Get yer fossils, folks. Step right up.

Gone are the dioramas—today's museum is a high-tech, interactive carnival of delights

Andrew Tolson/ Hans Thater / Science North

Some natural history museums show visitors taxidermied bats in glass display cases. Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum invites them into a bat-infested cave. With its spooky lighting, sound effects, and plastic bats hanging from the ceiling, the Bat Cave has been one of the ROM’s most popular exhibits for over 20 years. But after its recent relaunch—which promised more bats, more animatronics, “bigger, scarier and better than ever!”—long-time fan Janet Taylor, 27, found herself disappointed. “I had an open mind,” she says. “But they should have kept it low-key. They ruined the Bat Cave.”

Some parts of the new cave are still low-tech—like the plastic cockroaches that litter the floor—but unlike the old one, it now has a plot line, like a movie. A narrator’s voice, tinged with a Jamaican accent (the exhibit is modelled after the St. Clair Cave in Jamaica), plays on a loop: “Did you see that?” he exclaims, as a bat’s shadow flaps across the wall. At the end, a sound-and-light display creates the impression of bats flying away, a fan blowing on them so they bob up and down. The revamped Bat Cave seems to be popular with an important museum-going demographic: kids. But Taylor misses the old one. Without the narration loop, “there was less noise and you could appreciate it,” she says. “It’s better to use your imagination.”

In a bid to lure in younger, tech-savvy visitors—who might rather spend the afternoon playing video games than looking at fossils—museums and galleries are bringing in high-tech gadgetry: touch screens, animatronics (motorized puppets) and even iPhone apps, like the one now available for the Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Que. It’s got some people feeling nostalgic for dioramas and dino bones. Still, “there’s a difference between a carnival funhouse and the Bat Cave,” says Hooley McLaughlin, director of visitor experience at the Ontario Science Centre. Although, he admits, “there’s science at a carnival, too. Where’s the line you’d draw? I don’t know.”

The Science Centre was a pioneer of interactive exhibits when it opened in 1969. Unlike museums or galleries, “science centres aren’t about the collection,” says McLaughlin. “We present ideas.” In one recent Olympics-themed exhibit, visitors rode on giant curling stones to learn about their movement. “It’s very lively, but there’s a fair bit of science involved,” he says. And unlike a bumper car ride, he adds, “we’re trying to get people to talk about what’s behind it.” That notion soon spread to museums and galleries. “The entire field is in the middle of a shift,” says Judy Koke of the Art Gallery of Ontario. “For a long time, we presented with a voice of authority. Now, there’s a push to become more democratic.”

As museums go high-tech, though, even the classic dinosaur exhibit—giant skeletons that require a leap of imagination to see them as living creatures—is starting to seem prehistoric. In Sudbury, Ont., the local science centre has 14 full-sized animatronic dinos on display that twitch their limbs and roar. In Winnipeg, the Manitoba Museum’s “Ancient Seas” exhibit puts visitors virtually under water: animation projected on three massive screens creates the impression of being inside an aquarium. (It shows a historically accurate underwater scene near prehistoric Churchill, Man., once covered by a tropical sea.) Fossils are on display at the exhibit entrance, although how many visitors will peer down at long-dead trilobites when they can see animated ones crawling around in the next room?

Hans Larsson, a paleontologist at McGill University’s Redpath Museum, likens some of today’s over-the-top exhibits to Disney World or Jurassic Park. “Dinosaurs are fossils; they’re rocks in the ground,” he says. “The treasure in them is that they’re real.” Housed in an old Victorian building in downtown Montreal, the Redpath—Canada’s oldest museum—has exactly one high-tech exhibit: a touch screen about mummies. Even so, plenty of its collection is interactive, in an appealingly old-fashioned way: like the cross-section of an ancient tree, for example, that visitors can run their fingers over.

The difference between a museum exhibit and a funhouse, as McLaughlin puts it, may lie in the intent behind it: “the fact that we do sincerely care about science literacy.” And to borrow a Marshall McLuhan quote, anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either.