Written in Bone

This weekend I explored the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, specifically the Written in Bones: Forensic Files of the 17th Century Chesapeake exhibit. I experienced this exhibit in part for the first time this summer, but I wanted to explore it further with these new ideas of exhibit and digital design, interactivity, and democracy and history. It has an accompanying website, so I wanted to relate the two designs.

This exhibit lured me in initially due to the medical nature of forensic anthropology and the idea of using bones, i.e. human remains, as primary sources. That scholars and scientists have developed tools together (biometrics, carbon dating, archival research) for analyzing these “documents” is fascinating. Upon entering the exhibit on the second floor of the museum, the participant is introduced to the main idea: using forensic anthropology through bone excavations to elucidate the history of Jamestown. However, the museum/curator cleverly designed the exhibit in which the concept of forensic anthropology is explained first. This clear path renders the exhibit linear, but I think it’s necessary in order for the public to truly understand the exhibit (You can only exit the exhibit by walking back through the whole thing. This is definitely annoying, like hitting the back space one hundred times, but I think there was construction). The accompanying website alleviates this linearity with tabs and hyperlinks, of course. Whole skeletons, individual hands, feet, skulls, and bones are ubiquitous. Subjects of analysis that scientists can determine from “reading” bones, such as gender, age, origin/ethnicity, are presented with the actual bones or casts. The user is often prompted to touch bones, as well- an important tactile element. The user then proceeds to the more forensic aspect- determining causes of death, diseases, and health lifestyles of people from their postmortem bones.

Only after this introduction of forensic anthropology is the user launched into the world of Jamestown specifically. Before entering this section, a viewing room with a TV plays a looping video of the excavations and relevant technologies- another visual and auditory element of the exhibit. The online site also plays videos. The user can choose to skip the video, though, and walk into the Jamestown section. This section highlights the previously unknown history of Jamestown in the 17th century, such as its inhabitants, their lifestyles, religious culture, and responses to illness and death. The exhibit is designed to ask the user questions as he or she proceeds through- answering those questions with each read. It also highlights interesting excavations by situating the digs in spacial reality. The user can “see into” the digs- see the bone casts, space around the skeletons, and the size. This spatial element is absent from the website- how do we account for space, an important tool for analysis of this type of primary source, digitally- especially since most general computer screens are the same size? Three dimensional holograms? That would be cool but…difficult.

All throughout the exhibit, the museum attached small boxes to walls in which attendees can write down ideas for future exhibits and submit. An online submission also exists. This participatory action gives the public a sense of contributing to curation and the spread of knowledge to others.

All in all, I enjoyed this exhibit immensely. Everyone should try to check it out- it ends in January.


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