Evolution in Museums

Over on Pharyngula, PZ Myers posted a complaint about the problem of dumbing down museum exhibits today. I’ve worked on some exhibits myself, and while I’ve been encouraged to write at a 4th-6th grade level, I’ve never been encouraged to dumb down the content of the exhibits. I think we have a bit of a challenge in museums today because we have researchers who are not trained to get ideas across to the public (that is not the job of the curator after all) and educators who may not be trained in the specific disciplines that they are developing exhibits for. When you get a good team of curators, educators and designers, you can have a phenomenal show, but problems with any of those individual members can lead to flaws with the exhibit.

Colin Purrington has focused on a particular issue of interest to biologists and paleontologists – the presentation of evolution in museum and zoo exhibits. He’s got a nice set of pictures from exhibits that you can check out. Sometimes museums use the words ‘change over time’ in lieu of ‘evolution’, which helps avoid upsetting people, but also misses out on an opportunity to educate the public. He also notes that there is a strong emphasis on contemporary conservation issues, in lieu of discussions of natural history and how these ecosystems evolved in the first place. And other times, of course, the exhibits are top notch and do a great job.

PZ has a link (and interesting discussion going, which is why I’m not making a direct link) to an essay by Dr. Purrington about how you can get these museums talking about evolution again. You can also check out his other ideas for Evolution Outreach, support the Axis of Evo on facebook, or add your own photos of exhibit labels to the growing collection on Flickr.

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