BEACON Researchers at Work: Evolution in Action Exhibit at MSU Museum

This week’s BEACON Researchers at Work blog post is by MSU Museum Education Specialist Julie Fick.


IMG_1085Museums mean different things to different people. For me, the MSU Museum was a place where as a child I explored the halls with my family on Sunday afternoons. I remember winding through the Hall of Evolution, anxious to see the child mummy in her case, and climbing the marble staircase to stare in awe at the African elephant skeleton. Of course, the fact that my dad told us how he helped hold the bones while the curators directed the assembly of the behemoth was wildly impressive to an eight year old! These memories are clear and enduring, and it is this sort of wonderment and lasting impression that museum professionals aspire to develop in visitors of all ages.

The obvious question is, how is that accomplished? Having devoted most of my adult life to the education profession and for the past four years, museum education in particular, I can tell you that this is the challenge: providing a setting and an experience that plants a seed, prompts a question, inspires an investigation, or sparks an idea, all in the hopes that visitors carry away a little piece of the content you have shared with them.

Evolution exhibits at MSU Museum

Prior to 2010, the MSU Museum’s (MSUM) only exhibit area that dealt with evolution was the Hall of Evolution. Filled with fossil specimens and colorful – although outdated – murals that depict ancient life, this hall is a journey through geologic time in a traditional, “old-school” manner. Still popular with many and an historical treasure in its own right, this hall provides only partial coverage of evolution through what can be gleaned from the fossil record.

Fortunately, in 2010 the creation of the BEACON Center for Evolution in Action at MSU provided the motive and the means to create a new evolution perspective in the Museum. An exhibit area was designated the “Evolution in Action Gallery,” and the journey began. The purpose of the gallery was (is):

  • To inform audiences about BEACON’s mission and presence as a world-class NSF center at MSU
  • To increase public understanding of evolution
  • To showcase current evolution research being conducted here at MSU

IMG_1083When I joined the staff in 2011, the first phase of exhibit creation was basically complete. A suite of exhibit panels had been created; three to describe the BEACON Center and three to highlight Dr. Kay Holekamp’s hyena research. A mounted hyena specimen and a hyena skull were displayed in cases, and a touchscreen offered four videos to view.  

Over the course of the next eight months, I worked with scientists, designers, exhibition staff, and graduate students to create and install the third component of the gallery, Dr. Richard Lenski’s 50,000 generations of E. coli research. Five more panels were added, plus a video tour of the Lenski lab and an articulated skeleton of Nariokotome Boy – depicting what our ancestors might have looked like, 50,000 generations ago.


In those months and since, I have learned that there are many challenges inherent in creating a museum exhibit; we faced several of them.

  • Choosing content – what are the “big ideas”, the visitor take-aways? If you try to include too much, visitors are overwhelmed. As a team, we struggled with copious amounts of text on the panels, suspecting that we were biting off more than most visitors could chew.
  • Delivering content – how do you get your big ideas across? Our solution was to install “wall words”; simple stand alone phrases that captured some big ideas: “We observe evolution in nature, in the laboratory, and with computers” (on a stand alone wall); “Social behaviors in organisms evolve” (on the hyena mural); and “Mutations drive evolution” (on the Lenski lab mural).
  • Design – how will you invite the visitor in and make him/her want to explore what you are presenting? How will you physically move them through the experience? We reconfigured the preliminary exhibit layout to consider what we wanted visitors to see first, installed color strips to match gallery components, and created a curved panel that suggested a starting place and a path.
  • Engagement – what could visitors do in the exhibit besides read text? At first, the only engagement options were to watch videos on two touchscreens and play a digital game on a third.

IMG_1076Phase two of our evolution exhibit was complete and everything fit together in the gallery: carefully chosen text – pared down from the scientists’ original submissions, two great specimens, clever graphics, all professionally designed. How would visitors react? What did they think of our gallery?

We asked them. In multiple versions and across several age groups, we asked visitors about their understanding of evolution (pre/post) and we observed their actions in the gallery. Data revealed what some of us suspected: visitors were not reading the text, they only sometimes watched the videos (and often only partially), and they were not playing the game long enough or understanding the concepts behind the game. It was apparent that we needed more and better ways to engage visitors.

Revamping the text panels was not an option in this case. So, over the next three years, we looked for ways to make the exhibit more engaging. We added: Mutation Station – a hands-on activity using Legos to represent segments of genetic code; See for Yourself – sealed plates of E. coli from actual competitions in the Lenski lab between ancestral and evolved bacteria, viewed under a lit magnifier; and a more active and easier to understand digital game, “Hungry Birds” (a project of Dr. Rabindra Ratan).

Another issue that we realized along the way was that nowhere in the exhibit – for that matter in the Museum – is there an actual explanation or description of what evolution is or the mechanisms by which it occurs. We were showing examples of outstanding research, but we lacked the primer to lay the evolution foundation for the visitor.

Evolution in Action Exhibit 2.0

The next phase, or EiA 2.0 as I call it, will address the above content concern as well as some of our earlier findings on the visitor experience. We will:

  1. Replace “Hyenas Rule” in the EiA Gallery with Drs. Ashlee Rowe and Matt Rowe’s work on venom evolution, featuring grasshopper mice and scorpions. We will use less text, more graphics, visuals and manipulatives.
  2. Create and install an evolution hub in the EiA Gallery that will create a solid foundation for visitor understanding of basic evolution processes and concepts. Variation, inheritance, selection, and time will be presented through simple examples and interactives.
  3. Create a visitor interactive station at the entrance to the science floor that connects the EiA Gallery with other natural sci

    ence galleries in the Museum and provides the basis for interest and inquiry in evolution. Two large horizontal touch screens will offer state of the art, interactive technology that has been created for and tested in museums: Harvard’s FloTree, and either Karl Gude’s Tree of Life or Harvard’s Deep Tree. This station will invite visitors to explore evolution concepts such as common ancestry and tree-thinking when they first reach the science exhibits floor, prior to entering the EiA Gallery.

IMG_1091In addition to the newly featured research and the evolution hub, the EiA Gallery will contain a venue to “talk” to BEACON scientists and at least two new interactive games; Terry Soule’s Ladybug game (variation/selection), and Laura Crothers’ and Ammon Thompson’s Tree-thinking game (kid-friendly, build-a-tree). The 5E Learning model (Engage, Explore, Explain, Elaborate, Evaluate) will guide the creative process.

We will also approach evaluation a little differently. This time we will do “front end” evaluation regarding how material is presented and understood by creating a hub prototype and testing it with visitors. This, plus an array of summative evaluation measures with larger sample sizes will assess achievement of visitor learning goals as well as provide feedback regarding how visitors learn science in museum settings. 

As curator and project manager of the Evolution in Action Gallery, my goal is for EiA 2.0 to provide the venue for a deeper visitor understanding of evolution and a conduit for the connections that exist between our science galleries but have not been made obvious to our visitors. I am looking forward to this next chapter, to applying what I’ve learned, and to setting the stage for research in visitor learning in informal science settings.

For more information about Julie’s work, you can contact her at jfick at msu dot edu.

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