EiA 2.0: Designing an Effective Exhibit on Evolution

This post is written by MSU Museum Education Assistant Nick VanAcker

Ever since its creation in 2010, the BEACON Evolution in Action Gallery at the Michigan State University Museum has been a fantastic resource for our visitors to learn about evolution research. Julie Fick, co-education manager at the MSU Museum, wrote a great post about the initial creation of this exhibit, which you can read here. I won’t repeat everything she wrote, but as a little background:

The EiA gallery serves three main purposes:

  • 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

The initial exhibit featured panels about the BEACON Center, Dr. Kay Holekamp’s research on hyenas, and Dr. Richard Lenski’s research on E. coli. It was a really fantastic exhibit about evolution research and its applications. However, after conducting some audience evaluation, one flaw in the exhibit was discovered. Despite the fact that the gallery is called “Evolution in Action”, nowhere in the gallery – or in the whole museum, for that matter – actually explained how evolution works.

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And that’s where I came in! My name is Nick VanAcker, and I joined the staff of the museum in December 2015 as an undergraduate zoology and museum studies student to assist in revamping the exhibit.

We wanted to achieve three main goals:

  • Develop a central “EvoHub” in the exhibit space which would effectively teach the four main tenants of evolution: Variation, Inheritance, Selection and Time.
  • Create an interactive touch screen station at the entrance to the science floor, to introduce visitors to concepts like common ancestry and evolutionary trees
  • Replace the “Hyenas Rule” portion of the exhibit with Drs. Ashlee and Matt Rowe’s work on venom evolution in grasshopper mice and bark scorpions

The EvoHub

Stage 1 of the process was creating the EvoHub. We wanted the EvoHub to act as a central anchor for the gallery. Guests could visit the hub, learn what makes evolution occur, and apply that knowledge to other areas of the gallery.

Some rough text for the exhibit panels had already been written when I came on, and it separated evolution into four sections using the acronym “VIST” – Variation, Inheritance, Selection, and Time. Each of these sections also had an interactive element to go along with them – some sort of game or activity to reinforce the concepts of each section.

Even though we thought the text was reasonably clear and easy to understand, and that the interactives would be engaging and educational, that doesn’t mean that visitors would think the same.

So, we asked them!

In March 2016, we turned the EiA Gallery into a laboratory, and created a mock-up of the future EvoHub. This included panels printed on large sheets of paper and attached to the walls with binder clips, interactives made out of cardboard, foam and tape…anything that would get the general gist of the exhibit across to visitors.

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The point of the mock-up wasn’t to test design or style; it was purely about information. Was the content we had written being read and absorbed by visitors? Were the interactives effective and fun teaching tools? What bits of the exhibit did visitors really like?

We conducted a lot of surveys, and found out that, for the most part, the content was really effective! We needed to tweak some of the language on the panels to make it clearer, but overall, visitors were leaving the gallery with a better understanding of evolution than when they entered.

Figure 4A lot of the interactives worked out well, too – like flip panels showing our evolutionary ancestors, and a magnet board highlighting variation through facial features. But others presented problems. For example, we initially had a “tasting station”, where visitors could lick a paper strip coated in a bitter compound to show variation (only some of the population is able to taste it). But that proved disappointing – if you have the necessary genes to taste the compound, you were stuck with an extremely bitter taste in your mouth. If you don’t have the genes…you’re just eating paper!

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Based on our results, we made some edits. A few interactives (like the tasting station) were cut, and others (like an activity already in the gallery using Legos as pieces of genetic code) were updated. Eventually, after working with a graphic designer, exhibit fabricator, and many members of the staff providing input…we had our finished EvoHub!

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Even at this stage, the EvoHub isn’t quite complete – we’re still working to fabricate several of the interactives, and those will be installed in the gallery soon.

The Tree of Life

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Stage 2 of the process was simpler: creating an interactive touch screen station at the entrance to the science floor, to introduce visitors to concepts like common ancestry and evolutionary trees. We reviewed a few different software options for this touch screen, and ultimately went with Harvard’s DeepTree (or, as we’re branding it, The Tree of Life).

To be frank, DeepTree is exciting. It’s designed specifically for museums, and shows the history and relationships of all life on earth, past and present. Using the touchscreen, visitors are able to fly through the tree, map evolutionary relationships, and even experiment with evolution using FloTree, an embedded program that allows visitors to become environmental barriers, causing evolution to occur.

Having DeepTree installed at the entrance to the science floor really frames our science exhibits in a new way. It creates connections across exhibits, and really visualizes that every biological process is, in the end, a product of evolution.

Venom Evolution

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Finally, stage 3 of the process…is still occurring! If you’ve been to the museum recently, you’ll know that we’ve de-installed the “Hyenas Rule” portion of the EiA gallery, and we plan to install the Rowe exhibit on venom evolution in grasshopper mice and bark scorpions soon!

It’s going to feature a lot of great graphics, videos, venomous specimens, and most importantly: awesome information about the evolution research happening right here at MSU! But, if you just can’t wait, you can read about some of the research the Rowe lab is doing here and here.

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