A Multi-Sensory Visit to the American Museum of Natural History

At the beginning of October, I used my New York Public Library card to pay a visit to the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The enormous complex was packed on that sunny Saturday afternoon, but I was still able to deeply engage with the exhibits.

AMNH was the 12th most-visited museum in the world in 2017, having almost 5,000,000 people come through its doors throughout the year (TEA/AECOM, p. 19). The institution holds 34,120,652 specimens and artifacts in its collections, and recently added over 44,000 more (American Museum of Natural History Annual Report, p. 4).

The public spaces of the buildings that make up the institution are segmented into 4 floors and a lower level. Upon entering, visitors are given a physical map outlining the best paths to take depending on the order in which they’d like to see the exhibits. AMNH also offers a mobile app that gives “turn-by-turn directions”, provides descriptions of exhibits, and allows for the use of augmented reality and other digital experiences that can open up more levels of engagement throughout (Figure 1).

Figure 1: A sign notifying visitors of the museum’s navigational app.

A very notable way in which AMNH creates a logical navigation of the space is through a mixture of information visualization and mapping. Figure 2 and Figure 3 show some charts for The Hall of Vertebrate Origins, in which a cladogram is used to physically arrange exhibits throughout the Hall in order of evolutionary relationship.

Figure 2: A navigational chart in the Hall of Vertebrate Origins.
Figure 3: A navigational chart in the Hall of Vertebrate Origins.

This technique melds the information on display with the physical space in order to help visitors navigate. Other visual techniques are also used, like the display in Figure 4 that makes up for missing parts of a fossil in order to show what the complete specimen might look like.

Figure 4: using a metal outline to show what this fossil may have looked like as a prehistoric animal.

As mentioned, the museum also has the ability to use augmented reality, permitting interaction with the exhibit itself and enabling the experience to not just rely on a visitor’s ability to read as they browse collections (Robinson, 2015, p. 4). Signifiers are placed on the floor throughout to signal when this function is available (Figure 5).

Figure 5: a sticker on the floor notifying visitors that an augmented reality experience is available through the app.

AMNH also uses tactile methods for visitors to engage on a more active level by embedding multi-sensory interactions into the exhibits themselves. Figure 6 shows a touchscreen that teaches more about “Evolutionary Changes in Placoderms” by providing the option to interact with a device rather than just merely showing a description on a sign.

Figure 6: a touchscreen next to a fossil exhibit.

In Figure 7, a sign says “Please touch this”, a very obvious signifier telling visitors that they can literally touch the bony scales of a Vinctifer, a fish that swam in the ocean 110 million years ago.

Figure 7: a fossil that visitors are allowed to touch.

The world’s largest meteorite on display, The Cape York Meteorite (Figure 8), lets visitors experience “touching an object that is nearly as old as the Sun” (American Museum of Natural History– Ahnighito).

Figure 8: the largest meteorite on display in the world, which visitors are allowed to touch.

Using the sense of touch fits into Robinson’s idea of using multi-sensory options when interacting with a display in order to make exhibits more participatory (Robinson, 2015, p. 5).

Established in 1869, the American Museum of Natural History is a scientific juggernaut, a leader in exploration and research, and is constantly adapting to the new ways in which people can experience and enjoy museums.


  1. TEA/AECOM 2017 Theme Index and Museum Index: The Global Attractions Attendance Report. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.aecom.com/content/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/2017-Theme-Museum-Index.pdf
  2. American Museum of Natural History Annual Report 2017. (2017). Retrieved from https://www.scribd.com/document/382887896/AMNH-Annual-Report-2017#fullscreen&from_embed
  3. Robinson, L. (2014). Multi-sensory, Pervasive, Immersive: towards a new generation of documents. Retrieved from Centre for Information Science – City University London: http://openaccess.city.ac.uk/6864/1/LR%20-%20Immersive%201.pdf
  4. American Museum of Natural History – Ahnighito. Retrieved from https://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/permanent-exhibitions/earth-and-planetary-sciences-halls/arthur-ross-hall-of-meteorites/meteorites/ahnighito

The Museum of Interesting Things’ Monthly Speakeasy

Taylor Norton Event Attendance

For my event attendance, I went to the Museum of Interesting Things’ Monthly Speakeasy. Held in a loft in Soho, I was one of approximately 40 people in attendance. The museum is described on its site as “a traveling interactive demonstration/exhibition of antiques and inventions inspiring innovation and creativity – learning from the past to invent a better future.” For this night, whose theme was “I Spy: Spy, Cipher, Crime, and Communication Tech,” the museum was held in a loft in order for attendees to not only handle and interact with objects, such as an enigma rotor, a pair of hoodwink goggles, watch cameras used by detectives, 16 mm films, and an encoding machine paired with a carrier pigeon vest, but also to eat, drink, and meet others also interested in the same topic. People in attendance could look at 20thcentury mug shots hanging on the wall and flip them over to read the crimes committed while others could take selfies while wearing the hoodwink goggles.

