Showing or Telling: The Immersive-to-Informational Transformation of Museum Exhibits

I have vivid memories of visiting the National Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas as a child in 2007. Fredericksburg, hometown of German-American and Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, hosts this expansive museum complex in honor of Nimitz’s role as Commander in Chief, United States Pacific Fleet in the Second World War. This museum complex includes the original Nimitz Hotel, with an exhibit about Nimitz’s life, and the George H.W. Bush Gallery, with a larger gallery covering the entirety of the Pacific Theatre of World War II. The old gallery as I remember it, featured three walk-through dioramas, each immersing oneself in a specific scene from the war: the deck of a Japanese submarine just before the attack on Pearl Harbor about to launch an authentic mini-submarine, the deck of the USS Hornet as it prepared to launch Lt. Col. James Doolittle’s B-25 bombers for the raid on Tokyo, and Henderson Field on Guadalcanal at night. Of these the Henderson Field display was the most memorable. The whole setting was dark to simulate night on the island, with ambient jungle sounds in the background. Shortly after entering, one would come across two mannequins of US Marines loading boxes. One was an animatronic, and pressing a button on one of the boxes would make him rotate his head and awkwardly move his plastic lips as a recorded voice spoke to you about the experience of Marines of Guadalcanal. Further on, a US aircrew of two mannequins repaired an authentic Wildcat fighter aircraft on one side of the path. On the other side, further way, was a wreckage of a Japanese aircraft. As one walked through this life-sized diorama, the sound effect of an approaching bomber aircraft could be heard in the distance, getting closer. The Japanese launched several single-aircraft night raids through the fall of 1942, with the sole intention to deprive the Marines of sleep. The bomber would be heard approaching, doing several low passes over the airfield, then dropping a single bomb. The “bomb” would explode off the path, violently rattling the wreckage with a flash of orange light. The experience was definitely scary for ten-year-old-me, and I remember it changing the way I thought about war. I had always been aware that war was terrible, but this diorama was the first thing that made me understand the terror of it. The darkness, the anticipation, and the suddenness of the explosion made it clear to me that death in this setting could have happened at any moment. It may seem ridiculous to think that a dated, decaying, and by today’s standards, kitschy museum display could have an effect like that. But it did on me. 

One can then imagine my disappointment when I visited the museum again in 2009, shortly after its highly-anticipated renovation. The new gallery was highly digitized, with many large-screen interactive displays, and colorful panel walls displaying blown-up photographs, maps, and blocks of text covering every aspect of the Pacific War. But the immersive experiences of the old museum had all been removed. The mini-submarine was now the centerpiece of an impressive audio-visual display, with film footage and some effects projected on a flat screen behind. The replica of the larger submarine that carries the mini-sub was however no longer there, along with the Hawaiian Islands mural that had accompanied both of them. The Guadalcanal diorama was completely gone. The Wildcat was still in the museum, but displayed on its own with no physical contextualization. Only the Doolittle Raid diorama survived in part: The B-25 was still there on what looked the deck of the Hornet, with the original mural still behind it, but with the mannequins and a significant piece of the flight deck removed.

The Doolittle Raid diorama at the National Museum of the Pacific War as it appears today.

I will admit that I was able to learn a lot from the new displays. Cutting the dioramas saved on space, allowing for the display of more artifacts and incorporation of new digital elements. The space between the dioramas in the old museum, from what I can remember, were very antiquated, with photographs and small text panels pasted onto walls, and less artifacts to be seen. But I still feel like something was lost with the removal of the immersive displays. A helmet in a display case, accompanied by text or a film explaining what it was, would not have brought me to that same understanding of the experience on Guadalcanal as that diorama did. 

It turns out that this phenomenon of increasing digitalization and decreasing physical displays has been a common story for museums on recent history. 

The Disappearing Diorama 

Dioramas, which portray a scene with a sculpted foreground that blends with an intricately painted background to create a three-dimensional illusion, became popular museum exhibits in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. These physical displays, often made with exquisite craftsmanship, were an effective way to transport a museum visitor to another place or time before the age of widespread photography and film. The American Museum of Natural History in New York is world-famous for its intricate dioramas of animal taxidermies in their natural habitats. Indeed, nature and natural history are the most ubiquitous subjects of dioramas, with just about every such museum in the world exhibiting such displays. The Museum Koenig in Bonn, Germany even took the time in 2003 to restore all its animal dioramas to their original 1923 condition.1 They are still popular attractions, being one of the significant draws for visitors in the case of the AMNH and the Musuem Koenig. Old dioramas have become museum artifacts themselves as important a part of the heritage of a museum as the dinosaur bones or ancient pottery that accompany them. 

