Museums decentering the human

A very interesting essay by Edward Rothstein in the NY Times special museum section: “The thrill of science, tamed by agendas”.

Rothstein features a comparison of the human-centered renovation of the Griffith Observatory, and the new Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York, which goes with more of a pale blue dot theme.

Of course, the insignificance of human existence is one of the fearsome lessons of modern science. But when we are young, we learn differently. We begin by learning to value our own understanding and only gradually come to recognize its limits. We begin by making sense of the world before we see how much lies beyond sense. The process doesnt work well in the other direction: we can be left mystified by the world and lose respect for the human. Something like this has started to happen in some museums. This decentering of the human can become a devaluing of the human; the museum may even begin to see human frailties as a great flaw in the cosmic order that must be repaired. So this new variety of science museum must not just display or explain. It must be relevant, useful, practical, critical something that helps with fund-raising as well.

From there, he covers the “self-loathing” that seems to have crept into natural history museums concerning humans and nature. Some of his comments are reasonable, some hyperbolic, but all thought-provoking.