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Harvard’s natural history museum: The old…

24 Nov 2009

The Harvard Museum of Natural History was founded not too long ago, in 1998, yet it is one of the oldest natural history museums in the country—older than both the National Museum in D.C. (founded 1910) and the American Museum in New York (1868). Harvard’s museum was established as “the public face” of three museums: the Museum of Comparative Zoology (founded 1859), the Harvard University Herbaria (1858), and the Mineralogical and Geological Museum (1784).

I included all those dates to impress on you that this is an old museum. Old natural history museums have old funky taxidermy, and old funky “graphic design.” Honestly, though, I am not here to pick on the Harvard Museum. I’m focusing this post on their older exhibits—the botanical, the zoological, and the mineralogical galleries (their newer and temporary exhibits I might write about in a later post)—because I think their outmoded displays of minerals and glass flowers, and their similarly outmoded specimen labels within, are charming. Those labels say as much about the history of the museum as they do about the taxidermy they’re identifying.

The Glass Flowers gallery is a perfect example of that. It is mesmerizing. In a smallish, dimly-lit room is displayed the 4,400 life-size glass models made between 1886 and 1936 by father and son glass artists Leopold and Rudolph Blaschka. Every single flower, leaf, seed, is made out of colored or hand-painted glass. Some have wire armatures. It’s like a beautifully illustrated botany book, in three dimensions, in glass. The labels are modest and straightforward, without extraneous decoration. These simple labels feel just right here. I like the whole presentation.

A lot of the taxidermy displays are like that: charmingly-antiquated little labels with nothing more than a common and a Latin name, maybe a genus, a species; maybe a sentence about what an animal likes to eat, or where it likes to live.

(I liked the bird displays, can you tell?)

Every display looks different from the others because each one was put together at a different time, and made in a different way, by different people. Even within a single display there can be a lack of consistency, based, maybe, on when the museum acquired different specimens. Take the photos below—it’s hard to tell, I know (none of my close-up shots turned out, unfortunately), but trust me—there is quite the smorgasbord of type represented here:

Do I think these old galleries needs an upgrade? Yes, with a ‘but.’ On the one hand, a redesign is exactly what is needed to revive these rather gloomy collections of musty stuffed animals (among other things, like better lighting, and ventilation…). And alongside those “charmingly-antiquated” graphics are a lot of ugly, unfortunate graphics. (Much of that is found in the more recently designed parts of the museum, when “exhibit design” started to become a thing.) And those old, neglected galleries are dark, creepy, and stinky—all in marked contrast to the museum’s newly-renovated Hall of Mammals (below). The Hall of Mammal’s historically-sensitive renovation was completed in October of this year. Original nineteen-century paint colors were restored, the animals were given a good dusting, and energy-conserving light bulbs were thrown in for good measure. After making my way through the narrow maze-like hallways of the previous galleries, it was a relief to come out into this light-filled room:

This is a good direction for the museum: thoughtful renovations that retain the character and charm of the old exhibits. But, here’s the ‘on-the-other-hand': The new graphics in the Hall of Mammals are simple, nice—unoffensive, yet they’re missing that old natural history museum je ne sais quoi. It could have been worse, true. Redesigning a museum’s labeling, and giving it a true “graphic system,” does not necessarily end with great graphics. It can result in ugly, or ugly-and-inappropriate; here, it’s “that’s nice” design. Couldn’t the graphics have been done in such a way as to be both fresh and “cabinet-of-curiosities”; graphics with some personality, that give a nod to the museum’s history? Obviously, the answer is yes. I hope that when the museum is able to renovate other galleries (rumor has it that the mineral gallery might be next), it keeps that in mind.

I’ll end this with some more Old Museum: In the fossils hall, there are some fantastic dimensional letters. Cut out by hand, undoubtedly. In a shade of green you don’t see often anymore. I believe Crayola calls it “Old Natural History Museum Green.” (It’s in the 120 pack.)

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One Comment leave one →
  1. 29 Dec 2009 8:35 pm

    This is such a unique museum experience. I used to live close by and visited while working as an exhibit designer in Boston. Haven’t seen the renovation, but it looks like a nice upgrade, though still fitting in character. There is something about the antiquated appeal of the place though that is as you say, just “charming.”

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