A moa walks into a mall

It was my third time meandering the halls of the Natural History museum – and first as a volunteer interpreter – when I glimpsed a bird without arms: no wings, no arm bones, no hands, no wrists, and no fingers. Nothing. That skeleton I was seeing had once been a statuesque, NBA player-tall bird. Its neck accounted for nearly half its height; its slender legs, almost the rest, with a globular region in between. That was my first sighting of a moa.

Moa (Smithsonian Natural History Museum). Photo by the author.

The moa is a gigantic extinct flightless bird from New Zealand. Imagine an ostrich, but delete the wings and give it some serious growth hormones. This 12 ft tall, 500 lbs bird was driven to extinction in the early 13th century, when humans hunted and ate them all. Incapable of flight (or gliding, wobbling, pointing, or clapping), the moa had no arm or wing bones, shown by fossils as well as a plethora of new findings . I’ve been quietly obsessing over this bird since (telepathically, it seems) my father sent me a photo of a moa – not in a museum, but in a shopping mall.

Moa at the mall. Photo credit: Silvio Russo.

Why exhibiting a moa in a mall and not in a museum?

That moa model was part of an exhibit traveling through Brazilian shopping malls. Both the exhibit and mall in question are located in south Brazil, where most of my family lives. Even though an exhibit in a mall might sound out of place at first, after close inspection it seems like a smart educational strategy. In developing countries like Brazil, public access to museums, culture, or natural history artifacts is limited. Cultural grant agent Roberta Manaa explains that, even though most Brazilian institutions charge low or no entrance fees, “educational programs for arts and sciences are not consistent through time mostly due to changes in government.” She believes that affects family tradition, and as a result, “most Brazilians are not used to go to museums and therefore do not pass that interest to their children.” In studies where people were asked to rank a list of their most frequent recreational activities, visiting museums ranks low on the list, below the 25th position. In the same list, going to the mall ranks 3rd or 4th (depending on the city), generally after going to movie theaters or attending sports events. The message is clear: people are much more likely to go to a mall than to go to a museum.


The plight of informal education

One of the clear goals of museums – including science museums – is to educate. Unlike a classroom, a museum offers an informal education setting. However, research in visitor experience (both in regards to American or Brazilian museums) has shown that museum visitors don’t always visit the museum with the intention to learn, but mostly with the intention of leisure or entertainment. Learning is seen as secondary, an added perk. Brazilian museums seem to have recently capitalized on the notion of museum leisure, and started offering new attractions. Visitors do not always go to a museum for its art or science exhibit, but to enjoy the grounds, botanical gardens, children playgrounds, cafes, restaurants, or concert halls. This paradigm shift appears to pay off: in 1995, 150 thousand people visited the Rodin exhibit at the Museum of Natural Fine Arts in the short interval of two months. Ms. Manaa also reports that an M.C. Escher exhibit at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil made it to the top 10 of the world’s most visited museums in 2011. In 2010, the traveling Bodies exhibit also took place in a shopping mall.

Unfortunately, most academics are still opposed to the idea of science being fun or being presented as leisure. Such a stereotype, that science education should be formal, is perpetuated, making it harder for the newer generation of scientists (myself included) to reach out to the public. Most museums still look formal and authoritative, portraying an intimidating vision of science (the fact that many are housed in large neoclassic buildings does not help).

Many believe that, instead of explicitly educating, exhibits should be aiming for an entertaining, memorable experience. One thing they are doing right – museum and mall alike – is the use of objects. A huge bird skeleton standing right there can be a better teacher on wildlife conservation than a picture on a textbook.

Rhino (Elasmotherium sibricum). The woolly mammoth can be seen behind it. Photo credit: Silvio Russo.

Moa and its friends – the use of objects in science education

That moa in the shopping mall was not alone. It was part of the “Ice Age Giants” collection of ten animal models. The clear take-home message of this exhibit is “gigantism” (animals to grow to extreme sizes due to isolation, food surplus, or lack of predators), easily noticed by the collection of very large animals. Besides one moa species (Dinomis giganteus), the collection includes the giant sloth, saber-toothed cat (found along with dire wolves at the La Brea tar pits), glyptodon, elasmotherium (a form of rhino above), giant beaver, auroch, cave bear, and Irish elk.

The reasoning behind the use of models in most science and natural history museum exhibits is realism, or to simulate reality. Such a common design strategy has attractive and holding power over the audience. The goal is to immerse visitors, while looking somewhat concrete and potentially offering a memorable experience and eliciting an emotional response. It also doubles as visual stimuli, a fast way to communicate a message, and offers something for all age groups. In the words of Peart, “it makes the subject come to life.”

Besides, the use of objects like a model of a moa capitalizes on the sense of scale. The fact that these animals are giants can make it intriguing and entice visitors to learn more. In fact, scale is one of the reasons why objects are effective in teaching – it is very hard to convey the sense of scale of being next to a mammoth. The object might not increase the amount of knowledge someone has, but it makes the experience more meaningful.

Moa’s foot and egg (one of the 18 ever found). Photo by the author.

Looking at a model like that might sound cheesy to many people, but I disagree. After all, what can be better than a realistic, scaled, gigantic moa covered in feathers? The sense of scale had dawned on me on a previous occasion, when first entering the American Museum of Natural History’s Ocean Hall and coming across the gargantuan blue whale model. And for my father, it was being next to the enormous wooly mammoth standing somewhat close to the moa.

I had to ask: “Dad, did that moa have muscles, skin, fur?” For the first time I could have a glimpse of a “complete” moa, with beak, skin and feathers (albeit fake). And I could hear the excitement in my father’s voice – like we are both five year olds gaping at that pretty animal. If this same emotional response can be conveyed in the thousands of Brazilian children with limited access to museums education, then I would say it was very successful.

Now, as a volunteer interpreter at the Natural History museum, I frequently visit the Ice Age gallery to talk to visitors. It is where two of my favorite specimens are located: the dire wolf, and naturally, the moa. I sometimes bring the skull of a saber-toothed cat for children to take a closer look. All visitors marvel at the mammoth fossil and pose for photos. What nobody seems to notice is the tall bird skeleton tucked away in a corner – an ostrich, some might say. What they also don’t notice is that the bird is lacking some limbs… and therefore is no simple ostrich, but something much bigger and more spectacular.


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