Museum app fleshes out old bones

Free videos and interactive games attempt to turn an ignored exhibit into a go-to destination


This picture of the Skin & Bones app shows what happens if you aim your iPhone camera at a mandrill skeleton. The app offers stories behind this and other skeletons in the museum’s Bone Hall. 

Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Modern museums are filled with eye-catching exhibits. There are movies to watch and buttons to press. Robotic dinosaurs lunge lifelike at passersby. Exciting new exhibits can leave older ones — such as the bone hall in the National Museum of Natural History — in the dust. What can you do to spice up a stodgy exhibit, without spending millions to refurbish it? The Smithsonian decided to harness its visitors’ iPhones and iPads to give them a richer, more rewarding experience.

And it’s free app sort of works — but if and only if you own Apple technology.

Called “Skin & Bones,” the new app fleshes out some critter skeletons haunting the 50-year-old exhibit. Additional videos and games teach visitors about the animals behind the bones. The app also includes “augmented reality.” That means its technology can cover the skeletons in digital skin, fur or other features to get a better idea of what the live animal would have looked like. But while the program is a good start, it doesn’t quite satisfy. The app feels like a mixture of odd parts.

Walking into the bone hall at this museum is like walking a half-century back in time. Carefully mounted skeletons of hundreds of mammals, fish, reptiles and birds stand in ranks along the walls. Near an animal’s bones you’ll encounter chunks of text to describe it. Next to the cuckoo’s skeleton, for instance, you can read that “cuckoos, turacos and their allies belong to the order Cuculiformes. Cuckoos have zygodactyl feet….” The information is out of date. Turacos aren’t in this group any more. Quite honestly, the information doesn’t really grab your attention.

And the museum knows that.

“The hall is a passageway, not a destination,” admits Robert Costello. He manages outreach programs for the museum. In watching people walk through the hall, he noticed, “They’re not reading a single label. They’re not getting a single concept.”

Costello is right. As we stood talking in the bone hall, families filtered past. They looked left and right. They paused under the blue whale skeleton and took photos with the huge turtle shell. And then they kept right on walking, heading quickly for this museum’s real draw: mummies, insects and dinosaurs.

The museum realized it needed to give visitors some reason to stop and view its treasures here, Costello says. Redoing the exhibit would take a lot of time (and money). Costello wanted to improve the exhibit now.

His team settled on a free app for the iPhone and iPad. Visitors can download this program while they’re onsite, using this hall’s free Internet access. The program lets users select one of 13 skeletons in the hall — such as a vampire bat, box turtle or catfish. A set of videos accompanies each skeleton that is featured. They augment the dry text on the exhibit walls with interesting features about each animal. Sometimes they even provide interviews with scientists who study the creatures. You can identify a bat by its call or hear a woodpecker’s hammering, and tap on your phone to create a similar sound.

A DARING DIVE This video shoes the animation that goes with the anhinga, a bird that spears the fish it eats. Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History

Then there’s that “augmented reality” feature. Hold your device’s camera up, and aim it carefully at, say, a mandrill’s bones. Suddenly, the skeleton appears on your screen, fully clothed in fur and skin. As you rotate your iPhone around the skeleton, the image rotates too, from the mandrill’s wildly colored face to its equally bright behind.

Some skeletons move on the screen. For instance, one demonstrates how the spear-fishing anhinga bird gets its meals and how a vampire bat runs (awkwardly).

A hit and a miss

The information about the animals is well-produced and interesting. Animated skeletons help the bone hall come to life on your smartphone screen. Games and some extra information -add some fun.

But this app left me wanting more.

First, there are those interviews with scientists. It’s neat to hear researchers share stories about the exploits that made them realize they love science and nature. But it’s very hard to tell why certain scientists were linked with a particular skeleton.  For instance, we see one researcher sitting in front of a kiwi telling a story about working in caves in Hawaii. Does this scientist also work with kiwis — large flightless birds that live in New Zealand? If she does, the app certainly doesn’t share that.

There’s also no overarching theme to which skeletons were featured and which were not.

While the vampire bat is fun to watch and the mandrill is colorful, each selection seems to emphasize something different. One skeleton is about an ankle bone specific to cows and whales. Another is about echolocation. A third is about colorful coats used to communicate. But all of this variety also makes me wonder: Why these particular creatures? What’s wrong with the walrus? Or the cuckoo or the pygmy horse? The featured animals seem to have been picked at random.

Costello says each skeleton has good stories. In the end, he told me, the app designers picked the ones they felt they could make a point with.

But perhaps most limiting is the app’s format. You can access it only on an iPhone or iPad. While many visitors will probably have some phone or tablet in tow, many won’t be Apple products. And the museum has no plans to make the app available for non-Apple devices. The reason: This project simply ran out of money. One remedy would have been to have iPads anchored with a tether at each station. That way everyone could still get the experience.

For now, if you do have an Apple phone or tablet, make sure you bring it along. It’s the only way you can breathe life into the treasures on display here.

The Skin & Bones app is available for free on iTunes.

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Power Words

(for more about Power Words, click here)

anhinga (Anhinga anhinga) A type of bird related to cormorants. Found all over the world, it hunts in shallow water whereit spears fish with its beak. The anhinga is also known for its odd swimmingbehavior. Only its neck and head break the surface when it swims.

app  Short for application, or a computer program designed for a specific task.

mandrill  (Mandrillus sphinx) A primate closely related to baboons. It lives in large groups called hordes in Western Africa, in countries such as Cameroon, Gabon and Guinea. Its colorful face and rear send social signals to other members of its species.

primate  The order of mammals that includes humans, apes, monkeys and related animals (such as tarsiers, the Daubentonia and other lemurs).

smartphone  A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the Internet.


Bethany Brookshire was a longtime staff writer at Science News Explores and is the author of the book Pests: How Humans Create Animal Villains. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology and likes to write about neuroscience, biology, climate and more. She thinks Porgs are an invasive species.

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