Pharyngula

Good advice

I’d like to thank Megan for mentioning Colin Purrington’s excellent essay on what you can do to improve the presentation of evolution in museums. It’s positive, it’s simple, it’s stuff you can do on your very next museum visit.

Comments

  1. #1 GirBoBytons
    July 29, 2008

    Damn and I just went to a science museum this Saturday…if only this had been posted earlier, why didnt I think of that? DOH!

  2. #2 Glen Davidson
    July 29, 2008

    How about zoos? I wonder if a bit about the evolution of animals in zoos might get kids interested early and in a less “educational” (resistive) situation.

    Anyway, good suggestions re museums.

    Glen D
    http://tinyurl.com/2kxyc7

  3. #3 Donna
    July 29, 2008

    I’m definitely passing these along to my SO who is currently studying to be an elementary teacher(beats being an Arab linguist for the military nowadays). Thanks for the link!

  4. #4 Martin Fox
    July 29, 2008

    Can’t say I think it’s a great article when he seems to want to disparage animal rights and environmental conservation – I thought the first time it was just offhand but he mentions in three times. Surely there is room for both?

  5. #5 lytefoot
    July 29, 2008

    I went to the Fields museum in Chicago a few weeks ago (Free on the second Monday of the month, sponsored by Target, by the way, for anyone in the area and not aware). I was extremely pleased by the presentation of evolution. It was clearly evident throughout the mammals exhibits: phylogeny was, if anything, the unifying theme.

    In the natural history portion (where all the little kids want to go to see the dinosaurs) there were a number of plaques with titles like “Isn’t evolution just a theory?” (explaining the how the scientific meaning of the word ‘theory’ differs from the every day meaning). That section is CALLED “Our Evolving Planet.” What it DIDN’T do was make any nod in the direction of so-called “competing theories”. None of this namby-pamby “some people say yada yada but people who know what they’re talking about say bla bla” talk–not even “scientists say bla bla”–just “bla bla” as a fact.

    The mammals exhibit was a lot of fun, and very kid-friendly–and very, very clear on common descent. The dinosaurs exhibit talks extensively about how birds evolved from dinosaurs, including some excellent intermediary forms.

    Anyway… I was quite favorably impressed with the treatment of evolution there. At least some of them ARE doing it right.

  6. #6 GirBoBytons
    July 29, 2008

    Well I live in Louisville Kentucky and I can say we went through the entire science center and there was little to no room for evolution there. As a matter of fact I dont think I saw one thing talking about evolution at all. But I suppose I do live in the state thats home to the Creation Museum… ::face/palm::

  7. #7 Cheezits
    July 29, 2008

    He gave a talk at a Phact meeting a few years ago. He was great fun.

  8. #8 Clareq
    July 29, 2008

    We were at the Museum of the Rockies in Montana last week. I thought the museum’s centerpiece, the dinosaur exhibit, was outstanding in how it connected theory and research. Evolutionary theory was clearly and unapologetically presented, and each collection of fossils was contextualized with an account of the research question that guided its interpretation, and the fieldwork involved in its collection. I really liked how the many research scholars were given recognition, profs, grad students, etc. etc. I haven’t enjoyed a natural history exhibit this much in years.

  9. #9 Tz'unun
    July 29, 2008

    As a conservationist and former zookeeper, I share the disappointment of Martin @ #4 over Purrington’s dismissal of conservation, but I love the idea of sign-hacking with Post-Its!

    I do think most zoos fail to do a good job of teaching about evolution, but then few have had both the innovative leadership and financial independence necessary to evolve much beyond the level of menageries. If your zoo’s budget comes largely or entirely from gate receipts and popcorn sales, you’ll tend to stick to interpreting issues that won’t offend the majority of your visitors (many of whom would never set foot in a mainstream museum).

    The “zoo” I’ve spent the most time at in recent years, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, has a convergent evolution exhibit of cacti and cacti-like succulents from deserts around the world, and the entrance to its main aviary is adorned with a metal sculpture depicting avian evolution culminating in the magnificent Turkey Vulture.

