In the early 19th century, most natural history and science museums were lit-tie more than cabinets of curiosities whose purpose was to delight and amaze people with the extravagant and the bizarre. In both the United States and Europe, little effort was made to organize the collections in any sort of coherent fashion; stuffed dugongs often sat next to meteorites and mastodon bones. These private cabinets full of oddities and the exotic were mostly a form of amusement for the wealthier classes.

Natural history museums have come a long way from being cabinets of curiosities, but there is a trend that threatens to push museums to the opposite extreme. That trend is the growing influence of educational theory on natural history museum exhibits. This rapidly expanding field, with its love of jargon and scientific testing, threatens to strangle the spontaneity, freshness and wonder of natural history museum exhibits. In recent...

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