Saturday, November 14, 2009

Digital media in an educational exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History

The American Museum of Natural History's new exhibition The Silk Road opened on Saturday. The exhibit lays out the journey from Xi'an, Turfan, Samarkand, to Baghdad showing the products and cultures of each area. The exhibit is highly educational, explaining processes of the Silk Road, how it was travelled, how silk was made, the foods, spices, and textiles that travelled, as well as the languages, religions, knowledge tools (paper, calligraphy), and knowledge that travelled along the road. The exhibit borrowed pieces from various museums in order to have sculpture, paper, silks, and artwork be part of the exhibit.

One of the most interesting and educational pieces of the exhibit was a large horizontal digital screen that was able to show you almost everything that was included in the entire exhibit on a large map. Musical instruments, spices, silks, materials, aromatics, languages, religions, were all laid out on the map simply by clicking on the various buttons. In addition, it includes features that change over time such as populations that would swell and decrease around the cities while centuries were marked off at the bottom of the map (shown in the image above).

This map was placed toward the end of the exhibit, which was great because it included all the aspects of the exhibit in one interactive map. I liked it as an educational tool because it was controlled by the user and laid out the information in an easy and clear way. It traced the lineage of products like musical instruments and how they travelled on the Silk Road to evolve into what the Europe and the West used (how Central Asia's Ud became the Lute). By putting it directly on the map it made it very clear, both written and visually, to see how great was the distance travelled, and how interconnected were the developments in products and knowledge. And it was fun to use. It is interactive, provides multiple presentations (written and visual) of the material, and fun: many of the markings of a great digital education tool.

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