  10. #10 Stonkin
    July 29, 2008

    The link in number 10 doesn’t work but I think this was the article he was talking about

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/northamerica/usa/1503473/The-Darwin-exhibition-frightening-off-corporate-sponsors.html

  11. #11 leki
    July 29, 2008

    I wonder if my inability to fully grasp this whole ‘add more evolutionary theory’ concept is due to only ever being exposed to evolutionary theory. Evolution was the only option taught in school, and rightly so. I was never really aware of creationist ideas–even the church I attended as a kid talked about evolution and didn’t attempt to call it ‘designed’. Yeah, they said that god created the universe and all, but my pastor also said that 7 days was highly subjective and could easily mean 4.6 billion years of evolution from an initial ‘sprinkle’ from god. It was, as you can imagine, a pretty open-minded sort of church, and it was really easy for me to shake the notion of god completely from my reality when I woke up one day and decided that theism was horse-shit.

    I am truly shocked that people actually have to go around and inform people of reality! Imagine! Having to fasten post-it-note snippets of information about evolution to natural history displays? This is so so so strange to me. Is this creationist/ID movement restricted to certain states? I know of a creationist museum in Alberta, but it is considered a joke. Evolution is 100% a part of the curriculum in my province, and no mention is made of creationism in the public system (at least, according to a few of my friends that teach biology). I am flabbergasted that there are debates about this in mainstream American media.

    I suppose I’m just naive. Or overly optimistic. Or have too much ‘faith’ that my fellow human beings are, in fact, sentient and capable of critical thought. Or maybe I don’t read enough US news and focus too much on international politics. Or maybe my upbringing in strict, fact-based, rote-memorization-based English schools (where we were actually strapped for misbehaving) has tainted me into believing that educational institutions are actually places to learn truths (hence, um, EDUCATION??).

    sigh.

  12. #12 Form&Function
    July 29, 2008

    @Martin, #4. I think conservation and habitat destruction are worthy educational goals, too, but I don’t think the author was disparaging them. Instead, I think he recognizes the reality that most zoo visitors are already aware of such issues, and that zoos do a pretty good job of educating about those topics already.

    I’m excited about some of the suggestions and plan to introduce an assignment about redesigning signage to my zoology class next year. Fun! Thanks for sharing, PZ.

  13. #13 Gonzo
    July 29, 2008

    Finally! This is something I can email to all those people who constantly annoy me with their religious forwards. All that needs be done is tack on a “send this to 20 people within an hour or the baby jesus will cry” tag or some such on the end of it and it’s golden.

  14. #14 SplendidMonkey
    July 29, 2008

    I don’t know about suggestion #6 in the list – it might get you kicked out of the museum. Plus, what’s to prevent like minded creationists from adding their special post-it comments?

  15. #15 megan
    July 29, 2008

    yay, i feel useful.

  16. #16 GirBoBytons
    July 29, 2008

    Well even more sad is that the Science Center’s dinosaur exhibit was basically a bunch of arcade-like video game stations where you get to play as the dinosaur…you get to learn what they eat and what their living situations may have been like but no mention of the more in depth details about dinsaurs or evolution and on top of it, you get to play the basic mainstream spiecies of dinosaurs as well. (I played the T-rex… :P) To leki, I suppose that is america, being brought up in Kentucky none of how these people are acting about evolution surprises me at all. Not saying all people in KY are close-minded just a good portion. The creation museum here is a joke to a lot of my friends but not to all people. Some people think they are actually getting facts out of that waste of space. That frightens me most of all is people walking away from that place feeling like they actually learned something. Here is a link to a podcast with Steve Mirsky and Stephen Asma, from the scientific american website that shows you just how serious these IDiots and creationists are and how they represent themselves in this museum. Seems funny at first till you look at the damage it can do.

    http://www.sciam.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=FDACA16A-E7F2-99DF-323D104DD12EFCAE

  17. #17 rob
    July 29, 2008

    i am particularly pessimistic today. my first thought was of the essay that i assume will be out soon entitled:

    “How YOU can get creationism back into God Fearin’ ‘Merica”

    #7 will go something like this:

    7. If your kids are old enough to enjoy a little fun, park yourself in front of a primate exhibit and get them to ask bystanders, “are humans really evolved from non-human ancestors?” Point at all the people who say “yes” and ask “Why are you so intent on going to hell?”

