What’s Behind A Photo? An Inquisitive Critique of the Academy of Natural Sciences

Below is a photo taken by Akiva, my seven-year old son. He took it on a  recent family trip to Philadelphia, when we visited the Academy of Natural Sciences. If his interest through the museum can be measured by the photos he takes, this bone received his only vote, outshining everything else in the museum. And looking at the photo I can’t help but ask, Why?

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The Academy is not only an old Natural History museum but it was America’s first. Founded in 1812, it would set the template for many that followed. It was the first to  mounted a dinosaur skeleton, Hadrosaurus. They have 17 million biological specimens in their collections. Walking through the halls of dinosaurs or dioramas, it definitely feels like the granddaddy of them all.

The museum has no mobile apps. There are no interactive computer screens. No video displays. There’s no augmented reality game. No audio guides. The only tools mediating the visitor experience were the classics: signage and hall design. As we wandered from exhibit to exhibit I almost had to remind myself we were still in the 21st Century.

But Akiva photographed the bone, utilizing his own tech, his iPod touch, to mediate and process his own experience. We almost missed the room, tucked in the back behind the dinosaurs, but my brother-in-law knew about it. Behind glass a half dozen people – scientists – were hard at work, hunched over tables working on what appeared to be dinosaur bones. It was immediately engaging, making us wonder what we had stumbled into. The glass between us framed them, reinforced the special place they occupied, and gave us permission to observe, question, and engage.

Someone on the other side approached and, through the glass, asked if we had any questions. Akiva and his cousins asked about the bones they saw, and which were real. The explainer (my word) asked if they wanted to touch a real one?

She didn’t have to ask twice!

Before long she disappeared out the back and entered from our side of the glass, bone in place. After observing and touching, Akiva asked if he could take a photo. Using the app Camera+, he turned it black and white and added one of his favorite frames, “Old-Timey.”

So why was this the only moment he wanted to capture out of our hours in the museum. I can’t say for sure, but I have a few guesses:

  • The ability to physically interact was crucial, but there were other youth-oriented hands-on activities in the museum and no others were deemed photo-worthy. There must have been something else.
  • Perhaps watching science in action gave context to the bones, making this small bone more interesting than the giant T-Rex skull around the corner.
  • This context was then further explored through the direct contact with the explainer who welcomed us to lead our interaction with questions, rather than the presumed knowledge required by the standard “objects behind glass.”
  • Finally, it felt like something important was going on, something that started before we’d arrived and would continue after we left. It felt the opposite of static. It was like a diorama, but alive.

And that was an experience both exciting enough to use digital media to document and, for me, a good lesson in engaging through design.

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About Barry

The Associate Director For Digital Learning, Youth Initiatives at the American Museum of Natural History.
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