In order to get some museum experts to join me on a tour of Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ museum, I had to spend a recent Friday afternoon converting my living room into a makeshift streaming studio. One of them had a copy of the game; the other didn’t. So, I needed to prop up my computer to capture as much of my television as possible
Eventually, I found the perfect stack: three board games—Tokaido, Betrayal at House on the Hill, and Gamma World—and an oversized art book about coffee beans. I wouldn’t call it an elegant solution, but It worked in a pinch. I sat to one side, Joy-Cons in hand, practicing my best tour guide voice.
Two faculty members from the Academy of Natural Sciences at Drexel University would soon join me. Dr. Richard McCourt, a curator of botany, called from a home office decorated with humbly framed artwork and a slightly cluttered wooden desk. His coworker, library assistant Kelsey Manahan-Phelan, tried to join me in-game, but connection issues forced her to settle for video conferencing from the kitchen in her apartment
This set-up was a hassle, but I wanted these trained academics to apply the same scrutiny to Blathers as he does my daily collection of fossils, fish, and insects. They were happy to oblige. Dr. McCourt even laughed at Blathers’ bow tie the first time he saw him.
I had gathered four fossils before they arrived, and planned to donate them to the museum. This, Manahan-Phelan said, adheres to the way early museums operated, when regular people were more likely to be donors. She told me 19th-century collectors of natural science specimens were often doctors and apothecaries who dabbled in curation as a hobby. Upon retirement or death, these amateurs would donate their collections to museums. The museum where she works started that way. “We were founded in 1812. It was literally just a few guys in the attic of an apothecary shop who got together and were like, ‘Hey, we should do this,’” she said.
Blathers gets approval to start his museum in a similar manner: Donate enough specimens and he decides the island deserves a building dedicated to curation and education. McCourt wished it took so little paperwork and approval in the real world.
These days, it’s less common for non-scientists to donate to natural history museums, my guests said. Donation initiatives still happen, if only for a slightly different purpose. “We have had fossil or specimen road shows where people bring in bugs or fossils they found, or bones or whatever wild plants, and we’ll try to identify them,” McCourt said. “But we’re actually doing an educational thing, and we try to stress that. One of the things we do is try to serve the public in that way.” When Blathers shares information (and opinions) on specimens the player brings in, he fulfills much the same role. Museum faculty treat education as an equal endeavor to research or conservation.
He stressed another reason why modern museums don’t encourage individual donations. “Sometimes you can do damage to the natural world by collecting too much, you know, or killing off animals.” They much prefer clear photographs attached in emails to, say, an entire tiger pelt or box of bird carcasses. They also wouldn’t appreciate a 200-pound blue marlin pulled from your island pier, but McCourt admired Blathers’ dedication, nonetheless.
My guests enjoyed Blathers disgusted reaction when I pulled a wasp out of my pocket but reiterated that front-door donations just don’t happen anymore. Even meticulous collections from proven amateurs don’t necessarily translate to scientific merit. McCourt recommended anyone with an inventory full of dragonflies and tarantulas consider the sentimental value, instead. “It may not be as useful to us, and so I tell people if you really like it, mount it on a frame and put it on your wall. It doesn’t have to go to a museum to make it worthwhile. It means something to you,” he said. Good thing Nintendo put CJ and Flick into the game. The beaver and chameleon partners do exactly that: trade your catches for a detailed replica to decorate your home.
While we discussed museum procedure, I guided my guests first through the fossil exhibit. . Colorfully lit tendrils snaked across the dark floor, evoking a tree of life springing from simple cell organisms and branching outward. Ammonites and jawless fish give way to arthropods, early amphibians, a coelacanth and, eventually, dinosaurs. Three rooms later, the allegorical tree splintered into multiple limbs that represent all the different species of villagers in the game’s universe, including the human player.
After a long discussion about jawed fish (the successful precursor to most anything that thrived beyond the ocean), I asked them if they noticed the obvious gaps in my collection. At the time, my museum housed not only empty pedestals but incomplete, half-erected skeletons. They told me this isn’t an uncommon practice, especially when dealing with early hominids. The full skeleton of Lucy, the most well-known example of Australopithecus afarensis, was extrapolated from only 40 percent of found remains.