Initially, the most striking thing to me was how poorly preserved and displayed many of the items were. Old ephemera, mug shots, books, and technology were housed in plastic Ziploc bags while some photos were displayed in an envelope with a transparent windowpane. Other objects were simply placed on the table with no protection at all as people leaned over precariously with a full glass of red wine in their hand. Also, none of the items had labels for a viewer to properly identify them. However, I soon realized this was only minimally problematic as I witnessed the night’s host and the museum’s owner, Denny Daniel, explain every item in detail to whoever took an extended period of time looking at an object. He saw the explanation of each object as an opportunity to connect with others and engaged with everyone who was there. After talking with Daniel, I also found out that when the items are not being displayed at travelling shows and educational events, he stores them in his home and four storage units around the city. I could not help but think of how most preservationists would lament at the rate of deterioration from such handling and the lack of a controlled environment. While considering this dilemma, a quote from Roy Rosenzweig’s article, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era” resonated with me. While Rosenzweig refers to preservation in a digital era when he writes about “who has the right and responsibility to preserve them [materials],” (Rosenzweig paragraph 16) I found that the same notion could be applied to physical objects without a digital presence as well. The idea of responsibility and ownership of the past’s object has always been assumed to be that of museums, historians, catalogers, and archivists but here was a single person preserving and showcasing items.

With that being said, I actually believe that more people should host events like the one I attended. While most professionals would have dismissed Daniel’s attempts at sharing his antiques as unsustainable and minimally factual, he had an audience who was diverse in age, gender, and race that was fully engaged in their environment and eager to learn about the objects at hand—literally. They were closely examining objects, questioning how others used the items, and critiquing the creative techniques used in the creation of WWII propaganda 16mm films. Should that not be a main goal of a museum and/or a collection? And while there was a lack of what most would define as professionalism that a larger institution would have, his museum was still serving the same purpose of transferring knowledge and understanding of the past and past narratives.

This museum is clearly a passion project, which is reinforced when reading Daniel’s call to action on his brochure that “Maybe we can think of ways to use yesterday’s technology to power the future.” And while it was a small event, his passion could have easily been harnessed and sponsored by a larger entity that could have displayed things in a neater and more professional matter and reached a larger audience. However, I say that hesitantly because I also recognize that the larger the institution, the more control over objects is inherently introduced. Daniel explains that “the beauty of our programs is that they can be tailored to the interests or curriculum of any range of age groups from Kindergarten-high school, spec. edu, college, adults and seniors. Moreover, our programs can be presented in almost any type of venue- large or small and indoors or outdoors.” While many would dismiss Daniels collection as merely that of an enthusiast, what Daniels is actually doing is vital because he is making information not only accessible but also interesting to a vast array of the general public.

It was my own bias to Daniel’s museum that made me reaffirm how important it is to recognize how things are presented and by whom. Had his enigma rotor been showcased in London’s Imperial War Museum, I am sure nobody would have thought twice about its efficacy. However, because it was placed on a foldout card table, its initial presence was questioned. While thinking about how I momentarily did not want to take Daniel’s collection seriously because it lacked the traditional standards of storing and showcasing items, a quote from Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook’s article, “Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” came to mind: “In the design of record-keeping systems, in the appraisal and selection of a tiny fragment of all possible records to enter the archive, in approaches to subsequent and ever-changing description and preservation of the archive, and in its patterns of communication and use, archivists continually reshape, reinterpret, and reinvent the archive. This represents enormous power over memory and identity, over the fundamental ways in which society seeks evidence of what its core values are and have been, where it has come from, and where it is going. Archives, then, are not passive storehouses of old stuff, but active sites where social power is negotiated, contested, confirmed” (Schwartz 1). While I know Daniel’s collection is not an archive, it shares the same parallels of power and how it can be presented and reinforced. The past use and importance of the items he had did not change by themselves, but rather by the context in which they were viewed.


Rosenzweig, Roy. (2003). “Scarcity or abundance? Preserving the past in a digital era,” The American Historical Review 108(3): 735-763. http://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/links/pdf/introduction/0.6b.pdf

Schwartz, Joan M. & Terry Cook. (2002). “Archives, records, and power: the making of modern memory,” Archival Science 2: 1–19.