Three museum reviews

The American Museum of Natural History has two temporary exhibits that are drawing large crowds.  One, Brain: The Inside Story, I can attest is worth a visit the next time you’re in NYC.  From the New York Times review, I’d been worried that the exhibit would be full of la-de-da generalities: “how marvelously complicated is the brain!  how little we understand about it!”  But it turned out that was just the review.   The exhibit itself does a pretty good job of summarizing what’s known about how the brain is organized, how it develops, how various drugs affect it, and more.  One highlight for me was a model brain that you can take apart to see how the brain stem, limbic system, and cerebral cortex fit together—something that 2D images had never successfully conveyed to me.  The other exhibit, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs, was sold out for the entire day when we tried to go there, so we had to content ourselves with the smaller dinosaurs in the rest of the museum.

The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, should be avoided at all costs.  On a recent visit, I and my family of Twain fans were snidely turned away since we hadn’t booked a tour—a requirement buried in the website, which someone googling for the opening hours would almost certainly miss.  (This despite the fact that the museum wasn’t crowded, and we could have easily joined a tour that was starting as we arrived.)  So don’t suffer the petty bureaucrats who curate Twain’s legacy, and treat the town of Hartford the way they’d apparently like you to: as a bathroom stop along the highway from New York to Boston.  Twain would’ve been amused. Jeffrey Nichols, Executive Director of the Mark Twain House, left me a personal apology in comments section.  I thank him warmly for that, and maybe I will visit again sometime—though it will help if I have some way of knowing I won’t just be turned away again! 🙂

The Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem has been redesigned since the last time I was there, in 2002.  In the old Yad Vashem, you walked around more-or-less randomly looking at the exhibits; in the new one, you proceed in a more linear order (similar to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC): from the rise of Nazism to the first anti-Jewish laws to the ghettoes to the gas chambers and crematoria.  The tour ends powerfully, with the Hall of Names (a large circular room with photos of victims and bookshelves of data about 3.8 million of them), followed by a balcony with a spectacular view of West Jerusalem—as if the building itself is trying to explain why the country it’s in exists.  I recommend a visit, even if you’ve been to Yad Vashem before its redesign in 2005.  But be careful to check the opening hours: the first time my family and guests tried to visit, the museum was closing, we were turned away, and we ended up going instead to a rest stop full of Elvis statues, where people lined up to use the bathroom and bought Elvis t-shirts.  (I thought that belonged in some anthology of Jewish humor.)

Summary: While the world’s museums have a great deal to teach us, they ought to devote more of their attention to the fundamental tasks of being open and letting people in.  People turned away from a museum are not just lost customers: they’ve often spent hours getting to an unusual place, and may be so annoyed by the wasted trip that they won’t want to return, even if they have the opportunity to do so.  In two of the cases above, I checked the website beforehand and that didn’t suffice, since the key information I needed wasn’t there or was buried.  Yeah, I suppose I could call ahead before every museum visit, but I hate doing that.  If someone wants to start, it could be a fantastic way to not make any money.

16 Responses to “Three museum reviews”

  1. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Re: “Being closed”

    I have always wanted to see the big meteor creator on the AZ/NM border. The first time I was driving by, I exited I-40 to check it out. At the crossroad was a sign, something like “Meteor Creator closes at 5:00 pm”. Given that it was 4:30, I appreciated the heads up, but was totally surprised that a meteor creator had hours.

    The next time I went by was about noon, so I found the obvious reason for closing: the staff collecting money to get in want to go home! It is probably worth the $15 or so to get in, although it would be cool if you could get down to the bottom. Check it out.

  2. Adam Hyland Says:

    One more museum review:

    I was also upset that the Atomic Testing Museum in Las Vegas held such short hours (and weekday only I think).

  3. Jeffrey Shallit Says:

    I had a great time at the Twain museum last year, and no reservation for a tour was required. We just joined a tour that was about to leave. Everyone was very pleasant to us.

  4. Paul Beame Says:

    On the flip side I was just in DC at the Smithsonian and dropped in at the Museum of American History for the first time since STOC was in DC back in 1984. It was amazing how the whole place has become crappy. Back in 1984 there was a cool exhibit on particle accelerators with original models of the early ones and pieces of big ones version such as at Fermilab, together with detailed scientific explanations and diagrams. I spent an hour on those alone. There were early computers including the entire computer that monitored the Atlas rocket for a Venus mission back in the early 60’s (about the power of an HP calculator of the early 1970’s). There were probably 40 or 50 early automobiles with all the crazy early designs – amazing.

    What has replaced this? Dumbed down, nearly content-free science dioramas, Julia Child’s kitchen, and a floor-hogging transportation exhibit sponsored by General Motors that shows a few early GM cars as well as some big train engines but ignores the Model T, Stanley Steamer and a host of vastly more interesting history. Incredibly disappointing.

  5. Scott Says:

    Jeffrey: That’s interesting. Maybe we encountered different staff? I’d really wanted to see it, and was sorely disappointed.