“If you know the structure from other fossils, but yours doesn’t have it, it’s totally legitimate to just put in what it would look like,” McCourt said. “Somebody said the evolution of mammals is basically a bunch of teeth because that’s the stuff that preserves the best. So often fossils of vertebrates or anything are very incomplete—or only half there or in pieces—and you never find the rest.”
McCourt and Manahan-Phelan commended the construction of the fossil exhibit for shaping its educational material into a story told across rooms, something actual museums consider in their own layout. Every installation is a balance between relevance, aesthetics, and understanding your visitors, Manahan-Phelan said. Dinosaurs still remain the showstoppers of the museum world; one can never go wrong with soaring constructions of hand-sized teeth and skulls bigger than the family dog.
They wouldn’t ever substitute it for a textbook, but any positive and accessible representations of learning institutions earn high marks. Manahan-Phelan admitted it makes her miss work every day; the Academy closed in mid-March during the initial outbreak of covid-19. But she hopes children are inspired by their time helping Blathers and visit their local museums once they reopen. McCourt, ever the botanist, wished there were more plants on display but grudgingly conceded that 30 different species of ancient grass doesn’t appeal to folks as much as a T. Rex.
“I think it’s kind of clever and is a fun way to explore nature,” he said. “The fact that you can build it yourself is probably more interesting than just saying ‘Here, stand back. Let the experts handle this.’”
We traveled next to the insect exhibit and butterfly room, something the Academy also boasts at its Philadelphia compound. Theirs exists somewhere between the open-air environment players first walk through and the adjoining ornamental fountain that seems expressly designed for photographs. Perpetually sunny and humid, the butterfly room becomes a popular spot for sun therapy during the colder Pennsylvania months, McCourt said.
Then, a section in the back of the insect rooms caught their eyes. Doors open but unassuming, it sported a desktop computer, some lab equipment, a whiteboard, and a tank wherein several pupae hung suspended under a heat lamp. It’s an excellent facsimile of what modern museums look like behind the public offerings, according to my guests. In fact, there have been recent efforts to better showcase the invisible work at museums, both at the Academy and its peers. Certain exhibits, like fossil digs, are designed to teach the professional techniques researchers employ in the field. They also host regular expert nights, which give their faculty a chance to flex their knowledge on special exhibits for members and donors.
On the subject of hidden labor, McCourt asked me where the rest of the museum personnel might be. He was surprised to hear Blathers is a one-owl operation, saying all institutions, from local outposts to the most prestigious museums, rely on a majority of non-research staff. He wished players could peek in on exhibit designers, cleaning crews, public workers, and animal caretakers dedicated to keeping a museum running.
Our last stop brought us to the newly implemented art museum, which was almost entirely empty except for a bust of Nefertiti and Van Gogh’s starry night. I had acquired both of these pieces from Redd, a merchant fox whose entire vibe seems less than above board. In truth, many of his peddled artworks are revealed as forgeries if taken to Blathers. Manahan-Phelan, who earned her master’s degree in museum studies, found this entire enterprise suspect.
“I’m very curious about what Blathers’ processes are for finding provenance from the paintings that are being donated into his collection. I think when it comes to art, it’s quite a bit more dicey in terms of making sure you’re taking something that’s legit,” she said.
Provenance refers to the record of ownership for pieces of art in a museum’s collection that should trace it all the way back to creation. There can be no authenticity in the eyes of the institution without that paper trail, and Redd certainly didn’t deliver a stack of receipts, bills, and certificates with my purchase. Manahan-Phelan didn’t want to call Blathers a liar, but provenance is one of the most scrutinized processes she or any other museum employee may carry out.
We loitered in the lobby for a bit before ending the call. McCourt said he really enjoyed the look of the game and its whimsical depiction of museums, but he will personally stick to pinball.
For another perspective on museums, I contacted Dr. Jennifer Kramer, curator of Pacific Northwest art at Vancouver’s’s Museum of Anthropology. She has a far less charitable read on Animal Crossing’s art donations: Redd is a so-called pothunter and Blathers is enabling some serious crimes. Archaeologists use the term “pothunter” to refer to amateurs and opportunists who raid both official digs and historical sites for items of value. The most profitable option involves connecting to private collectors through an extensive gray market, but they sometimes attempt to sell the stolen goods directly to museums. According to Kramer, no reputable institution would risk such acquisitions.
