Robert Ripley was an adaptive man. He started the syndicated panels that asked newspaper readers to “Believe it or Not” in 1919. After that, he met every media challenge and adapted to it: radio, books, TV and museums.
Though the newspaper panels have waned, his museums, called Odditoriums, are all over the world, including temporarily at Seattle’s Pacific Science Center.
Up through Jan. 4, “The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not” takes a scholarly approach to some of nature’s and mankind’s more unusual creations. But not too scholarly.
Just inside the entrance to the show is a large portrait of Albert Einstein — made out of toast. The 440 sections of burned bread were carefully scraped by English artist Adam Sheldon to form the large picture.
Then it gets weird. As in two-headed calf weird. That’s there, along with a few other preserved animals with extra parts.
Then it gets freaky. A mannequin of Robert Wadlow, who measured 8 feet, 11 inches tall, is seated along a wall. It doesn’t really make sense to have the world’s tallest man in a chair. Until he stands up. Which he does to the delight and horror of those around him.
It’s not all big stuff. The work of micro sculptor Willard Wigan is on display. The work is small, not Wigan. It’s so small, it fits in the eye of a needle and can only be viewed through a magnifier. Look for it near the portrait of Justin Bieber made from hard candy.
This isn’t a show for people who have snake phobias. A replica of a gigantic prehistoric snake slithers centerstage and another large serpent made from metal washers is coiled just inside the entrance.
The show walks a balance between human-made objects — a Rolls Royce Silver Ghost made from 1,016,711 matchsticks, for instance — and nature-made objects. There’s even exhibits from outer space: meteorites you can touch.
Scientific phenomenon is demonstrated. By looking for several seconds at swirling images and then at your hands, it’ll look as if they’re melting.
“It’s totally creepy, yet so awesome,” said Matt LaCanfora, who was visiting the show on opening day.
Today’s world might hardly be recognizable to Robert Ripley, but the philosophy he coined lives on with visitors such as LaCanfora.
“I definitely have to see it in order to believe it,” LaCanfora said.
NEW APP OFFERS CLOUD-BASED CURATING
Devices that add content for museumgoers are not new. A few museums still rent those clunky machines that play recorded information. Others use QR codes for visitors to scan using smartphones to unlock additional content.
Now, a Seattle start-up aims to up the game — and you can test it out at the Ripley’s exhibit.
Mixby is a free app for smartphones and tablets. It was produced by Artifact Technologies. The company’s CEO, Greg Heuss, recently demonstrated the app at Pacific Science Center. It uses beacons scattered around the center to connect with a phone’s Bluetooth to unlock additional content within the exhibit that’s exclusive to Mixby.
The app allows Pacific Science Center to solve some problems inherent to virtually all museums.
“Despite the nature of what we do, we aren’t given the opportunity to be super dynamic and flexible with the presentation of content,” said Crystal Clarity, PSC’s vice president of marketing and communications. A lot of time goes into an exhibit on the front end: fundraising, research and construction. So once the exhibit is up, it’s up.
“With some exceptions, most of what you see here is going to be here when you come back in six months, a year or two years,” Clarity said.
“What’s great about Mixby is that it gives us the ability to add and change content on a whim. What you experience now could be different from what you experience tomorrow,” she said.
For the Ripley exhibit, beacons, small battery-powered devices, are distributed around the show. When a smartphone gets within range of the beacon, it “discovers” it. “Then we serve up content depending on how close you are and what you want to see,” Heuss said.
That content includes photos, videos and text along with breaking information such as special offers, events and on-site programs.
But Pacific Science Center is using it elsewhere, too. In PSC’s butterfly house, additional content will help visitors understand a new resident named Greta oto. That’s the Latin name of the glasswinged butterfly. It’s not some cagey marketing exaggeration. The insect’s wings are completely transparent. The native of Costa Rica is the size of a paper clip and lacks the scales of regular butterflies. Instead it just has translucent membranes.
Mixby also allows visitors to add content, such as photos, as if it were a fixed locale social media.
But it’s not entirely fixed in place. A major feature of Mixby is its ability to continue the experience at home. Visitors can further explore content long after they’ve visited the venue.
“What we are trying to do is create a tether from here to the outside world,” Heuss said.
Mixby has content for other areas at Seattle Center as well, including the Space Needle and the Chihuly Garden.
The app is available on devices running iOS and Android.