  6. Jurgis Rudkus Says:

    Hey Scott, I was wondering if, after visiting that brain exhibit in NYC, you found a small secret part of yourself wishing you’d gone into neuroscience instead of TCS. Neuroscience isn’t much different than CS, after all. In fact, no well informed person would deny that neuroscience and computer science are part of the same field. Why not go and talk to some of the brain people at MIT, tell them about your ideas? They’re pretty smart folks. I bet they’d welcome your collaboration. It’s not too late for you to find your true calling!

  7. Raoul Ohio Says:


    A couple decades ago I was in Memphis with my then wife and another couple. The wifes wanted to go to Graceland (late on a winter Sunday afternoon). We reluctantly agreed.

    It is actually pretty cool. First off, there are people from around the world (particularly Germany and Japan) having a religious experience by being there; many writing messages to E. on the wall, etc. When the tour guide asked for questions, I put on a serious tone and asked “What kind of vacuum cleaner did Elvis use?”. This irreverent question caused many an anguished looks. I hope I did a good job of not smirking.

    But — I learned a universal truth at the end of the tour. And I want to pass it on.

    The tour ends in a mini grave yard, featuring a life size statue of Jesus, which his arms spread out, allowing the rare opportunity to get you picture taken arm and arm with Jesus. We had missed the last bus out. An elderly guard came over and phoned in for another bus. It turns out that everyone working there (at least back then) was an actual friend from Elvis’ childhood.

    Then the guard said “I know you are laughing at how stupid this place is. I want you to know that Elvis would have been out here laughing along with you, he was a good guy. He was a small town kid who became an ultra famous millionaire in his early 20’s. This means you can never meet another friend, because only the dirtballs will push to the front, to try to scam you for whatever. So he brought this place, built a wall around it, and spent the rest of his life hiding.”.

    That is a pretty sad story, and you can see how it happens. It made me somewhat sympathetic about the fiasco that Michael Jackson’s life became. He was a famous zillionaire at 10 or 12. That makes it pretty hard to grow up to be remotely normal.

  8. chazisop Says:

    During the recent FOCS 2010, my flight was the next day (back to Athens, Greece with connection to NY). So I had a full day in Vegas with no talks and I spent around 3 hours inside the Atomic Testing Museum.

    I am a fan of the 50’s and 60’s due to the Cold War , early era of Computing and the Fallout game series as well (it has a nice 50’s atmosphere placed in 2077 , where the transistor was never invented and almost everything runs on nuclear power) so I had to see how my experience compared with the real era.

    I learned a lot this day about the experiments and atomic energy in general. It was totally worth visiting it.

    I would also recommend the New Acropolis Museum in Athens, which I have not personally visited (yet) but I have heard it is perhaps the best Museum on Ancient Greece.

  9. Scott Says:

    Jurgis: No, neuroscience is an amazing field but I never regretted not going into it personally. Brains are too goopy (and I hate killing and dissecting things).

  10. Scott Says:

    chazisop: If you do go to the New Acropolis Museum, don’t go the restaurant! It’s absolutely terrible. We waited an hour, and they never brought us our food—only the bill!

  11. Pete Bondurant Says:

    Hey Scott, how about a 24-hour ask-Scott-anything event? You haven’t done one in an awful long time and it might be a nice way to make up for the long and unjustifiable radio silences you’ve made all your fans suffer through of late. Come on, the semester is almost over, you’ve got no excuse!

  12. Scott Says:

    Pete: It’s funny, I was just thinking about such an event! Thanks for prodding me—it’s a-comin’ soon.

  13. Jeffrey Nichols Says:

    Dear Scott:

    I am sorry that your visit to The Mark Twain House & Museum didn’t live up to your – or my – expectations. I hope that you will visit us again and not just consider Hartford as a rest stop. The city has many great museums to visit, and I think it is definitely worth a second look. As the head “petty bureaucrat”, I again am sorry that you had a bad experience at MTH. Please try us again sometime.

    Jeffrey Nichols, Executive Director

  14. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Perhaps the potential entertainment value will let me get away with jumping the gun on an “Ask Scott Anything” session with:

    What is it like hanging around at MIT?

    The view from the hinterlands is of a bizarre juxtaposition of brilliant scientists and utter buffoonery, sometimes rolled up in the same person. MIT would be a great setting for an Umberto Eco novel.

    In particular, what’s the deal with the Media Lab? Is it like performance art for smart kids? It was in the news today:

  15. Scott Says:

    Raoul: For the most part, I’ve found it like hanging around (the science departments of) any other major American research university—the days of MIT as the exclusive province of nerdy guys with pocket protectors are long gone. Sometimes, though, you’ll run into a person who really wouldn’t fit in anywhere else (except perhaps at CMU or Caltech), and who reminds you of the MITness of the place. Two prominent examples of such people are Gerry Sussman and Richard Stallman.

    (Note that you’ll probably get a different answer if you ask someone who is or was an undergrad here—they really do have a distinctive social experience.)

    To be honest, I’ve had virtually no contact with the Media Lab (Ike Chuang used to be there, but he’s since moved to the EECS department).

  16. Jon Says:

    I saw the “The World’s Largest Dinosaurs” AMNH exhibit last weekend. It was pretty disappointing (probably because of my high expectations). It had some interesting exhibits, but the full size dinosaur model was only a mid-sized Sauropod. The entire exhibition itself was only a couple of rooms.