The American Museum of Natural History has two temporary exhibits that are drawing large crowds. One, Brain: The Inside Story, I can attest is worth a visit the next time you’re in NYC. From the New York Times review, I’d been worried that the exhibit would be full of la-de-da generalities: “how marvelously complicated is the brain! how little we understand about it!” But it turned out that was just the review. The exhibit itself does a pretty good job of summarizing what’s known about how the brain is organized, how it develops, how various drugs affect it, and more. One highlight for me was a model brain that you can take apart to see how the brain stem, limbic system, and cerebral cortex fit together—something that 2D images had never successfully conveyed to me. The other exhibit, The World’s Largest Dinosaurs, was sold out for the entire day when we tried to go there, so we had to content ourselves with the smaller dinosaurs in the rest of the museum.
The Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, Connecticut, should be avoided at all costs. On a recent visit, I and my family of Twain fans were snidely turned away since we hadn’t booked a tour—a requirement buried in the website, which someone googling for the opening hours would almost certainly miss. (This despite the fact that the museum wasn’t crowded, and we could have easily joined a tour that was starting as we arrived.) So don’t suffer the petty bureaucrats who curate Twain’s legacy, and treat the town of Hartford the way they’d apparently like you to: as a bathroom stop along the highway from New York to Boston. Twain would’ve been amused. Jeffrey Nichols, Executive Director of the Mark Twain House, left me a personal apology in comments section. I thank him warmly for that, and maybe I will visit again sometime—though it will help if I have some way of knowing I won’t just be turned away again!
The Yad Vashem Holocaust History Museum in Jerusalem has been redesigned since the last time I was there, in 2002. In the old Yad Vashem, you walked around more-or-less randomly looking at the exhibits; in the new one, you proceed in a more linear order (similar to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC): from the rise of Nazism to the first anti-Jewish laws to the ghettoes to the gas chambers and crematoria. The tour ends powerfully, with the Hall of Names (a large circular room with photos of victims and bookshelves of data about 3.8 million of them), followed by a balcony with a spectacular view of West Jerusalem—as if the building itself is trying to explain why the country it’s in exists. I recommend a visit, even if you’ve been to Yad Vashem before its redesign in 2005. But be careful to check the opening hours: the first time my family and guests tried to visit, the museum was closing, we were turned away, and we ended up going instead to a rest stop full of Elvis statues, where people lined up to use the bathroom and bought Elvis t-shirts. (I thought that belonged in some anthology of Jewish humor.)
Summary: While the world’s museums have a great deal to teach us, they ought to devote more of their attention to the fundamental tasks of being open and letting people in. People turned away from a museum are not just lost customers: they’ve often spent hours getting to an unusual place, and may be so annoyed by the wasted trip that they won’t want to return, even if they have the opportunity to do so. In two of the cases above, I checked the website beforehand and that didn’t suffice, since the key information I needed wasn’t there or was buried. Yeah, I suppose I could call ahead before every museum visit, but I hate doing that. If someone wants to start CanIActuallyGetInToTheMuseum.com, it could be a fantastic way to not make any money.