Farmers, Warriors, Builders: The Hidden Life of Ants

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Diversity of Life

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Angela Roberts

Published on June 17, 2009, Modified on November 06, 2014

  • Description and goals

    The “Hidden Life of Ants” is a temporary exhibition on view through October 2009 that asks: What if we could see into the world of ants on their level? What would we learn? What parallels could we draw between them and us? We wanted to reveal their amazing behaviors and complex social interactions and tell incredible stories about the lives of ants. We also wanted to feature the work of entomologists in the field, explore how and why they study ants, and how such photographs aid their research.

    The exhibition featured about 40 large-scale photographs taken by Dr. Mark Moffett (research associate of the Smithsonian and photographer with National Geographic) with the aid of a macro lens. We also included a living ant colony of leafcutter ants in the type of clear plastic box and tube assembly our entomologists use to study ants, an aluminum cast of a Florida harvester ant nest made by Dr. Walter Tschinkel, 2 panels about entomology work in the field, and a video showing leafcutter ants carrying leaves back to their nests.

    The three main ideas we wanted to communicate through this exhibit were:

    1. Ants are highly social creatures that solve basic problems in a cooperative manner.

    2. Ants have evolved to successfully dominate their ecological niche.

    3. Many new, exciting discoveries about ants are currently happening in the field and in the laboratory.

    Our visitor/educational goals were:
    To broaden visitors’ perceptions of ant as fascinating, complex creatures that live in cooperative, social colonies

    To encourage visitors to consider the impact ants (and humans) have on the ecosystems in which they live

    To engage visitors’ curiosity about scientific research and discovery in the field so that they are inclined to explore ants in their everyday life

    To encourage visitors to interact with the displayed photos and objects as a scientist would in discovering and learning about these creatures

    The exhibition’s organization and interpretive themes is meant to speak most directly to pre-teen and adolescent students, multi-generational families with children in that age range, and adults with an interest in insects, sociobiology, and ecology. The language used in the labels and the catchy, almost irreverant, titles used were to appeal to a pre-teen and adolescent audience and make cultural references they would identify with.

  • Development process and challenges

    Early in the development, we realized that there were some “ant basics” that we wanted to communicate with visitors, but these did not relate directly to the photographs. Our designer used a Post-It note graphic look to separate out these tidbits of information from the main label text. We also wanted to find a fun way to get kids and teens to use critical thinking skills to think about the kinds of problems scientists face in their work and brainstorm some possible solutions. We came up with “Observing Science” tidbits that were graphically separated from photo description labels.

    One of our biggest challenges was that both of our curators were out in the field (Nambia and Brazil) in the middle of the content development process. Luckily, both had left the writer with many recommendations for resource content, including books and articles they had previously written. Another entomologist was brought onto the team to answer questions and check script accuracy when they couldn’t be reached via email.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    We didn’t get a thorough understanding of the usage/licensing limitations of the photographic images until late in the development process. Since the photographer has relationships with two organizations, and his images are licensed through a third party, only some images could be used in PR and on our web site (which will only be live through the run of the show).

  • Exhibition Opened: May 2009

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: Washington, DC, United States

  • Estimated Cost: Less than $100,000 (US)

  • Size: 1000 to 3,000 sq ft.

  • Website(s):

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