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What’s Practical?

So I understand that “practically” could formally mean “in practical terms”; however the most common definition is certainly “virtually; almost” (OED) -and in this sense, this small panel from the Africa exhibit of the Field Museum in Chicago is pretty much unacceptable.

Rest easy, however, dear reader: the Field is making up for this by restocking Egyptian tomb sites… right here in Chicago!

Meanwhile, the itinerant Darwin exhibits is kind of sucky (one of the books that goes with it, however, is excellent). It pretty much follows a biographical format, with highlights in each explanatory signs in big red capital letters; and if there’s one thing that you will remember from the exhib as you walk out, it’s that Darwin really didn’t like school that much. (I think this is part of an annoying plan to make us understand that geniuses, truly, could be any of us. Thus, about Einstein: “Those of us who are parents can take heart that he was no Einstein when he was a kid.” Well, actually, he must have been, unless you have some serious problems with personal identity.)

The whole exhibit is pretty much plunged in the dark. This is probably to emphasise the dramatic quality of all the Darwin memorabilia. Actually, replica of memorabilia, really. There’s a couple of live amphibians, though. The most annoying part of the exhibition is that it stops before what even a first-year biology textbook would give you -but it does so in the same tone. There are a few videos of dry academics in silly and/or old-fashioned clothes making sure their body language (or absence thereof) is putting the audience to sleep while discussing the finer points of what scientific method is and why religion and science shouldn’t interfere with each other.

Why is this of any importance, you will ask? Well, if you’ve got any interest in defeating the latest baloney from the Creationist/Intelligent Design ranks, lately embodied in a very expensive and technologically enhanced “museum,” (see a nice article about this in print) it’s about time to cry out loud for a more effective design of scientific vulgarization displays.

Interestingly enough, the exhibition next door at the field, on Ancient Americas, seems to achieve this much more effectively than the Darwin show. (Is it because it seems to me privately funded throughout?) It may be ridiculous, but at least the signs engage the audience (and particularly the children, which should definitely be targeted if one wants to ensure that the next generation isn’t as mislead as the current one) by the simple use of the pronoun “you” and by more interactive displays and activities at children’s height.

Of course, what we really need is not just for museum exhibitions to be more engaging and more convincing; albeit to remain competitive in the international arena, the U.S. needs to reform its science curriculum (truism). And despite the optimism of some, the sad truth is that academia is perhaps one of the places most refractory to evidence-based advancements, although the research behind those usually originates within academia itself. I personally think that this will eventually prove to be its demise. My bet usually includes the progressive disappearance of literature-based “humanities” departments within the next 75 years. Anybody willing to wager?

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