At a time when science is under attack on so many different fronts, it’s more important than ever that our institutions commit to being up-to-date and reflect 21st-century advances. The Science Museum of Minnesota played an important role in my childhood fascination and passion for science — dinosaurs in particular. Some of my fondest memories are of visiting the old site on 10th Street in St. Paul and staring in wonder at the fossils of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals. That said, I have to admit that my love these days is more for what the institution represents (a commitment to science and learning), and not so much for its current incarnation. Some 20 years after breaking ground for its “state-of-the-art” facility on the bank of the Mississippi River, the museum has, rather sadly, become a bit of a dinosaur itself.
I’ll admit to never having been a fan of the museum’s “new” facility. Despite a beautiful location and stunning external architecture, I find the interior cold, cavernous yet cluttered, difficult to navigate and uninviting. Walking into the central exhibition gallery is a bit like entering grandma’s attic — chaotic and disorganized. The displays — though individually impressive — seem strewn about, organized in no discernible themes and with no sense of journey or story to guide discovery. And some exhibits reflect science that is more than 50 years outdated.
What saddens me most are the dinosaur displays.
Diplodocus is one of the largest and most amazing animals to have ever lived. But the museum’s skeleton has the body tucked under a low ceiling, while the neck extends out and up into the atrium in a static pose. You can never see the full animal in all its massive glory! The juvenile allosaurus is displayed as a vertical, tail-dragging cartoon like a scene from a 1960s View-Master reel. The museum boasts a world-class collection of Morrison Formation fossils from the Jurassic age featuring allosaurus, stegosaurus, camptosaurus and diplodocus — but you’d never know that these amazing animals represent a single ecosystem and a “moment in time.” The triceratops stands sprawl-legged and is separated, not by feet, but by floors from its contemporaries, Tyrannosaurus rex, edmontosaurus and quetzalcoatlus. Animals from the Paleogene — “The Age of Mammals” — appear alongside dinosaurs. The paleontology section is a dark, cramped space with poorly lit display cases. And what happened to the paleontology lab where visitors could see technicians working on fossils? This has been replaced by a children’s reading nook.
I realize that the Science Museum is not exclusively a natural-history museum. Its commitment to science in general means it is home to a vast array of content, collections and programs that span biology, archaeology, astronomy, technology, culture, ecology and more. Its portfolio is broad and vast. I don’t blame the museum staff for the outdatedness. The museum’s artistic, display and executive staff are extremely talented. But resources are limited, and the architecture of the large, roofless building is not ideal. But we shouldn’t have to apologize for displays that reflect obsolete science.
Imagine what it would be like to stroll through the story of life on Earth all in one continuous, chronologic display. What if we could see diplodocus out in the open, its full length dominating the central hall? How many kids (and adults for that matter) would thrill to the sight of T. rex and triceratops engaged in a full-sized, face-to-face battle? What is it worth to bring the exhibits up-to-date, so that the education our children receive from the museum is accurate, generates excitement and instills a lifelong interest in science? Shouldn’t that be a priority for our institutions? None of this would come easily. And it certainly would not be inexpensive. But dinosaurs draw patrons. The Science Museum of Minnesota has the (pardon the pun) bare bones for a first-class, global-destination natural-history exhibition. Now all it needs is the vision, the commitment — and the funding — to make it so.
James Kuether, of Minneapolis, is a paleoartist and author whose illustrations complement museum displays across the U.S. and Europe. He is the author and illustrator of “The Amazing World of Dinosaurs: An Illustrated Journey Through the Mesozoic Era.” His artwork soon will be featured in “The Art of the Dinosaur: Illustrations by the Top Paleoartists in the World,” to be released in October by PIE International.