#HacktheMuseum at HMNH!

ImageFriday night I had the pleasure of working in the gift shop during the first-ever #HacktheMuseum at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. The event was the culmination of a week-long Wintersession course offered by HMNH’s Education department to Harvard students from all disciplines, and showcased the work produced by nine students. Their task? To reinterpret the galleries of the HMNH in new and different ways. They created the Exploritas Club, and invited Harvard College students (and other museum-centric folks) to come check out their experiments, give them feedback, and investigate the museum under the guise of the hackers. Their creations were amazing reinterpretations of an otherwise static natural history museum and they were incredibly well thought out and executed for only having a week to prepare.

There were seven experiments set up in the HMNH: Dream Life of the Great Mammal Hall; Specimens Speak; Mount a Specimen; Picture Yourself…; Sense and Sensibility; the Death Lounge; and At Camp. I’ll give you a quick run-down of each:

Dream Life of the Great Mammal Hall: The lights in the mammal hall were completely turned off for this hack, and stories from various expeditions were placed throughout the exhibit space. One of these stories was the Feast of the Sea Cow, a dining table set up underneath the suspended skeleton of the now-extinct Stellar’s sea cow. I missed the expedition stories (and therefore probably the point of the hack), and thought that the dimmed lights were supposed to be a sensory experience designed to view the mammals in a different light, as the reflections and shadows of the people milling around played into the concept of a dream world where the taxidermied animals sleep.

Specimens Speak: This was a great hack. Pre-cut speech bubbles were placed in a bowl on a table in the Africa and South America galleries, and visitors were invited to give voices to the lifeless specimens of these halls. What resulted from the hack was a mix of clever humor and serious thought into the minds of these animals. My participation in this hack was to have the mako shark in the Fishes gallery remind humans, “Fish are friends, not food!”

Mount a Specimen: Set up in the Arthropods gallery, Mount a Specimen taught visitors how to properly mount insect specimens on mounting foam. Visitors were also taught how to collect specimens from the field. After mounting your specimen, you were given a specimen card to write the proper taxon, your name, and the collection for proper display in the museum. I personally didn’t participate in this experiment, but the concept is definitely worth trying out in the museum during regular hours. Teaching kids, parents, and educators how to properly mount insect specimens would be such a hit! Plus, the kids could then go home with their own insect specimen.

Picture Yourself: A 109-year-old mountain lion, a snowy owl, a baby black bear, a puffin, and a few other specimens were pulled from the Education collection for this experiment. A green screen was draped behind the mountain lion specimen, and visitors could take photographs with it and the other taxidermied animals (making sure not to actually touch them). The photos were uploaded to a flickr account this week, and some had a neat background added thanks to the green screen. This hack removed the glass barriers that usually appear in natural history museums and allowed visitors to get up close and personal with the specimens. Here’s my photo:
ImageSense and Sensibility: Set up in probably the most unapproachable exhibit in HMNH, this hack created a mobile scavenger hunt to engage visitors checking out the Glass Flowers. The scavenger hunt (which used a web-based mobile site instead of an app, allowing for different smartphone platforms to participate) utilized your senses to actively engage visitors. There were three questions for each sense (taste, touch, smell) and the mobile app led you through the gallery. A table set up outside the gallery had matching samples for you to taste, touch, and smell, and then you went back into the gallery to find the answer to the question on the app. Everyone that I saw participating seemed to have a really great time with the hack, and I think anything that gets visitors to actively participate with the Glass Flowers is a slam dunk.

The Death Lounge: This experiment was definitely the most artsy of all the hacks, and no surprise, because one of the students was from the Graduate School of Design. The dinosaur hall (formally: Romer Hall of Vertebrate Paleontology) was darkened and Christmas lights were set up along the top of the cases; combined with the ambient light from the Kronosaurus queenslandicus case, it created quite a creepy atmosphere. But it didn’t stop there. Specimens were pulled from the Education department and lined the tops of the cases as well, illuminated by the small Christmas lights, and old-school jazz was played from a table offering snacks and warm cider. Pelts were laid out on the floor, along with bones from assorted animals, and skeletal structures set up to look at. It was definitely a lounge of death; nothing in there except the visitors was alive! It gave the exhibit hall new life and I would definitely like to see something like this hack brought back again for another student event.


At Camp: A lumberjack camp was set up in the corner of HMNH’s temporary exhibit Thoreau’s Maine Woods. The camp appeared as if Henry himself had just left for a moment, perhaps to collect specimens or firewood for the evening. Baked beans and blueberries were slowly simmering in a crockpot, and the scent was incredible. The experiment brought ambient, sensory engagement to a photography exhibit and reminded me of camping in the woods (as I’m sure it was supposed to).

All in all, I think Hack the Museum at HMNH was very successful, and I’m hoping the class will be offered again, perhaps as a summer session to allow for even broader interpretations of the museum. It would have been nice if someone had tried to tackle the mineral hall, but with only a week to complete the project, I can understand how that might have been too daunting a task. I applaud the efforts of all the students involved, and hope the education department at HMNH develops this program further. Perhaps we could even ask the public to Hack the HMNH!

#HacktheMuseum at HMNH!