Written for Museum Practices Class, Fall 2010
Originally constructed as a residence, the Pink Palace Museum was converted into a museum between 1925 and 1929. In 1930, the building opened as the Memphis Museum of Natural History and Industrial Arts. Later, in 1977, a new building opened to house permanent natural and cultural history exhibits instead of the curiosity cabinet within the mansion. This analysis will cover those exhibits opened in 1977.
The natural history exhibits on the first floor explore the geological and ecological history of the mid-south as well as other natural history elements of the world. Several cases containing animal remains are the first thing the visitors encounter. Many of these cases have an uncomplicated labeling of what animal each skull is, while some have more information about the shape of skull and its importance. As we discussed in class, this is excellent for those visitors who want to do the extra reading, but it is not obstructive to those who just want to look rapidly and get out without reading every little thing. The text is large and clear on these labels.
The exhibit about birds has cases hanging overhead, and some of the text is acceptable for reading, but some is too elevated for me, so obviously too high for children. The following area about insects and animals in their habitats has cases with various animals displayed inside, and are sometimes concealed by other objects. The labels are very good in that they have a silhouette of the animals beside their name to help identify them.
One of the most popular exhibits, Rollo the Triceratops, has a small sign explaining why she is no longer an animatronic display and also a small cardboard cutout that gives a small history of this particular breed of dinosaur. Maybe a more permanent label rather than this could be more effective, but it works for now without looking substandard.
My favorite part of the natural history exhibits is the mammals section with many stuffed mammals in various natural positions. The labels for this area have a representation of the animal adjacent to their scientific and common name, much like the silhouette previously mentioned, though improved with color and detail. However, some animals have the word “eliminated” in red over them. At first glance, one may think that this means the animal has been removed from the exhibit. In some instances, this is the case but not all. I’m still trying to find someone to ask about this. In contrast to this, the cases across from the animal diorama have several animals inside but only a description of their arrangement. This is not too confusing, but inconsistent to the label across the aisle.
The next section on Geology has several different examples of rocks and minerals from all over the world. The rocks are meticulously labeled with scientific name, common name when applicable, and place of origin. There is a very old model of a seismograph that is no longer working. The label explains this and claims that the museum will be upgrading to a newer model in the near future. There is no way for visitors to know how long this label has been in place or when this exhibit will be updated, but at least the label acknowledges this fact.
From Geology, exhibits change to fossils and dinosaurs. The cast of sauropod tracks has a picture of the casting on the label which is just as informative as words. As with the rocks and minerals, labels telling the name and place of discovery of the fossils are present. Many of the cases of examples contain background information as well as the name and place. As with previous natural history exhibits in the museum, there is plenty of information for those who would like to take the time to read. A large section of wall is taken up by a cast of a mosasaur fossil; the label has several bits of information all along the cast which emphasizes the length of the fossil. Next to this, a triceratops skull has a label with a picture of what a live triceratops would have looked like along with the information about this creature.
Many of the cases in this section are lower to the ground which is great for children or handicapped. In contrast, the low cases could pose problems for taller people. As with many things, there are rarely ways in which one can please all visitors. Though this section was originally opened in 1977, it does not seem to contain very much out-dated or inaccurate information.
Up the stairs from the natural history exhibits, visitors enter the cultural history area. I began my circuit around the history exhibits at the Clyde Park Circus display. This display, built during the Great Depression, has original labels written by the creator of the circus still exposed. These add to the experience of seeing this antique artifact. Along with original labels are new ones that explain the reasons for offensive depictions of African Americans in the display. Another creative way of labeling on this display is a panel in the exhibit that has questions and answers explaining the construction and mechanics of the circus.
Around the corner is a Ford Model T display that explains the importance of the development of personal cars. There is a label explaining the scene depicted, but there is much more information in laminated booklets around the display with more information for those who wish to learn additional information.
Many of the history exhibits consist of a diorama set-up with no labels on or in the case, but behind or near the display. This is positive because the labels do not take away from the information gained from seeing the original arrangement. For instance, information is on the wall opposite the display of the drugstore diorama. The situation is similar in the country store exhibit. The Victorian Parlor exhibit has all of these things, as well as a label similar to the ones in natural history exhibits. A diagram of the objects in the room as a silhouette describes the significance and placement of each object in the room. Many of these exhibits are staffed by a volunteer docent who explains many things that the labels do in a more interesting way.
Text throughout the history exhibits is generally readable and in colors, font, and size that are easily recognized. Many labels highlight words that are written in bold and capital letters; these are the significant vocabulary words of the existing exhibit or words that relate to the objects within the case. The labeling is consistent throughout the exhibits. One exhibit in which the labeling was unclear is the exhibit with wedding dresses. The exhibit case is rather deep, and there is text concerning one of the dresses at the very back of the case. The lettering is the same size as the rest but farther away, which makes it difficult to see and interpret.
These exhibits are older, but they do not show the dating that some exhibits from the 1970s contain. The museum has tried to keep up with the times by adding information where needed, or upgrading exhibits. However, some of the fonts and colors reflect the age explicitly. Understandably, a complete overhaul of every label within the exhibits would be expensive and time-consuming. The labels are not so bad that they should be replaced immediately, but an update within the next ten or so years would probably be beneficial to the aesthetic value of the exhibits. The labels are very informative and educational without being superfluous, which is the purpose of these labels.