Museums cast off the dead stuffed skins

Picture yourself in a dark movie theater - only instead of kicking back and reaching for popcorn, you're hammering away at a touch-screen console, your every tap determining the movie's outcome.

Welcome to the "goovies," the video game and movie hybrid opening June 19 at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington. Aptly named Immersion Studios, the digital cinema joins the growing ranks of museum exhibits that rely on high technology.

From motion simulators, to 3-D imaging, to dinosaurs that emit acrid smells, museums are changing to accommodate a gaming-animated youth and an increasingly tech-savvy public.

Museum officials claim that these new experiences are much deeper, creating greater interaction with exhibits and among visitors, and engaging more senses and learning styles.

Take Toronto-based Immersion Studios Inc. So far, the company has only three theaters: in museums in Boston, Montreal, and Melbourne. But it intends to seal six more contracts within a year - and insists it will soon be "the next big thing since IMAX," according to company president Stacey Spiegel. The reason?

"Young people are looking for new ways to experience content, and looking at stuffed things in plexiglass cases is not as meaningful to them because they grew up in a different culture," Mr. Spiegel says. "What they really want to do is be active participants in their lives, and that goes for entertainment as much as day-to-day activity."

Enabling that active participation is a floor-to-ceiling panoramic screen, 50 touch-screen consoles, and a thundering Dolby 5.1 surround-sound system. The five rows of tiered benches can accommodate up to 120 people, who interact both individually and as a group.

Players, for instance, can determine the sequence and outcome of the 20-minute adventure by tapping on their consoles in a majority vote. In the video-game portion, players work collectively to "nab the enemy," but also compete for best score. They also can surf the console to contribute better-educated votes on the movie's sequence.

"We wrap real educational experiences into an entertainment narrative," Spiegel says. "It's not pedagogically me telling you something and you listening; it's 'I've just experienced something.' "

However, after a sneak preview, a middle-age mother from Virginia confessed she "missed half the show with so much going on."

Spiegel counters: "If you grew up in the world of IMAX cinema, you're used to sitting passively with your hands folded in your lap." But he insists people uncomfortable with too much interaction can still learn by just sitting and watching if they like.

The Immersion theater, along with a 3-D IMAX, is part of the museum's new $40.6 million Discovery Center - which it credits for helping it become last year's most visited museum in the world, drawing some 9.4 million people.

Take a ride past Milky Way

Another major new tech-heavy facility is the $210 million Rose Center for Earth and Space, which opened last year at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The planetarium is by far the center's biggest attraction, combining real-time visual simulations with graphics. Viewers don't just gaze up at the sky - they're taken for a ride beyond the Milky Way, then allowed to free-fall into a black hole.

Motion simulator rides have also been on the rise during the past two years. Visitors may be sent full-throttle down a Ford assembly line, or blast off for a close encounter with a comet.

And new forms of 3-D technology have been a big hit.

At the London Science Museum's four-floor Wellcome Wing, which opened last summer, for instance, visitors are given a unique Web address on which they can save a 3-D scan of their face that can be rotated or dissected.

If these types of exhibits seem too heavy on the experiential and too light on the educational, blame it on the comprehensive Internet, says Robert Sullivan, head of exhibits at the National Museum of Natural History.

"It's the museum's main focus now to provide an experience that's provocative and memorable. Then when visitors go home, they'll want to log on to the museum's website or any other site and learn more."

But at the same time, many visitors are in a backlash against their own abundant use of computers, which can isolate their senses - and their children who hole up in their rooms, Mr. Sullivan says.

Ironically, the answer for parents is more-advanced technology, but in a form that allows families to learn together - and that's savvy enough that their kids will want to go, he says.

But of course, the use of high technology doesn't always equate with better exhibits.

A survey at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, for instance, showed that visitors who used one of the computers sprinkled through the museum spent more than twice the time looking at the virtual 17th century than at the actual artifacts from that period. That's not surprising, considering that the program offers 16 digital movies, 30 artist biographies, and an interactive timeline.

Art museums have understandably drawn the most complaints from purists, who feel that the juxtaposition of monitors and art is intrinsically jarring, if not simply distracting, says Sullivan.

Shared space that glows

But the more-interactive realm of science museums has experienced similar dilemmas when glowing screens share space with real objects.

The Biodiversity Hall at the American Museum of Natural History has been criticized for an exhibit in which young cyber-explorers huddle around 10 interactive stations, oblivious to the dazzling display of real specimens from 28 evolutionary groups.

"I always insist that technology must be servant of content," says Abbie Chessler, head of the Laurel, Md.-based Quatrefoil company, which specializes in museum exhibition design. "And no media can touch reality - real place, real objects."

In an odd twist to the rise of high-tech exhibits, the dusty stuffed animals take on a heightened version of reality.

"Models and taxidermy specimens were considered the virtual reality of the turn of the century," says the National Museum's Sullivan. "But now that there's a new medium that's totally superceded us. Parents say, 'I'm taking my kids to see the real thing,' and it's hard to explain to them that these are just dead, stuffed skins."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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