What Can ‘Animal Crossing’ Tell Us About the Past and Present of Natural History Museums?

Pressed under glass

Despite a months-long global shutdown of nonessential entertainment and cultural institutions to prevent the worsening of the pandemic, one museum has been setting record attendance numbers week after week. Thousands have visited its halls of natural history, which include fossilized remains, calming aquariums, and thrumming insect gardens to escape the isolation necessitated by current events. The staff works 24/7 without a break, and new wings have been opened as collections grow with the generosity of its patrons.

The immensely popular video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons was released on the Nintendo Switch on March 20 of this year, and its natural history museum, a mainstay of the series since the first game was released on the Gamecube in 2001 in Japan, has quickly recaptured players’s interests. With so many people playing Animal Crossing and “visiting” virtual museum exhibits online while in quarantine, now is a key moment for thinking about nature’s presence in the virtual world and the museum’s intermediary role in representing it to millions through our screens.

Originally released in Japan in 2001 (and in the US in 2003), there have been five main Animal Crossing games, with each installment enhancing the role of the museum as a space for players to display in-game collectibles. A large part of gameplay involves scouring the surrounding environment for insects, fish, and fossils which the player then donates to the museum via the curator, an owl named Blathers; the more specimens donated, the larger the museum becomes, expanding into multiple rooms, exhibits organized by biomes and evolutionary timelines, and even a museum cafe in previous games.

In Animal Crossing: New Horizons (ACNH), players build a kind of pseudonation on a suspiciously deserted yet resource-rich island, writing an anthem (“town tune”), creating a town flag, raising and allocating funds for infrastructure improvements, and participating in traditional festivals. And Nintendo figured out, intentionally or not, that a natural history museum—a place for flora and fauna to be collected, catalogued, and displayed—is a fast-track component of building a world, even a pastel-hued city state occupied by anthropomorphic animals.

History abounds with examples, like the famous Museum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. In her splendid book on the subject Utopia’s Garden: French Natural History from Old Regime to Revolution, E. C. Spary details how the Museum was central to the project of nation-building during the French Revolution. Originally a royal institution, the Jardin du Roi was a repository for the eclectic collection of specimens from around the world given to the king as baubles. It survived the guillotine by rebranding—its caretakers and gardeners saw the writing on the wall for such a superfluous collection amidst political upheaval and anti-aristocratic sentiment. While other royal institutions were dissolved (or beheaded), the revolutionaries valued the Jardin because its “cabinets and gardens could confer status, both moral and economic, upon the owner. Collections could demonstrate the owner’s power to move objects at a distance, to control the rare and the unusual as perfectly as possible.”[1] Influenced in large part by the ideas of the Comte de Buffon Georges-Louis Leclerc, Louis XV’s master gardener and widely influential natural historian, who promoted the notion that tropical climates degenerated species and it was only in the temperate climes of Europe where specimens could be civilized and cultivated. Under Buffon, the Jardin cum Museum centralized the collecting of plants from colonial outposts, acclimated specimens, and improved upon nature and the nation’s moral character, promising “to convert the whole of France into a well-cultivated garden.”[2]

It would be difficult to find a more accurate description of the natural history museum in ACNH and the ways in which its expanding collection reflects the player’s increasing dominion over their island. Any time away from the game results in players returning to find weeds sprouted throughout their carefully maintained meadows and lawns, and the temptation to pull them and return order. The precise placement of trees, flowers, bridges and terraforming takes on great importance. Filling the exhibit halls of Animal Crossing’s museum signifies “progress” made in the game, much in the way that progress-oriented collections are still displayed in museums today. In recent years, such collections have been criticized by groups like Decolonize This Place for representing histories of genocide and colonization as benign Western progress.

Practitioners of natural history worked hard throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries to shed any political associations in favor of becoming an empirical science. Another father of French natural history, Georges Cuvier, was devoted to “depersonalized, deductive, politically neutral natural history” and helped to transform the Museum d’Histoire Naturelle into a scientific institution, even while wallpapering over its politically motivated beginnings.[3] This was done, in part, by  building robust international specimen trading networks of European and American naturalists in the 1800s, through which plants, remains, and information circulated widely. Players in ACNH can even mimic this network using the online functionality through which friends can trade or donate specimens to one another. 

And yet, while Nintendo maintains a very nineteenth century model of natural history collection formation based on acquisitions from players, they also include a surprising amount of modern exhibit design. In the ACNH museum, all the species are real, though some are more specific than others, like the peacock butterfly versus generic tarantulas and wasps, but the museum has largely abdicated the responsibility of organizing specimens taxonomically. As the bug room becomes more crowded, the air grows thick with buzzing swarms and the tarantula skitters across the floor. The fish tanks are separated by necessity into loose categories based on where and what type of water the species dwell in. The fossil rooms feature desaturated pastel lines on the floor and walls connecting specimens in a branching treelike structure. At the terminus of this loose (if jumbled) tree of life, directly above a remarkably faithful reproduction of the Australopithecus afarensis skull better known as “Lucy,” is an empty space lit by one recessed light—a perfectly logical place for the player’s avatar to stand as the most “recent” example of human evolution.

Throughout the museum there are small interpretive labels mounted on the wall next to specimens, but beyond the Linnaean name, the paragraphs of text are tiny, illegible black lines not meant to be read. In a way, the lack of interpretive materials alongside the displays strips away the false front of modern museums, where increasing emphasis is placed on the right text with carefully chosen words, and we can see natural history museums for the imperial greed machines they really are. By including exhibit label text that is visible but illegible to the player, ACNH vaults us back into museums of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which were little more than cases of taxidermied specimens with minimal attention to display and no background information attached for the layperson.[4]

It was only later in the twentieth century when more explanation was deemed necessary about the provenance and life story of specimens in order for the public to understand why it rests in a display case halfway around the world from where it was dug up, or worse, far from ancestral burial grounds. This diverges greatly from Foucault’s claim that natural history is a “purely representational science,” one that banks on arrangements and dioramas to communicate meaning; in ACNH’s unintentionally pointed critique, labels are just flavor text. (A real-life example of this occurred in 2018 at the American Museum of Natural History when, in response to criticism of a diorama depicting the meeting of the Lenape people and Dutch colonizers, the scene was annotated with labels on the glass explaining how curators got it wrong, but not actually altering the display.)

Do the Evolution

It’s appealing to critique Animal Crossing’s natural history museum, but it is an exercise only, and shouldn’t overshadow the fact that it is not meant to be a true museum. Blathers’s museum is a playful virtual space, and while museums in the physical world are currently striving at a breakneck pace to digitize collections and push exhibits online for quarantined audiences around the globe, the natural history museum still depends on brick and mortar institutions, as well as the material trappings of the exhibit hall—wood and glass, bone and plaster—to represent its logic.

The leap to digital museums is still a ways off, and there will be much more to write about in that transition, if and when it occurs. Which is why Animal Crossing’s museum, with its colonial roots, finite specimen roster (pre-downloadable content, anyway), unreadable labels, and collectible fever affords an interesting look at what might remain of the natural history museum in an online space, what might be forgotten, and what might gratefully fade away.

Callum Angus is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. His first book, A NATURAL HISTORY OF TRANSITION, will be out April 2021 from Metonymy Press. He holds degrees in geography and creative writing, and is working on a study of natural history museums in popular culture.

[1] Spary, 22.

[2] Spary, 102.

[3] Spary, 102.

[4] Karen A. Rader and Victoria E. M. Cain, Life on Display: Revolutionizing U.S. Museums of Science and Natural History in the Twentieth Century (University of Chicago Press, 2014), 38, 59.