Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Wish Lists for My Home Towns—Museums for Atlanta (Hometown 3)

Although I literally moved there on two days notice in 1986 and did not intend to spend much time there, I developed a strong attachment to—and fondness for—it and spent ten years in the city, and followed the transformation of the city wrought by the 1996 Summer Olympics.

Part of that transformation was the development of nearly every major museum in the city. Except for its art museum (which opened in its Richard Meier-designed building a few years a few years before the city began campaigning for the Olympics), several major institutions opened between the time Atlanta won the right to host the Olympics and the start of the Olympics, including the Atlanta History Center (which had the land, but lacked an appropriate museum building), Fernbank Museum of Natural History (a school-based science center existed, but not a full museum), ZooAtlanta—a complete reworking of the local zoo, SciTrek, a science and technology museum (which has since closed), and the World of Coke (dedicated to the world famous cola, whose manufacturer has its world headquarters in Atlanta).

The growth has continued since, with the conversion of the former SciTrek space into an open exhibition space, the expansion of the High Museum, the renovation of APEX (African American Panoramic Experience), a new World of Coke, and the Georgia Aquarium.

To further cement Atlanta’s place as the New York of the south, and a world-class destination, city leaders might consider the following:

  • Fill the void left by SciTrek with another science museum. At its opening, SciTrek claimed to be one of the top 10 science centers in the US. But that’s only because SciTrek bought its exhibits from the other 9. Furthermore, when the museum was failing, it brought in another off-the-rack exhibit, Mathematica, a duplicate of the original in Massachusetts. What SciTrek lacked was original exhibits—and it’s that originality that makes a museum worth visiting.
  • To make such a museum both unique and relevant to the people of Atlanta and its environs, it would need to scrap the abstract, off-the-shelf approach of SciTrek and present, instead, exhibits focused on concrete and relevant topics, probably tied to local industry and everyday life. In fact, its mission should be explaining the science underlying current and past daily activity. It could then link the economic and daily activities to the underlying science. A prototype exists in the Hong Kong Seicne Museum. Some key technologies that would be of high interest to visitors and are relevant to the local economy, include transportation, finance, retailing, agriculture and food processing, and mass communication. The museum might also have an area for changing exhibits about the technology of everyday life—from the living room to the mall.
  • A “terrarium.” On the one hand, I understand that, when someone gives $200 million for an aquarium, you build it. But why Atlanta would want an aquarium is beyond me. There’s a terrific one two hours away in Chattanooga, so there’s no immediate need. But more significantly, Atlanta’s defining characteristic is its land, not its water. (The Chattanooga isn’t even a major river in Atlanta.) So how is an aquarium representative of Atlanta.

    I always thought a terrarium—or an exhibition that’s based on showing indigenous land animals in replicas of their local habitats—would be more relevant to the Atlanta context. It would not need to compete with the Zoo, which focuses on exotic animals from other parts of the world, rather than local animals and plants. Models exist, including Wildlife World –a companion to Sydney, Australia’s aquarium, and Montreal’s Biodome.
Next hometown: Montreal, Quebec.

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