“Touch here to attack the body,” command the video-game monitors at the American Museum of Natural History’s new exhibition, “Epidemic! The World of Infectious Disease.” Once you dispatch your fleet of microbes, you’ll then, with your fingertip, direct their biological invasion through the genitals or the digestive and respiratory tracts, and watch them contaminate. That is, unless your opponent deploys the antibodies in time to interrupt the process, which he’s not likely to do because he’s too busy eyeing the mutascopes to the left, or the spectacular microbial proliferation on a nearby video wall.
At “Epidemic!,” which runs through September 6, touch-screen video games are hardly the most state-of-the-art features. Vast stretches of video screens, dozens of flat-screen monitors and projection cameras, parabolic sound design, and interactive sensors embedded in the floor that are triggered by people’s movement make “Epidemic!” by far the most media-saturated exhibition ever curated on this scale by the AMNH or any other mainstream museum. This sort of technological innovation is ambitious, even groundbreaking, though the way it actually displays information is often counterproductive— using fragmented sound, image, and word pastiches less to inform than to create an ambience of sensation and intrigue. With this sort of fragmented format, predicated on motif and sound bite and symbology, what might be a serious investigation into the most alarming biological topic known to humanity tends more toward a multimedia funhouse.
“We differ from an art museum where you are primarily given a contemplative experience to view an object. We want to create environments, intrigue, and context,” explains David Harvey, vice president of exhibitions at the AMNH. “We began this exhibit with news footage of epidemics that may have a visceral effect— that gives you the immediate sensationalism of a news story— but we intersperse the coverage with the key words of the exhibition, like infection, outbreak, epidemic, pandemic, research, hope, and with microbe computer images that are almost iconic.” Those key themes, along with a brochure that assigns visitors a particular microbe to trace through the exhibition, offer paths through the morass of information and stimuli.
There are thousands of informational tangents to follow, which as a synergistic whole is thrilling; but each component on its own tends to be reductive. The exhibition suffers from the same dilemmas as a “Choose Your Own Adventure”type hypertextual narrative or a sort of feckless Web-surfing experience: information glut. In one room are giant, cartoonish fiberglass microbe sculptures that visitors are encouraged to touch. (“Look Michael, it’s the AIDS virus!” said one parent gawking at a seductive purple AIDS microbe. “You want to feel it? Go ahead!”) In another is a high-concept video montage about infection and war, with old, craggy battle footage and soundtracks of little girls singing nursery rhymes about influenza. It’s all decorative and alluring but not detailed enough to really offer a sustained explanation of what this pretty sculpture has to do with that devastating disease, or to explain exactly what the disembodied scientific terms “paramecium,” “microphage,” and “pathogen” actually mean.
The exhibition has taken on such an unwieldy purview— from microscopically technical to totally abstruse and sensational— and splayed it out in such a motley mediascape, that having a sustained informational experience is difficult. It’s a timely example of the overeagerness that tends to afflict the new-media industry in general. The reality is, you can’t actually convey more information just by gesturing to it. At some points in the exhibition the use of the high-tech media feels unmotivated, sometimes to the point of gimmickry. You can’t really tell why stepping on a shadow with sensors under the rug that lights up terminology on the screen is going to help you learn about bacteria on the body any more than a giant chart of the body with all the regions labeled would. The process of learning, in other words, is so fetishized that it becomes more interesting than the content itself.
Which doesn’t make the exhibition a
failure— there’s no question that “Epidemic!” is a considerable feat of exhibition design and innovation, and ushers an entirely new style of museum curating into the mainstream. Perhaps it’s just that the use of interactive, associative media in a museum context is so novel that it feels unusually disjointed (especially when there are utterly serene taxidermic dioramas in the exhibit just down the hall). To Kevin Walker, senior software designer for exhibitions at the AMNH, technology facilitates more conceptual exhibits: “Traditionally, exhibits are very object-oriented and we display things. This exhibit is really about ideas, and things you can’t see, so we’re using the technology to shape concepts. It’s about immersion and interaction.” What we need to do is find ways of making the immersive new media experience not only sensory but
informational— using it to hone concepts and the process of conveying information, rather than complicate them.