Trip Report from the American Museum of Natural History

Note: This is the report that I wrote for Cabinets of Wonder but I will post more reactions to AMNH because... well to put it succinctly, I found another dream job.

My favorite museum growing up was the Field Museum, and something that I remember quite clearly is the view of the museum when you first step past the revolving doors; no matter how old I am, that view always amazes me. That was what I first thought of when I entered AMNH - the entrance reminded me of that awed feeling (although the architecture made me think of Field as well, there’s some similarities between the two). 

The sheer size of AMNH was intimidating. I visited this museum with someone, and we were a bit lost as to where to start because of the size. The sheer number of families was overwhelming so we ended up going with the flow of traffic. If I had to describe AMNH, I’d go with ‘eclectic’ - if each exhibit were a piece of software, the user experience of each one was so different that the museum overall felt disjointed. For example, the African People’s exhibit is designed entirely differently from the space/science oriented exhibits - while this makes sense with regards to creating an experience that best brings out the objects on display and the theme of the exhibit, the museum overall felt like it lacked a connecting theme. This was also compounded by the layout of the museum - you could come out of a historical exhibit and make a wrong turn only to land in a futuristic one. 

Navigation was next to impossible. We had to consult the map at least ten different times to find out where we were going (including to bathrooms). There are little stickers on the floor at some point that direct you how to go to the food court, and they lead you through at least two exhibits in order to get there. 

I did enjoy the exhibits on an individual level though. My favorite was the ocean exhibit with the huge blue whale; as we were walking to find food, we both looked over to the entrance of it and stopped dead in our tracks. Grumbling stomachs won in the end, but that exhibit was on the top of our list to see when we finished eating.

AMNH was packed full of families, and what was interesting was how they interacted with the exhibits. Families with smaller children for example didn’t stay very long at the dioramas; they looked for a couple of minutes and talked about the exhibit, but from what I could hear the conversation was put in the context of what the kids thought about what was display, and then they would quickly move on. Groups of adults on the other hand had more in depth discussions about what they were viewing; I followed a couple in one of the space exhibits and they had an involved conversation about the seismograph recording device they were looking at. Captions really made the difference here - if they were short enough, people read them but some people just glanced at them before moving on.

Surprisingly there wasn’t a lot of interaction at AMNH. This really surprised me in some of the newer exhibits; the most interactive thing I can remember was the seismic recording device in the Planet Earth exhibit where it asked visitors to jump to observe how it records earthquake tremors. There were touch screens in the ocean exhibit but they didn’t function correctly. This was very much a ‘object behind glass case’ museum (it sounds like the Pterosaurs exhibit was interactive but I didn’t go sadly, I will have to do that!).

I looked at the website after I visited the museum and it’s… confusing. I didn’t realize this, but the hours that the museum is open is actually on the first page… you just have to scroll to it. I initially navigated to the Plan Your Visit tab to figure out the hours, so it took me one click. The organization of the pages is pretty haphazard - there’s no consistent grid so the flow of the page wasn’t very consistent.

I loved being at this museum despite the navigation issues. There were so many things that inspired me about it, and I would love to build interactive experiences here, especially having seen some of the iPad applications the museum has built in the past.