Travels in the Great Tree of Life

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Diversity of Life

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Jane Pickering

Published on March 11, 2008

  • Description and goals

    ‘Travels in the Great Tree of Life’ explored the relationships that connect all living organisms together. Its goals were to explain the nature of a phylogenetic relationship, the monumental scientific challenge of understanding these relationships, and why it is important to understand them. There are seven sections: 1. An introductory film “Discovering the Tree of Life”; 2. The nature of a phylogenetic relationship; 3. How characters change along the branch; 4. Convergence and divergence; 5. The complexity of the challenge of resolving the Tree of Life; 6. Surprising new results from research on the Tree of Life (Afrotheria, Rafflesia plants); 7. The practical uses of Tree of Life research in medicine, agriculture, conservation etc. The exhibition included live animals and plants, specially commissioned films and animations, an interactive game, and museum specimens.

  • Development process and challenges

    The development process began with a two-day conference in December 2005 for 30 scientists and museum exhibit staff to discuss the main messages of a Tree of Life exhibition and ideas for possible exhibits and example topics. We also commissioned Ellen Giusti to do a front-end survey of visitors’ understanding of the Tree of Life which informed the exhibit team’s discussions – in particular on how we would use tree diagrams; addressing common misconceptions such as that the tree is all about the organism on the far right branch; and the need to focus on the practical uses of Tree of Life research. We set up an exhibition team comprising an educator, designer, project manager, media consultant, curator and three other scientists working on the Tree of Life. This team continued to work throughout the project developing content, design, commissioning media etc. The exhibit was built using in-house staff.
    There were 3 major challenges for the exhibit:
    1. Visitors’ understanding of the Tree of Life was vague – in particular that it is a scientific construct. We had a very small space and wanted to include information on current research and how new technologies are being used to tackle the enormous scientific challenge of testing Tree of Life hypotheses. So our space to explore the ‘basics’ was limited. We rely heavily on the two films (Introductory, and Practical Applications) to address them.
    2. The usual challenges surrounding presentation of up-to-date research – we tried to pick interesting organisms as examples (e.g. the world’s largest flowers) but the bottom line is that there is still a great deal of complex information in the graphic panels.
    3. Including live mammals in the exhibition was a challenge as we had only exhibited herps and invertebrates before. And we wanted elephant shrews that are incredibly rare (in zoos and the wild)! The Smithsonian National Zoo loaned us two Giant Elephant Shrews, which are doing very well in the gallery, but there were considerable permitting issues, specialist housing requirements etc. plus they needed quite a bit of our (precious) space. Having said that they are fantastic and beloved by visitors and staff alike.

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

    Summative evaluation revealed the following:
    • Fifty-seven percent of respondents—representing a huge increase over front-end evaluation findings—defined the Tree of Life as “relationships between organisms” or “evolution.”
    • Forty-one percent of visitors, when describing something new that they learned in the exhibition, cited the interrelationships of organisms.
    • Seventy-one percent of respondents found unexpected interrelationships among and between species to be the most interesting information that was new to them. This mirrored the experience that many scientists have reported about their work on the Tree of Life.

    Realizations of unexpected relationships successfully connected visitors to the idea that research continues on the Tree of Life.

    Disappointingly, relatively few visitors expressed an appreciation of the vast scientific knowledge that the Tree of Life construct conveys to biologists, or of the application of such research to society. The evaluation team found that
    • Just six percent of interviewees mentioned practical uses for the Tree as something new they had learned.
    • When prompted, about half of the respondents’ top-of-mind ideas—virtually the same percentage as among front-end respondents—suggested that the primary value of the Tree of Life is basic scientific knowledge and education. Tracking indicated that the graphic panel and film that conveyed this concept did not attract many visitors. This may have been related to the fact that this exhibition section was crowded and close to the exit. But in hindsight, perhaps it reflects that the compelling nature of some of the specimens distracted visitors’ attention. Many visitors headed straight to the shrews’ enclosure and remained there for most of their visit.

    Evaluation showed that the use of specimens did help to illustrate essentially abstract ideas. However how to convey the sheer enormity and labyrinthine complexity of the Tree of Life in a museum exhibition is still an open question. As is how to balance using charismatic organisms to interest visitors without overwhelming the educational message.

    During the exhibit anecdotal observation suggested a couple of places where visitors didn’t use some of the interactive elements and we need to make the signage more obvious. The Peabody isn’t as ‘hands-on’ as many institutions and I think visitors need more encouragement to touch things in our environment.

    Due to time constraints we didn’t have enough direct contact between the curator and some of the consultants, which led to content issues and some remakes. Next time I would have more meetings with all the consultants and the curator rather than me acting as a go-between.

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