A wild boar diorama at the Museum Koenig in Bonn.

Dioramas portraying scenes of human history, however, are becoming increasingly hard to come by in the museums of Europe and the United States. Many have disappeared from museum displays since the start of this century, owing to several different reasons. One is a renewed emphasis on displaying actual artifacts over space consuming crafted displays. The Pennsylvania Military Museum in Boalsburg removed most of its walk-through World War I trench diorama in 2009 to make way for new exhibits covering other American conflicts and displaying more military artifacts (A small part of the trench does remain at the beginning of the museum gallery, and fortunately the background mural painted by a former German soldier in 1968 has also been retained).

The old trench diorama of the Pennsylvania Military Museum, dismantled since 2009.

Another reason is dioramas can inaccurately portray their subjects, especially if they are older. While natural history can be considered static, human history is very dynamic and perceptions of it are constantly changing. For example, several natural history museums have removed diorama displays of Native American cultures. This has been done because some of these dioramas no longer show what is considered an accurate portrayal of these cultures, and also because of the problematic nature of exhibiting indigenous cultures in natural history museums (I.e. alongside animals) instead of social history museums. The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History removed its Native American Dioramas in 2002 for these reasons.2 

Finally, there are the museums that removed diorama displays to update and modernize the way they told their stories. A remarkable example of this is the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, near Ottawa, which recently underwent one of the most dramatic museum overhauls of the past twenty years.

Canada Hall 

When it first opened in 1989, the Canadian Museum of Civilization, as it was then known, offered a unique gallery unlike anything that had been seen in a history museum before. The museum’s “Canada Hall” took visitors on a journey through 1,000 years of Canadian history, from the arrival of the Vikings in Newfoundland up to the 1970s. To do so, the hall featured a number of life-sized walk-through dioramas portraying scenes from throughout Canadian history. These included, among other things, the interior of a Basque whaling ship, an eighteenth-century Quebec town square, a Victorian main street in Ontario, a 1930s grain elevator in Saskatchewan, and a 1960s Vancouver Airport lounge. All of these scenes were under a domed ceiling illuminated in the color blue, giving the illusion that one was really outside. Buildings in each scene could be explored, all with furnished rooms and artifact displays integrated into the scenes. 

A representation of an Ontario town main street circa 1885. . .
. . .and a lounge in the Vancouver Airport circa 1960, both in the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s old Canada Hall. Photos by Matthew Farfan

This immersive method of telling Canadian history proved to be very popular with visitors, and by the mid-2000s the Museum of Civilization was the most-visited museum in Canada.3 Immersing visitors wholly in historical environments, it can be argued, was more impactful than cabinet displays of artifacts. Seeing the objects in the context of their use gave them much more meaning. 

Canada Hall was, however not without problems. From the beginning it was criticized by some historians for its focus on settler history and neglect of the First Nations, the indigenous peoples of Canada. The First Nations were covered in a separate gallery of the museum, but their stories from post-Columbian Canada received comparatively little coverage in Canada Hall. In addition, the reconstructions gave prominence to particular provinces in each era, while neglecting what happened in the same era in other provinces. The Maritime Provinces were only covered in the exhibits on early history, whereas the Pacific Coast  only received treatment in the mid-twentieth century exhibits. This presentation also left little space for more detailed accounts of specific stories from Canadian history, such as those of migration, politics, and wars. This was Museum President Mark O’Neill’s chief criticism of the hall when he set out to renovate it in 2013.4 Under his leadership, the Museum of Civilization was renamed the Museum of History and underwent a $25 million overhaul. This remastering of the Canada Hall stripped away all of the immersive displays, replacing them with the modernistic text-and-image panels, touch screens, and glass artifact cases common in contemporary museums. A 1907 Ukrainian settler church from Alberta, the only authentic building in the old hall, was the only structure to be retained in the new Canadian History Hall. 

