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Carnegie Museum of Natural History adds new mystery to Bird Hall

| Tuesday, June 28, 2016, 9:00 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
A holographic image of a Arctic Hare is behind the door of the 'Section of Mystery' at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History’ on Tuesday, June 28, 2016. The new exhibit, which is located behind the half-sized wooden door in Bird Hall of the museum, uses a 3D hologram of an animal floating in the darkness with its related sounds whether it's a roar, growl or chirp.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
'Section of Mystery' offers surprises for the curious behind the door at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History
'Section of Mystery' offers surprises for the curious behind the door at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

For years, when children turned the knob on the curious, half-sized wooden door at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, their anticipation quickly turned to disappointment upon learning it was just a locked utility closet.

With its latest permanent exhibit, the “Section of Mystery,” the museum is unlocking the door to offer a whole new dimension of learning for visitors.

Mops and brooms have been replaced with 3-D holograms of random animals that appear when a visitor opens the door, located in the museum's Bird Hall.

A floating image of an animal — ranging from whales to owls to buffaloes — appears along with an accompanying sound by the animal.

“It creates a magic moment,” says Eric Dorfman, director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

For many children, the holograms offer a brand-new experience. Reactions can vary depending on which animal awaits them.

“I want one in my house,” said Gizzie Vaughn, 4, after viewing a hologram of a penguin.

Other children needed more time to warm up to the 3-D depictions.

“The hawk with the eyes is starting to scare me,” said Max Yampolski, 7, while sizing up a red-tailed hawk.

The project was engineered by the Carnegie Museum of Pittsburgh's Innovation Studio, a year-old digital research and design lab, which combines old architecture with new technology to bring compelling, interactive experiences for Pittsburgh's four Carnegie Museums — the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Museum of Art, the Carnegie Science Center and the Andy Warhol Museum.

“We're trying to invite people to think about museums differently,” Innovation Studio director Jeffrey Inscho says about the exhibit, which opened earlier this month. “The goal of this project is simply to delight and give people an experience that they would have never encountered before.”

The idea for the project was inspired by years of children showing curiosity for what was behind the mysterious door, says exhibit artist and technologist Caroline Record.

“Kids have been yanking on those doors for as long as the museum has existed,” Record says. She once heard a little girl ask her mother to “try all her keys” to open the locked door.

“We asked kids what they thought was behind the door, and they'd often say, ‘Alice in Wonderland' or the ‘museum treasures,' ” Record says.

The project is intended to spark children's sense of wonder by playing off the idea that each of the “museum treasures” are behind the door.

Though futuristic in appearance, the holograms are partly made possible by a technique that dates to the 17th century in which a hidden mirror is used to reflect a 3-D image onto a screen, Record says. The light then reflects off the screen and into the air, creating the image's “floating” appearance.

The exhibit is part of an effort by the Carnegie Museum and Innovation Studio to engineer exhibits that look at the past through a more modern lens.

“In this world we're living in, museums are competing for attention with things like Facebook and Amazon,” Inscho says. “Museums need to be really engaging people and using the technologies that have become ubiquitous.”

Matthew Zabierek is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7893 or

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