Wasted Wonder: Picturing Science, but Not Explaining It

Prints of meteorites from “Picturing Science” (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Winding my way past the American Museum of Natural History’s giant elephants and intricate dioramas, toward the exhibition Picturing Science, my fantasies bloomed. I prepared to be awed by the beautiful miracle of biology and by the power of the technology that lets us see it.

But upon reaching the show and moving from image to image, it quickly became clear that my fantasy was, well, just that.

All of the prints on display in Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technology were created using the AMNH’s top-notch technology, by members of the museum’s more than 200-person research staff. There are black-and-white images of bug genitalia created using scanning electron microscopy, digital photographs of various mammals’ skulls, colorful panels showing samples of meteorites as seen through an electron microscope, a CT scanner image of a lizard’s skeleton.

But the images, though intriguing and sometimes eye-catching, are relatively small in scale, with the largest about two square feet — not nearly large enough to engulf this viewer’s attention. The hallway in which they hang is poorly lit, making some wall text actually difficult to read. The swell of noise from the Hall of Mammals is 100% audible throughout, so you practically have to plug your ears to concentrate on what’s in front of you. The overall impression is that the museum decided it would be a good idea to inform the public about its scientists’ work, but didn’t want to put that much work into the exhibit itself. Maybe this random hallway happened to be free, so they slapped together some photos and text and went for it.

Rodent teeth
Rodent teeth

The wall text seems to confirm this suspicion: it is universally so superficial that it doesn’t even spark questions worth investigating later. One scanning electron microscope image of a rodent’s teeth, taken by a paleontologist investigating a species that’s 16 million years old, comes with this text:

Teeth often help detectives identify unnamed bodies…and this is also true for scientists examining ancient mammals. To study a now-extinct rodent found in northwestern China, Museum paleontologist Jin Meng and his colleagues employed SEM. They examined the animal’s skeleton, as well as its tiny teeth. The teeth have more advanced features than those of close relatives, providing strong evidence that the scientists had discovered a new species that lived about 16 million years ago.

Aside from the name of the species — Megacricetodon yei — this is the information we’re given in its entirety. Questions abound: What features of these teeth are “more advanced than those of close relatives”? How did the scientists extrapolate from these differences to realize they’d come across a new species? Why do teeth, in particular, provide enough of a basis to differentiate between species? Aside from teeth, what’s distinct about Megacricetodon yei? More exposition in any direction would provide some basis for engagement. As it is, we’re left with just the surface — the enamel, say.

Beyond the lack of information about what we’re looking at, the exhibit does a poor job of explaining where these images come from. There’s virtually no information about the scientists who produced them, so if we’re meant to understand the AMNH’s function as a research institution — i.e., the role these scientists occupy in the larger organization — it’s a bust.

Moreover, the explanation of how the imaging technologies work is lacking. One panel in the middle of the hallway — that is, after you’ve already seen half of the images — explains how four technologies work, two of which are illustrated. The diagram for the scanning electron microscope shows us what we’d see “if we put a penny in an SEM.” Rather than a penny, why not show us how an SEM was used to produce one of the images on view? Better yet, how about placing the explanation of the SEM’s functionality next to one of those images? It seems obvious that a video would have better explained these tools than a wall panel reminiscent of a fifth-grade textbook — perhaps something like the one the AMNH posted on its on website. More importantly, there’s no context here: what did these technologies replace? What do they allow us to do and see that we couldn’t before?

Stained cichlid, ponyfish, and mackerel
Stained cichlid, ponyfish, and mackerel

With more care, this exhibition could have accomplished many goals, like piquing interest in science and the museum, inspiring viewers to do more research on their own, or simply prompting us to marvel at the way “art and science converge,” as the wall text contends next to what is arguably the only breathtaking image, of fish stained with dyes. Given its lackluster presentation, rather than truly picturing science, the AMNH wasted an opportunity.

Picturing Science: Museum Scientists and Imaging Technologies continues through May 31, 2014 at the American Museum of Natural History (Central Park West at 79th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan).

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