  18. #18 travc
    July 29, 2008

    Many aquariums and zoos tend to be pretty focused on conservation. Certainly understandable to a degree since that is a big part of their function (at least for the better ones). Pointing out that conservation per se isn’t actually part of most education standards and encouraging them to broaden their focus isn’t necessarily putting down conservation.

    Just being a big geek and asking questions can go a long way.

  19. #19 rod
    July 29, 2008

    Since almost all museums get an significant fraction of their funding from local government, there’s a big political dimension to this issue as well. I know from friends who work at the nearby Museum of Life and Science in Durham, NC that they don’t dare mention the E word for fear of losing their funding from the city. Apparently one naive intern guide dropped the E-bomb on a school tour a few years ago, and the next day there was an angry fundie mom making complaints to everybody in town, with local calls to cut the museum’s funding.

    So the post-it note idea could actually have the effect of DAMAGING the museum, if one of those angry, self-righteous bigots sees it, or if the little bigot-in-training sees it and asks the Wrong Question about where we came from. One result in this political environment might be less discussion of evolution rather than more.

    Rod

  20. #20 catta
    July 29, 2008

    Huh… from the perspective of someone who can’t think of a single local museum or zoo that has inadequate info on evolution: That list is shocking. Not because of what it suggests, because it’s even necessary.
    Then again, the natural history museum ’round the corner for me is this one, and it just got a brand new ‘evolution in action’ exhibit to go with the many other evolution exhibits. Also, as to the “museum or playground” post, they’ve got the Exploratorium, designed to get kids excited about science, not just to entertain them. And PZ, I’m sure you’d love their logo and their Mascot (it’s a cephalopod!).

    I confess. I love that museum and it just does so many things right.
    Not that I really want thousands of creationist nutcases shipped over here for an attempt at education ;), but I do wonder how they’d react when confronted with a place like this, where at best they’d get laughed at and at worst their kids could get the idea that scientists are the coolest people ever? The horror!

    Sadly, the only attempt at anything on the list I could make in the US would be as a tourist, at which point I’d probably be told that all of Europe is going to Hell, anyway. (But hey, if any of you guys happen to come to Germany and want to check out this infernal temple of *shudder* science, the beer’s on me.)

  21. #21 a lurker
    July 29, 2008

    Well there are some museums with an Explore Evolution exhibit. That material covered would be rather basic to most reading this, but it is very nice intro for those who do not know much about the subject.

    The honor roll is:
    Exhibit Museum of Natural History, Kansas Natural History Museum, The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History, Science Museum of Minnesota, Texas Memorial Museum, and the University of Nebraska State Museum.

    The “Discovery” Institute has got an “Explore Evolution” web site which out-ranks the pro-evolution museum exhibits in Google. If anyone wants to Google Bomb so the good guys go back on top, please do. :-)

    Two natural history museums that I have visited this year have had loads of evolution:

    1) The Arizona Museum of Natural history (Mesa, AZ) is rather evolution friendly and currently has a temporary exhibit of Chinese feathered dinosaurs (though it does take an extremely minority view the birds are not dinosaurs which was a bit annoying).

    2) The Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History (Norman, OK) recently revamped the Paleozoic portion of its ancient life exhibits and it is a beautiful thing. One literally could not ask for more evolution in that area. It one of the museums with the Explore Evolution exhibit mentioned above and currently has a temporary exhibit of the “SuperCroc.” I am actually a bit surprised that ERV has not commented on the Museum’s new materials. I am sure she that a few words from her might get this museum a few new members.

  22. #22 a lurker
    July 29, 2008

    “I am sure she that a few words from her might get this museum a few new members.” in my last comment should have read “I am sure that a few words from her might get this museum a few new members.”

  23. #23 Steven Dunlap
    July 29, 2008

    I already mentioned the Royal Ontario Museum in a post on another thread. I thought this presented the evidence in a very clear manner. Not only chronologically but also showing the transitional forms. They had large scale models and pictures next to the smaller fossils, too, which given my crappy eyesight was a big help.

