Four Dream Shows That Break the Mold

A self-portrait of Francesco Hayez, whom Nicholas Penny wants to spotlight at the National Gallery. Right, Jim Goldberg's
A self-portrait of Francesco Hayez, whom Nicholas Penny wants to spotlight at the National Gallery. Right, Jim Goldberg's "Kiev, 2006." Philip Brookman wishes to show the history of photography through images of children. (Left: Museo Poldi Pezzoli, Milan; Above: By Jim Goldberg)

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By Cathryn Keller
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 7, 2007

The Post asked four respected Washington curators about the exhibitions they've dreamed of doing but have never been able to stage.

PAUL RISSER

Acting director, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

My dream exhibition would be one that would draw from many different disciplines in the natural world, and help people understand how scientists know what we know.

For example, we have many different collections and explanatory facts about them -- how we know the geological age of a rock or fossil, how we identify mammals or butterflies -- yet a person has to go through the museum and understand in a piecemeal fashion.

Scientists know by what they can measure and infer. If I could build a large hall where visitors could do 30-second experiments, it would create the excitement scientists have to ask questions, synthesize and integrate key facts and use the information to put together a larger story. This is important because people in general -- scientists as well -- have different ways to distinguish between what we know from evidence and what we believe, and to consider the reconciliation of evidence and belief.

One advantage that we didn't have even five years ago that's new today is our ability to use electronic graphics. So it's not a matter of a lab experiment, but we could simulate a lab experiment so a visitor could go away understanding experimental technique. Visitors would see and print out the results.

My dream hall would have scientists in it. It would be interactive. People would ask questions, scientists would explain. Visitors could grasp the excitement of scientific curiosity, problem-solving, discovery, understanding -- a wonderful reward!

Why do you think this hasn't been done yet?

Clearly, it's expensive to construct these experiments. There's scientific complexity, drawing from lots of different disciplines, e.g. if you look at the age of fossils -- geology, stratigraphy (how to age rocks), human physiology, anatomy -- it would require bringing together many different disciplines.

And it's conceptually difficult: How do we make science understandable to non-scientists?

NICHOLAS PENNY


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