Trying a New Attitude

By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, May 14, 1999; Page N67

SINCE 1990, Robert Sullivan has been working at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History like a latter-day Dr. Frankenstein, bent over not a lifeless human corpse but a moribund institution.

"I want to break the image of this building as a dead and dusty place," he says, "a placeyou come when you want to punish your kids. I want to create an alternative to the solitary, mediated learning experience of sitting in front of a TV screen."

The museum came a long way in that direction with the 1997 opening of the sparkling Geology, Gems and Minerals Hall and the altar-like Hope Diamond display ("the single most visited object," says Sullivan, the museum's associate director for public programs).

This week's opening of the Discovery Center, featuring a 387-seat IMAX theater, a 12,000 square-foot gift shop and 600-seat restaurant, is merely the latest stride forward, and Sullivan is just as excited about the new addition as he is about the changes yet to come in the ongoing $200 million rejuvenation project.

Planned for 2002 is the Discovery Room, an "interactive family orientation area," according to Sullivan. Take a tour of the exhibit, retail and dining areas with him and you are likely to hear plenty of museumspeak -- buzzwords like "synergy," "cross-promotion," "theatrical food," "dissonance learning," "interconnectivity," and a "weenie at every portal."

Come again?

"It's a term we borrowed from Disney," says Sullivan, pointing out that the phrase refers to signs at the side of a doorway that are designed to psychologically pull you forward through the exhibit.

The phenomenon of dissonance learning, of course, would explain the presence of a large, carved stone ring from the Micronesian island of Yap on the floor of the Discovery Center. Let Sullivan explain: "You look at this thing and say, 'What the hell is a giant bagel doing outside the museum shop?' And then you go up to it and you read that it's almost a form of money. That's dissonance learning."

Many of the improvements are of a high-tech nature (such as the state-of-the-art, interactive computer kiosks that will be coming next year), but Sullivan says an equal number (simply opening black-painted skylights, installing new marble tiles and moving escalators) are more a matter of undoing what years of neglect and bad design have done to the 89-year-old beaux-arts structure.

"It was a perfect building," he laughs, "and we screwed it up."

The National Museum of Natural History, at 10th Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Smithsonian), is open 10 to 5:30 daily, until 7:30 from Memorial through Labor Day. Admission is free. 202/357-2700.

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