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A villager stands amid fossils in the museum from Animal Crossing: New Horizons Image: Nintendo via Polygon

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Animal Crossing gets the real-life museum details right

Museum professionals praise Blathers’ attention to detail

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There’s a lot to unlock in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, from the Able sisters’ clothing shop to the department store upgrade to Nook’s Cranny, but perhaps the most enriching feature in the game is the island’s museum.

“Somebody who designed this either likes museums a lot or has had some experience in them,” said Elizabeth Musteen-Allison, chief of exhibit production at the National Museum of Natural History.

Even though the museum takes serious liberties — some insects are allowed to roam, the links between dinosaurs are only roughly plotted out, and, as Musteen-Allison noted, the presence of a fountain would become a hazard (“I was thinking to myself, ‘Oh, how lovely it would be to be able to have a fountain and not have to worry about what people would put in it, or dunking their kids in it’”) — there’s no question that the building is lovingly, carefully designed.

Since the game’s release, the museum has become a popular feature, not just for the opportunity to torment Blathers by donating bugs or waking him up during the day, but because it’s so well designed. The museum’s bug, fish, fossil, and (recently added) art halls are all beautiful, and go a long way, at least to the untrained eye, toward replicating the actual experience of walking through a real-life museum.

A villager sits in the butterfly room in a screenshot from Animal Crossing: New Horizons Image: Nintendo via Polygon

To get a better sense of how the New Horizons museum stacks up against museums in the real world, Polygon took three real-world museum professionals on a walkthrough of Blathers’ pride and joy: Monisa Ahmed, exhibition developer at the Field Museum; Elizabeth Musteen-Allison, chief of exhibit production at the National Museum of Natural History; and Vivian Trakinski, director of science visualization at the American Museum of Natural History.

For one “in-person” tour of New Horizons’ museum, flying to Ahmed’s New Horizons island revealed not only a crop of varied fruit trees, but custom designs next to each one indicating what kind of fruit the tree bears.

“If you want to know what developers are like, we’re the kind of people who would label our freakin’ trees,” Ahmed said.

Swimming with the fishes

There are some explicit real-life analogs to the creatures in New Horizons’ museum — for instance, the T-Rex in the hall of fossils was modeled after the Field Museum’s SUE — but it speaks to just how carefully the museum is designed that, even without such specific references, it recalls real-life museums.

“This part of the museum reminded me a lot of [the American Museum of Natural History’s] Hall of Ocean Life,” Trakinski said of the hall of fish. “Our Hall of Ocean Life was designed as a sort of a giant diorama that you can step into, with the giant blue whale hanging from the ceiling. It’s a very immersive room, with the feeling of water overhead, and the surrounding dioramas all contribute to this feeling of being inside a diorama. The first room really captured that feeling for me.”

Ahmed meanwhile, was reminded of the Georgia Aquarium by the hall’s biggest tank, which contains specimens including sharks and sunfish. She also praised the organization of the fish, as the displays are modeled after the habitats the fish were caught in. And though their specimen is taxidermied rather than alive and swimming, the Field Museum boasts a coelacanth, too.

“It’s so off-putting. I see visitors getting confused but intrigued by it all the time,” Ahmed said.

Other museum details are also reminiscent of real-world practices though they may be less immediately noticeable. Musteen-Allison praised the way-finding (the signs and symbols indicating where visitors are and what other exhibits are near them) present throughout the hall, as well as the more general signage: “If you look in the aquarium here, you’ll notice the labels on the wall have illustrations on them so that you can tell which fish they’re talking about, which we do as well, because if you don’t know what an oarfish looks like, you can’t identify one unless you have a picture.”

A villager sits on a bench in the aquarium wing of the museum from Animal Crossing: New Horizons Image: Nintendo via Polygon

Musteen-Allison even pointed out that details like electrical outlets, vents, drains, and general building utilities mimicked real-world museum design, though a lack of elevators and consistent ramps left the museum short of being ADA-compliant. Both Musteen-Allison and Ahmed, however, were overjoyed with the number of benches present throughout the museum.

“Nine out of 10 times, when we survey visitors about what we need to add in exhibits, it’s just that we need more benches,” Ahmed said.

Walking with dinosaurs

If anything, the hall of fossils demonstrates an even greater level of attention to detail. Ahmed noted that the mounted specimens, while posed a little more dramatically than their real-life counterparts, looked professionally done. Musteen-Allison said that, while the first room showed off some “old-school” practices in placing specimens in glass domes, the methodology felt modern; the floor of the hall of fossils is decorated with a phylogenetic tree, a branching diagram that demonstrates the evolutionary relationships between species.

“They’re an important part of science,” Musteen-Allison said. “[They represent that] all things are related, which is a big deal.”

Ahmed and Trakinski both echoed the significance of New Horizons depicting the evolutionary tree. Though Ahmed noted that the tree might be a bit too simplified, it was still one of the most exciting things about the museum.

“I really like that they took the evolutionary approach and are trying to imply that all life is connected in some way,” she said. “I think especially in the current social and political climate, it’s cool to see messages about science and evolution being very much real, even if it is in a video game.”

Two villagers stand in the fossil wing of the museum in Animal Crossing: New Horizons Image: Nintendo via Polygon

In yet another real-life parallel, Trakinski pointed out that the American Museum of Natural History has a similar feature. The museum’s fourth floor distributes animals across cladograms — a kind of diagram used to show relationships between organisms, but differing from a phylogenetic tree in that it does not show how ancestors are related to descendants — to link extinct mammals and dinosaurs.

