Natural history museums

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Diorama in the Natural HIstory Museum of Nova Scotia

(3) Is a natural history museum a themed place? Think of all those dramatic dioramas with stuffed animals and model people. At the Milwaukee County Museum, a huge hall has been transformed into a rainforest complete with towering plants, dripping water, recorded sounds, and multi-level paths. Yet this is not a themed place, because the focus is on the objects, whether offered in cases or acting in dioramas. A sign of this focus is that the museum guards are not costumed differently in the different halls. The cultural or natural other is being presented as an object for observation and experience from a distance, not for participation in a new environment. Such museum exhibits could become themed places if their grammar began to diverge from the other halls and they changed the expectations for action and self-definition of the guards and participants. In an Irish-themed bar you may hang back and observe, but then you know you are not fulfilling your complete role in the place: you should be loud and jovial. If in the museum you began to give Tarzan cries or swing on the vines you would be hustled out. There, hanging back and observing is the grammatically appropriate role.