old Hall of Human Biology and Evolution had once been an austere set of skeleton casts and dioramas depicting Neanderthals who looked like they'd stepped out of Geico Auto Insurance's "So Easy, A Caveman Can Do It" ad campaign, the refurbished Hall of Human Origins is a multimedia wonderland. The old dioramas are still intact, but the surrounding explanations and diagrams have been replaced with more information, better graphics, and often video or interactive touch-screen displays. The walls are decorated with a pattern that was derived from a digital image of the bone tissue from the famous australopithecine fossil known as "Lucy." (The 1974 discovery of the 3-foot-tall "Lucy" was one of the most pivotal moments in piecing together the timeline of human evolution.)
Some of the old displays have been more creatively enhanced. One smaller diorama, a miniature model of an excavation site at La Micoque, France, has had its archaeologist action figures replaced with hologram-like projections that show videos of scientists moving around the site while an accompanying audio narration explains what's happening.