The new Canadian History Hall. Canadian Museum of History

This new exhibit gallery opened in 2017. It allows for many more aspects of Canadian history to be displayed through visitors through text, videos, and artifacts, and does a much better job at incorporating the experiences of the First Nations. Yet it does not provide nearly as immersive an experience, and stories prominent in the old gallery have become less so in the new one, not without controversy. Canada’s New Democratic Party voiced its anger over the removal of a reconstruction of a union meeting room from the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, probably the most significant event in Canadian labor history.5 This display had a multi-media presentation with recorded voices of strikers playing, making it as if the visitor was among them in the meeting hall in 1919. Artifacts relating to the strike were displayed in cases on both sides of the hall. In contrast, the strike only gets a single panel in the new gallery, easily missable after a series of huge World War I panels and cases. A police badge, armband, and billy club appear to be the only artifacts representing it now. 

The recreation of “Meeting Room No. 10” from the Winnipeg General Strike exhibit in the old Canada Hall. CBC
In the present Canadian Hall of History, the strike is represented only by the green panel on the right. Canadian Museum of History

Something significant was gained, but something significant was lost as well. That is the case with Canada Hall and all other museums that have undergone these kinds of renovations in this century. 

The Textbook Problem 

The original Canada Hall also faced understandable criticism for its alleged “Disneyfication” of history. As is often the case with history education, there is a debate over how much “entertainment” over education should be present within a museum. Dioramas can be seen as dated, hokey displays, with little educational value and serving no purpose other than to terrify young children, and that historical information is best conveyed through reading. 

But how would one make an attractive exhibit design this way. I have noticed from recently developed museums that there is an increased emphasis on reading text. Walls of it cover every exhibit divider. There are some screens playing short films, to add to the experience, and floating artifacts are displayed in otherwise bare display cases to show the visitor “these are the things that were used by these people.” It is a different kind of immersion: an immersion in the information, or in the technical side of the history. One can read about the statistics regarding the usage of an artifact, but cannot actually see how the artifact was used or feel connected to someone who used it. 

With this increased reliance on text and photographs, it becomes difficult to think of one question: why go to a museum at all? With reading and looking at images making up most of the exhibits, how can one distinguish the experience from, say, reading about the subject on an iPad at home? I remember my father saying that the new Pacific War Museum gallery was like “walking through a giant textbook.” This is a fitting description, in that museums are moving towards displays that will convey information effectively, but not attract visitors. Few people have ever been excited about reading a textbook. One might answer that the artifacts would be the draw, but artifacts can speak for themselves only so well. Artifacts that are well-known, like Abraham Lincoln’s hat at the National Museum of American History, will attract visitors with little need for contextualization because most visitors will already know its significance. A regular top hat, though, will not be able to speak in the same way, and visitors will not flock to see it. A description of who wore the hat might help, but even so it will still have little relevance to the museum visitor. One could go onto the museum’s website, search the collections, and read the description for the top hat there. With increasing digitization, there are fewer and fewer reasons for people to leave their homes and pay entrance fees to see such objects. 

As I wrote in my first article of the “Museums in the COVID-19 Crisis” series, museums must give people reasons to come visit by providing unique learning experiences. This will be especially important once the pandemic has passed and people are considering where they want to go out again. A museum that only offers an experience comparable to reading a Wikipedia article might have difficulty attracting visitors again. If dioramas are too dated to do so, a new technology might be able to fill the role. 

Virtual Reality: The New Diorama? 

Virtual reality has exploded in the last decade, become accessible for everyday consumers via new home technologies. An increasing number of video games make use of VR, and some VR programs have already been made by historical organizations. The American Battlefield Trust, for example, made a virtual reality experience of the Battle of Petersburg last year, available to view on YouTube. VR completely immerses a viewer in a time and place with digital recreations, sounds, and actors. It creates an environment more dynamic that what could be provided by a static diorama. 

Detail of the “TimeRide” attraction in Berlin, from the TimeRide Berlin website

It is no surprise, then, that some museums and historical attractions have already made use of this technology. A German firm called TimeRide has recently produced VR tourist attractions in Cologne in Berlin, the former simulating a tram ride through the city in 1910 and the latter simulating a tour bus trip through 1980s East Berlin. The Royal Air Force Museum in London created a VR ride experience simulating the “Dambusters” raid of 1943, with visitors sitting in crew positions of a Lancaster bomber. Most noteworthy however, is the creation of the Migration Museum in Germany. 

