Web Informant #313, 22 January 2003: The virtual museum




If going to the local museum is too much of a hassle, now you have a reasonable alternative: the virtual, web-based museum. While you don't get the complete experience of wandering the halls and coming across something serendipitously, you also don't have to deal with crowds and worry about where you are going to park your car and when you are going to feed your kids.  


I thought about this after a recent trip to the American Museum of Natural History, one of my favorite places in the city. For those of you that haven't been there, this museum is a vast complex of halls and contains artifacts that cover a wide swatch of biology, astronomy, paleontology, geography, geology, and anthropology. It is home to the rebuilt Hayden Planetarium, a gorgeous sphere inside a glass cube of a building that has a detailed exhibit on the evolution of the universe. It is home to a wonderful series of halls on the evolution of mammals and dinosaurs that I think is equal to any college course in invertebrate biology, if you can go there without your kids and take the time to read the supporting information that accompany the famous skeletons. About the only thing second class of the AMNH is a mediocre IMAX theater in its center. (I consider myself somewhat of an IMAX snob, but luckily the New York metro area is home to several other and better IMAX theaters. But I digress.)                                 


I went to the museum originally to see an exhibit on Einstein. And while the exhibit is quite good (and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the man's work who is not that familiar with the underlying physics), the place that I ended up spending my time was called "The First Europeans, Treasures from the Hills of Atapuerca." Atapuerca is in Spain, and home to a particular series of caves that did a great job of preserving a huge collection of fossils of early human skeletons. Oddly, over all the digging that has been done in this area, only a single stone tool has been recovered.


Here's my point. If I was browsing the museum on the web, I probably would have never gotten to the Atapuerca exhibit -- I just didn't think I was interested. With a click of the mouse, I would have moved on to a different corner. But browsing the physical museum is a different story, and being able to wander around the various halls (the museum isn't easy to navigate, not unlike many poorly designed web sites) you get to find stuff that is fascinating, stuff that you probably can't find any other place in the world.


That's not to say that the AMNH web site isn't fascinating by itself. The site contains content that isn't easily found in the physical museum itself, such as the discoveries from the 1909 Congo Expedition. The curators at the museum have put together an incredible series of pages that contain physical objects, interactive maps, and other descriptive stuff. You can surf over to the virtual expedition here:



I was surprised that I was more interested in a bunch of old bones over illustrations on space-time. I have long been a big fan of Einstein, if such a word is appropriate, even choosing a quotation from him for my senior class high school yearbook picture. But perhaps it was my unfamiliarity with anthropology that drew me into the Atapuerca exhibit, which was extremely well done with plenty to read and few people to compete with to see the bones.


AMNH isn't the only major league museum to put their collections on the web. There are many other sophisticated web sites these days, as you would expect from people who's job it is to collect and display stuff from around the world.


I think this development is all well and good, and speaks to the maturity of the web as both a research medium as well as something for the casual scientist or just curious person. And if you get a chance to check out the exhibits in person, Einstein is there until August, and the Atapuerca exhibit is only there until mid April so make your plans accordingly.