    BTW, While writing this post I forgot the name of the kind of chart used to show evolutionary relationships that I saw, defined and explained, at the ROM. I tried googling “evolution chart” and waded through the results. Yikes! The creationists have google bombed the word evolution to the point that google is no help at all in answering a simple question of terminology. #@*&%!!

  24. #24 PZ Myers
    July 29, 2008

    The term you’re looking for is probably “cladogram”.

  25. #25 BobK
    July 29, 2008

    I work at the paleontology and natural history department of a local museum, and I am proud to say many evolutionary concepts are presented. These include phylogenies of cetacean evolution and a timeline of Earth displaying the succession of life. The prep lab has an open window where people can ask questions or comment, and I think it is a great thing. Answering people’s questions on evolutionary topics is one of the best parts of the job; it is very rewarding to explain something that clearly been explained poorly previously. The kids are especially great since they’re so full of wonder at the fossils, but the adults often admit their ignorance too and meaningful conversations with them are great.

  26. #26 LizS
    July 29, 2008

    As a midwestern zoo editor and natural history musuem fundraiser turned PhD student, I have to say that my experiences at both these institutions was directly responsible for turning me on to science, even as an adult. What I missed as a kid, I connected with as an adult…so much so that I quit my job to train to do science myself. My field? Evolutionary biology. Perhaps the small-town museums aren’t doing all they can to promote science learning, but I can tell you that in both the institutions where I worked, science education was the main focus of every interaction with the public.

    Why are you dissing museums and zoos anyway PZ?

  27. #27 Jim1138
    July 30, 2008

    At the San Diego Zoo, there was this guy dressed in a safari outfit with a cart loaded with primate skulls. A bonobo, chimpanzee, gorilla, orangutan, and human; all cast replicas. He insisted that humans were not primates and were not related to the apes. I probably should have made a complaint.

    At the San Diego Wild Animal Park, I asked a tour guide when he was alone, a question about bonobos. The question must have seemed loaded to him as it looked as though his head was going to explode. He relaxed after I told him that I was an atheist but still kept an eye out for spies. Apparently, the topic of apes being related to humans is taboo at the park.

  28. #28 Rebecca C.
    July 30, 2008

    I dunno, Colin didn’t seem disparaging of conservation itself, but his tone and recommendations make it clear that he thinks conservation language should be replaced with evolution language; is there for some reason room for only one or the other? Do we need to help museums buy bigger plaques so they can fit more words per exhibit? You don’t invoke proverbial baby seal-clubbing unless you’re trying to be cheeky about conservationists.

    Is there some underlying rift between evolutionists and conservationists that I don’t know about?

    Don’t the premises of both–that humans are just one species among many, whose significance and power is vastly overstated–actually help each other out?

  29. #29 TheWireMonkey
    July 30, 2008

    My paleontology-obsessed 7 year old niece was recently in town from Vancouver (town being NYC) and I took her to the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn. She is a mini-professor in training–she loves to pass on her knowledge of the natural world to anybody within ear-shot. She decided to announce this in a “hands-on” demonstration which included a chicken:

    (raises her hand)
    Docent: yes, a question?
    Fi: No, a comment
    Docent: OK
    Fi: Chickens are decended from Tyrannasaurus Rex.
    Docent: (laughs) well, they say all birds are decended from dinosaurs, but I don’t know about that.
    Fi: It’s true, they are structurally very similar.

    In the meerkat exhibit, she explained to everybody around her that the reason the meerkats kept looking up is because they evolved that behavior. The ones that look up don’t get eaten as often as ones that don’t, so they can have babies that will look up more and not get eaten.

    Finally, while watching baboons, she felt it necessary to point out that it is the boy baboons that are “prettier” because the girl baboons like them more when they have more fur on their shoulders. Pretty good grasp of sexual selection for a seven year old I think.

    Then we pretty much went through the rest of the zoo discussing why certain animals might look a certain way or act a certain way based on these criteria.

  30. #30 Paper Hand
    July 30, 2008

    Wire Monkey @ 29:

    Sounds kinda like me when I was your niece’s age. :-)

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