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Think Like a Kid

by Cliff Kuang

October 25, 2008

The best way to teach global warming

In the family of New York museums, the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) is the kooky, bachelor uncle-interesting but frowsy, great with the kids but awkward with adults. Lately, however, the museum has waded into the dialogue on ongoing conflicts. Two years ago-as the Creation Museum was being built in Kentucky-there was a near-perfect show on Charles Darwin's life (currently up in London). Now, the museum tackles "Climate Change," an exhibition that runs through August 2009, before traveling across the country.It's foolhardy to think that the museum can convert denialists-the people that think global warming is a myth invented by "lib-ruhls" or that Noah fed dinosaurs aboard the ark. But a show like "Climate Change" could offer a couple indelible ideas that you'll hopefully spread. "Darwin" was superb in transmitting those nuggets through its elegant displays of how natural selection works and the charmingly bizarre critters it produces. "Climate Change" unfortunately tries to erect a definitive monument to what's known about global warming, rather than building up a few key points.Here, wall texts swamp the show's purpose, while busy, Onion-ish flowcharts might as well be snakes eating their tails. That's a shame, because the AMNH's kid-appeal is typically a brilliant Trojan horse; its gee-whiz displays end up teaching the parents. "Darwin" exemplified the strategy: The gimcracks were there but so was the science, if you lingered. "Climate Change" is flatter, more earnest but less useful as a result.In eight sections with titles such as "Changing Ice," "Changing Land," and "A New Energy Future," the little stabs at interactivity seem half hearted. From the animated globes with swirling clouds and barely working controls to a screen controlled by kiosks that shows how much carbon you'd save by changing your lifestyle, they're simply not memorable enough to make your brain flicker.Could a show dedicated to such a complicated issue do better? Absolutely. You could imagine innumerable graphics for global warming, because the processes are so dynamic, from the basic warming mechanism to the albedo effect--whereby a less ice-covered world warms faster, because the ice isn't around to reflect the sun's rays. (Admittedly, the latter does make its way into one baffling display.) You could easily draw up a list of a dozen designers who would do cracker-jack work-I myself was tempted, out of sheer civic mindedness. Instead we get a string of facts-as if bad stats were the reason why the public seems so befuddled. These are useful if you're a reporter on deadline; they are less so if you're just a Joe hoping to catch a little light on a murky issue.When I visited, a few kids were wandering around, slightly bewildered but mostly bored. "Climate Change" isn't for them. So here's a message to future do-gooder curators and designers: Think in pictures. Think like a kid. Maybe then, the adults will finally learn.
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Think Like a Kid