It’s difficult to imagine that a city rich in history such as Ann Arbor could be easily whisked away from nostalgia by wonder, but the University of Michigan’s new and improved Museum of Natural History has done just that. And according to the museum’s Capital Projects Manager Lynne Friman, it often happens in a single breath.
“We’ve got this new bright five story atrium, when people come in I literally can hear them gasp with amazement as they look up. Little kids running and squealing,” she said.
After being closed for 16 months for relocation, the museum was reopened April 14. And now that the dust has settled, organizers can see (from the smiles on visitor’s faces) and hear (from the gasps of amazement) that all the hard work has been worth it. “The response has been hugely positive,” Friman says. “There are always going to be people who love Ruthven (the old location), but they have largely said, ‘We loved Ruthven, but this is even better.’ So we’ve crossed that bridge.”
Lori Dick, manager of marketing and communications, added: “And I can add, from social media, and Google reviews have been overwhelmingly positive, too.”
The success of the new museum is in the strategy. History is being made with a new approach to learning history.
“When natural museums started they were called Kunstkammers,” Friman said, “which is a German term that means cabinet of curiosity, and we are moving beyond that to really telling about natural history and the impact of what we know and where we are. It’s an evolution itself if you will, not just of the planet, but of museology, and how we talk to visitors.”
The museum has a more child-friendly, hands-on feel which allows young visitors to not only see history but feel it, touch it and experience it. Instruction placards inform visitors of what they can and cannot touch. Accommodations for people with disabilities are new features as well.
“There were touchable things before, but we never called them out that way,” Friman said. “That was something that I learned from my work at other museums and brought it here. What we’re doing is training a new generation of visitors on what they can touch and what they can’t. We found that people with visual challenges can touch things. For people who have physical challenges, we’re building their needs in. Especially some elements that are coming in November where someone in a wheelchair, for example, can go into a small cave that’s built for kids.
“What we find is that when we do things for kids, it makes it easier for adults to communicate with them.”
Another feature of the museum is the shared space with real working labs. The new museum puts the process of science on display, breaking down the boundaries between the public and research areas of the new Biological Sciences Building.
Friman says that the decision is having an impact on visitors and scientists alike.
“People are loving it,” she says. “In fact the scientists in the paleontology lab love talking to the people. They’ll see people standing there and put on their headphones and say you know what I’m working on right now. It’s fun to watch both the researchers picking up their headphones and the kids are just awestruck by the reality of it.”
Most importantly, a new generation is being inspired by getting a first-hand point of view.
“The researches in there are not just faculty,” Dick said. “There’s graduate, and undergraduate students working on things so young visitors can start seeing themselves as scientists.”
And the new and improved museum isn’t done from being new and improved. The Museum of Natural History will host its second opening in November with three additional exhibits.
“We could have stayed closed and opened everything at once, but we’ve already been closed 16 months and people were just waiting to get in so we opened. It’s easily a 90 minute experience,” Dick said.
ALL PHOTOGRAPHY BY: WLAA’s Mike Frieseman