“In a meeting, we were talking about all of these different stories that we could tell in a particular exhibit, and everything sort of kept coming back to evolution,” Trakinski recalled. “[Our provost] said, ‘Well, there really is only one story. The story of evolution.’”

New Horizons is limited in how granular it can get in telling that story, as there’s less space for exhibits than there would be in a real-world museum. As such, the fossils are grouped roughly, rather than by each specific evolutionary thread, but that practice isn’t wholly out of the ordinary.

“It’s very similar to what the Field Museum does,” Ahmed said, comparing New Horizons’ fossil display strategy to the Jurassic-Cretaceous portion of the Field’s Evolving Planet exhibit. “Everything is mishmashed together for visitor experience reasons. Most people just want to beeline to the dinosaur room. You want to make sure that you put similar things in the same room and organize them as accurately as possible, but also keep the visitor experience in mind [...] You don’t want to make the experience less enjoyable just for accuracy reasons.”

The use of the phylogenetic tree in real exhibits, however, can be tricky.

“We find trees to be hard for people to understand,” Musteen-Allison explained. “Some people understand that the lines mean that they’re related and that different colors means family, but [it can be difficult] because you’re talking about millions and millions of years ago. and sometimes the branches between them are millions and millions of years. One of our curators likes to say that there’s more time between Diplodocus and T-Rex than T-Rex and you, and people don’t think about the age of dinosaurs stretching to that sort of length.”

As a result, it can be more intuitive to display older animals grouped by habitat, ecosystem, or size.

As for the last room in the hall of fossils, though the purpose of the display isn’t entirely clear, Ahmed called the villager silhouettes a way for your neighbors to connect with the material.

“It’s really cute that they’re establishing the characters in the [Animal Crossing] world as real animals that all share a common ancestor,” she noted. “Also, from a visitor standpoint, if any of your islanders were coming to this museum, they would be able to find a point of connection and find themselves on the wall and then find what their common ancestor would be [...] so there’s a personal connection there. The game does a good job of giving you ways to be invested in the museum on a personal level.”

The best room in the hall of bugs

The hall of bugs is perhaps the area in which New Horizons takes the most liberties, as a good portion of the insects within are allowed to roam relatively freely. However, the hall of bugs also has one of the most vital rooms in the whole museum: the laboratory.

“This is my favorite room in the whole museum, because it reminds me so much of work,” Ahmed said, as we toured the lab. “The fact that this museum has some kind of a lab space speaks so much to how much detail went into making it. Museums have rooms upon rooms in which scientists are dedicating time to preparing specimens or doing their own research.”

Image: Nintendo via Polygon

The Field Museum, the National Museum of Natural History, and the American Museum of Natural History all have similar labs in real life that allow visitors to observe researchers at work or to experience hands-on learning.

“[The lab] is really interesting because natural history museums and science centers are merging a little bit,” Trakinski said, adding, “natural history museums that used to be much more about observation are now introducing a lot of hands-on opportunities, both to engage audiences, especially younger audiences, but also to help communicate the process of science and how scientists acquire the knowledge that is on display throughout museums.”

Ahmed shared a similar sentiment, explaining that museums “[aren’t] meant to be a space of collecting a bunch of dead, unused things, but a place that is constantly thriving and living with real science and real discovery all the time,” a point that feels particularly apt given that New Horizons’ museum can only exist and thrive with player contributions.

Video game design with real life in mind

The New Horizons museum is also an improvement from the museum in New Leaf, according to Ahmed, who compared the museum in the Nintendo 3DS game to a trophy room rather than an actual museum. There are improvements that could be made to make it feel more realistic — Ahmed suggested more text about the animals on the plaques, while Musteen-Allison suggested more freedom to explore rather than structured paths through the exhibits — but the passion the developers have for the feature is evident. Ahmed even praised Blathers, saying, “He feels so real, just like any other museum curator, just really passionate, has stuff that he likes, has stuff that he doesn’t like. [...] The stuff that he’ll tell you about some of these fossils is just so real, and it’s in a way that’s very digestible and easy to understand.”

“This game really captures the appeal of collecting,” Trakinski said, comparing New Horizons’ encouragement for players to collect insects, bugs, and fossils to the way the American Museum of Natural History encourages visitors to be active on ID days, where scientists identify objects visitors bring in. The Animal Crossing museum also serves as an extension of what such real-life museums are trying to do, particularly as an educational tool.

“Something that we think a lot about lately is really getting rid of the boundaries of, ‘here is the interactive experience, and then here is the physical exhibit,’” Trakinski explained. “We are thinking about how to design exhibits where the digital technology and the digital content is part of the space, part of the exhibit tree. It’s not like a separate add on. [...] Digital is just another dimension of what we’ve always been doing.”

The New Horizons museum goes a long way toward breaking down those boundaries, as players don’t need to be familiar with museums in any capacity in order to appreciate it and benefit from it. It’s not just that the museum looks like a museum, down to tiny maintenance details, but that it’s built with real science and real museum missions in mind. The natural game mechanic encourages players to explore and to collect specimens, and though talking to Blathers yields the most information, the simple act of walking through the virtual museum is revealing as well. The donated fossils, bugs, and fish are kept in habitats that mimic those they would live in, and special visual flourishes such as the phylogenetic tree and a model of the asteroid that killed the dinosaurs provide immediate hints about the things on display. It’s through this care to attention that New Horizons not only recreates the physical museum experience, but the sense of wonder that comes along with such institutions, too.

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