The Wisdom of Sidney Deane or Why You Don’t Need Your Camera in a Museum

The Natural History Museum in Manhattan is practically in my backyard so I’m trying to develop a habit of sketching there while I have some down time. The museum is known for having some of the world’s best dioramas: realistic sculptures of animals with a surrounding habitat.

The amount of detail and artistic precision put into these dioramas is incredible. If you get close enough you can almost convince yourself you’re really there.

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During this time, I noticed that visitors spend anywhere from 3 to 15 seconds observing the dioramas. This was not consistent across all age demographics, however. The groups that spent the most time were older visitors, mostly 50 and older. The second most attentive were young children who took the time to proudly point out the detailed characteristics of the dioramas, practically having to be pushed along by their parents. The group that observed the shortest time, however, was the 18-45 demographic, what I am calling the smartphone demographic.

There was one distinguishing aspect of this group. They don’t actually look at the sculptures themselves; only their cellphones do. They briskly walk by with their smartphones and tablets in front of them, pausing long enough to still the frame before they move on to the next.

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I know what you’re thinking. “Yes Josh, smartphones are ruining our attention span.” And while as a mobile engineer I might indeed be more old-fashioned than most, I do value the omnipresent ability to look up information, rapidly communicate and easily snap photos of memorable events.

Museums are different though. Artists have taken the time to create a real-life representation of what they see for our benefit. We are meant to see through their eyes, directly. And while we’re in a museum we have the unique and fleeting opportunity to do exactly that. To make a second and lower-fidelity carbon-copy, often constrained to a paltry 3 or 4 inches, when we could fully experience the original life-sized creation first-hand, is a shame.


I’m reminded of this classic line Sidney Deane (played by Wesley Snipes) says in the popular ’90s movie, White Men Can’t Jump:

“Look man, you can listen to Jimi but you can’t hear him. There’s a difference man. Just because you’re listening to him doesn’t mean you’re hearing him.”

Well, I think it’s the same with the smartphone generation. We can look at these sculptures but we can’t really see them.