Death Valley Museum: The comfort of the familiar

Death Valley National Park is one of our favorite places on the planet. One of the things we like about it is that because it is so isolated, very little changes over time, at least in terms of human impact on the landscape. Except for a much-needed campground upgrade or two (and the disappearance of the date milkshake stand at Furnace Creek, alas), most of the buildings and facilities are pretty much physically the same as they were 20-plus years ago when we first started visiting … including the museum at the Furnace Creek Visitor Center.

As far as I can tell, the building has remained essentially the same since it was built in the 1960s (I think), back when this was Death Valley National Monument. And judging from the exhibits, the museum has not changed either.

With its static exhibits, photo displays, and stuffed animals, the Death Valley Museum is a time capsule of 1960s museum practice and philosophy.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Most of the year, Death Valley is hot and intensely bright. The vistas are long and shade is hard to come by. It can be overwhelming, visually and physically. A visit to this quiet, dark, contemplative space provides welcome relief to the senses and the spirit. At least in my observation, visitors — kids included — slow down here, lower their voices, and quietly take in the old-fashioned exhibits. 

What’s more, the exhibits are well-written and informative.

There’s even comfortable seating.

At this point, the museum itself has become an historical artifact in itself — the kind of place a parent can take a child and say, “It was just like this when my parents took me.” I think there’s a great deal of emotional comfort in that continuity, in addition to the physical and psychic comforts of coolness, dimness, and quiet.

That’s all on the brink of changing. For many years, Death Valley was a total backwater in terms of telephone and computers. There were old-fashioned land lines, and beyond that, nothing, unless you had a satellite phone. But now there’s wi-fi, bringing with it the sight of people slumped against the wall of the Visitor Center working on their laptops. Cell phone service, at least at the main commercial centers of Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells, will start soon, along with all the intrusive babble: so much for quiet.

And the museum is next. According to the latest Death Valley Visitor Guide, stimulus funds have been set aside to upgrade the museum exhibits. My fear is that audio and video will come crashing in — and to what purpose, really? There are subtle ways to make the current exhibits more accessible to a wider variety of visitors, but the likelihood is that they will instead be replaced with cookie-cutter, characterless interactives, turned up too loud. I hope I’m wrong.

I hope that at least they keep this very cool topographic Death Valley diorama:

Besides being beautiful in itself, it’s an example of an art that is no longer much practiced — which is a loss to us all.

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