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Get Unstuffed

The Academy of Sciences reexamines its specimens

By Christa Palmer

If the curators who like to enclose nature in glass cabinets aren't careful, the role of the natural history museum may become just as extinct as the specimens housed inside them. In an age of passivity, where CD players, computers and television bring so much to us and demand so little in return, interactive technology very well may draw more paying customers to natural history museums than do cases of stuffed birds and ancient artifacts.

Dioramas, or wonder cabinets, as they were called in the 1700s and 1800s, typically contained a hodgepodge of stuffed animals, wax figures, mechanical devices and light shows brought back by sailors and explorers. Later, these curiosities gave way to the changing needs of a society in which human oddities drew more admissions than cabinets of dusty dinosaur bones.

Take the California Academy of Sciences' situation, for example. With dwindling admissions and the emergence of a technologically aware audience, plans are under way to remove from the African Annex dioramas all of the bird species, the Cape buffalo, the rhinoceros and the hippopotamus and to incorporate those into the existing displays in the larger African Hall.

Loren Behr, public programs director, says, "In the 45 years since the dioramas in the African Annex hall were installed, the nature of the learners who attend the Academy each year has changed considerably. The site cannot grow physically, so the only way to bring something new to our audience is to displace something that is already present."

Those few specimens not reinstalled will be used in scientific and education collections or, in a few cases, may be offered to other educational facilities. "Very few animals will go to off-site storage, and it's only temporary," Behr stresses, reacting to media-fueled controversy over the changes.

"Through presentation of live animals, like our upcoming spiders exhibit," he continues, "and later the world of invertebrates, which includes butterflies, jellyfish and fiddler crabs, for instance, and new exhibition technologies, such as an electron microscope, we will be able to help a new generation of learners to better understand the diversity of life on our planet. With some of the new dioramas, visitors will be able to dig and look for artifacts like real archaeologists."

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From the April 1997 issue of the Metropolitan

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