“Museum curators can go to jail if they buy things that have been illegally obtained,” she said. “Not only that, but it breaks most [UNESCO] heritage rules.” In addition to admitting a desire to purchase fossils and art directly from you, Blathers fails to carry out due diligence on the artistic donations. Redd has probably never even heard of provenance, and the player enables the entire procedure. Kramer said everyone involved should be worried about fines, closure, or jail time for their actions.
Much of the artwork the player can purchase from Redd consists of widely recognizable paintings: Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave, and Da Vinci’s The Mona Lisa all pass through the smoky confines of his tugboat-turned-storefront. But sculptures and artwork from thousands-year-old cultures also appear. He recently sold me an “Ancient Figure” based on a Shakōki-dogū from the Jōmon period, when indigenous people freely inhabited the islands that would eventually be settled as Japan. For Kramer, this introduces a troubling wrinkle.
She and her peers at MOA work both with contemporary First Nations artists, along with “belongings” of the indigeonous people along the North Pacific coast. These aesthetic pieces, like headdresses, jewelry, and wood carvings, serve “functional, spiritual, governmental purposes” but were displayed in Western museums as “often grotesque curiosities,” according to Kramer. The use of belonging, as opposed to artifact, shows an “ongoing connection between the community of origin and the object in our museum” and is part of MOA’s dedication to a more critical approach to museum curation while also ensuring the cultures on display have an active and leading role in guiding what parts and how their history is represented.
“We’re trying to decolonize the museum by turning it from a glass box that seals people away from their culture and trying to turn it around to be a place that works toward cultural revitalization,” Kramer said. MOA also has a longstanding repatriation process and ensures research space to indigenous community members wishing to educate themselves or others.
When Kramer asked me what I do with the extra fossils and art Blathers won’t take, I told her people can either decorate their island with them or sell them to Nook’s Cranny, the local shop. From the webcam view of her home library, I saw her smile turn grim as she explained that even museums striving to decolonize struggle with affecting the gray market. “When an object comes into a museum, you’re basically saying it’s museum-worthy, and that gives it a monetary value,” she said. “There’s also the idea that if you put something in an exhibit, that adds to its value, even though it may not be quantifiable. But if it ever did get back on the market, it would add to its value.”
Assigning cultural or scientific value to an item raises estimation in the eyes of collectors, affecting an illegal or ethically compromised market simply by existing. Kramer told me she was happy her work makes art by living indigenous artists more sought after; many of MOA’s contemporary pieces are donated or purchased from Nuxalk Nation members in Bella Coola. But that same work has raised the value of ancestral remains, totem poles, and other belongings sold on eBay and the dark web. My Shakōki-dogū’s real-world counterpart, like most excavated dogū, likely belongs to a national museum or private collector instead of the Ainu, descendants of the native population that created the figures. The Ainu continue to fight social discrimination, among other injustices, while petitioning the Japanese government for economic and educational equality.
Museums must also insure pieces when loaned out for traveling exhibits, a process that demands a monetary value assigned to every piece. It’s a world of contradictions and compromises that Kramer and her peers strive to improve every day. “Of course, you can never replace an object that you’ve lost in a fire. But yeah, we are part of the market,” she said. “What I want to do as part of decolonizing the museum, I would say, is not pretend that we’re in some fancy temple that’s above money, or Bells. But to acknowledge that we’re part of that system, and to make it part of the meta conversation.”
Blathers’ island museum managed to charm my guests, who were heartened to see any positive representation in popular media that wasn’t National Treasure or Night at the Museum. Is it simplistic? Yes. Should its ignorance to fraught practices of Western archaeology be soundly criticized? Absolutely. But all three of the experts I consulted hoped players young and old would stay mindful as they flesh out their exhibits. The role of museums is changing in our modern culture, reacting to climate change research, decolonization, and other societal forces. Animal Crossing might help inform what it becomes.
Chase Carter is a freelance journalist interested in digital communities, both in-game and otherwise. He enjoys the company of his two cats and always wants to hear more about that thing you love. Follow him on Twitter for photos of said cats and retweeted opinions from smarter folks.