The Documentation Center and Museum of Migration in Germany (DOMiD) has been working for years to create a museum dedicated to immigration to Germany. A physical museum building is expected to open this year or next year in Cologne, featuring a massive collection of artifacts relating to immigration in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. To promote the establishment of the museum, the DOMiD developed the “Virtual Migration Museum,” which made its debut in 2018. This “museum,” which can be viewed entirely through home technology, digitally recreated environments experienced my migrant workers in twentieth-century West Germany. These include apartment buildings, a factory floor, and a railway station. Visitors will also be able to view photos of artifacts from the upcoming physical museum.6 In a way, this experience is like a digital successor to the old Canada Hall, recreating social history environments to be explored by visitors. The VR experience, available for Windows, Mac, mobile, and the HTC Vive VR headset, can be downloaded at https://virtuelles-migrationsmuseum.org/en/download-en/. Might this in fact be how we experience museums in the near future? Completely “from home?” 

VR Simulation of a train station in the Virtual Migration Museum. Deutsche Digitale Bibliothek

Conclusion: The Case for Physicality 

I personally would hope not. The new technology is exciting, and has the potential to make a visit to a museum building even better, displayed alongside artifacts. Imagine how easy it will be to alter and update “VR dioramas,” and how little space this technology would take up. That solves all the problems presented by physical dioramas. Even more impressive experiences cold be made with more intricate technologies not available at home. Museums should take note of this as they re-imagine themselves for the future. 

Yet I also hope that physical dioramas do not completely disappear. Even with increasing digitization, they can still pain vivid pictures because of their tangibility, being seen and understood by a visitor without having to look through a headset. I point to the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia as an example. This museum uses detailed tableaus to portray scenes from the Revolutionary War that were not illustrated in the many paintings and sketches of that time. In this manner, the dioramas illuminate scenes not always visible in the popular memory of the war: George Washington breaking up a fistfight between his troops, dejected Continentals retreating from their defeat in New York City, and fourteen-year-old London Pleasants donning a British Army uniform to escape slavery in Virginia.7 These scenes, though static, are brought to life through the detailed life-sized figures that create personability for a visitor, coming face-to face with people from the past.

A diorama depicting George Washington breaking up a brawl at the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia. MoAR Virtual Tour

As museums continue to evolve, they should make use of the best of old and new exhibit technologies to immerse visitors in history. Screens and text should be balanced with physical displays that create environments to make a comprehensive experience. VR can complement these displays, providing for further immersion and interactivity. With all of these in place, they could bring a young person to understand and respect history the same way a stiff, aging Marine animatronic did for me so many years ago. 



Cite this blog post
Thomas Biggs (2020, July 1). Showing or Telling: The Immersive-to-Informational Transformation of Museum Exhibits. h r e f. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from https://href.hypotheses.org/1837

  1. Dioramen in der Dauerausstellung,” Zoologische Forschungsmuseum Alexander Koenig, last modified 2019, https://www.zfmk.de/de/museum/dauerausstellungen/dioramen. []
  2. Francie Diep, “The Passing of the Indians Behind Glass,” The Appendix, last modified September 18, 2014, http://theappendix.net/issues/2014/7/the-passing-of-the-indians-behind-glass. []
  3. “Canada’s most visited museum celebrates 150th anniversary,” Canadian Museum of Civilization, last modified May 10, 2006, http://www.civilisations.ca/media/show_pr_e.asp?ID=806. []
  4. “How Stephen Harper is rewriting history,” Maclean’s, last modified July 29, 2013, https://www.macleans.ca/news/canada/written-by-the-victors/. []
  5. “Winnipeg General Strike exhibit being dismantled in Ottawa museum,” Winnipeg Free Press, last modified May 25, 2015, https://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/Winnipeg-General-Strike-exhibit-being-dismantled-in-Ottawa-museum-304914601.html. []
  6. “About the Museum,” Virtual Migration Museum, last modified 2018, https://virtuelles-migrationsmuseum.org/en/about-the-museum/. []
  7. “12 Surprising Things You’ll Learn at Philadelphia’s Museum of the American Revolution,” Frommer’s, last modified 2017, https://www.frommers.com/slideshows/848166-12-surprising-things-you-ll-learn-at-philadelphia-s-museum-of-the-american-revolution. []