by Brittney Stoneburg*1
Natural history museums are not just exhibit space: a lot of scientific research is conducted behind the scenes. This is the nature of almost any museum. It is often not logistically or financially possible to exhibit every object, and not every fossil is suitable to go on display. The fossils that the public doesn’t see are still important for research, but this is a part of museum work that is often hidden from the public at large. I work at the Western Science Center in Hemet, California. Visitors have no access to our repository, and are often amazed when they learn that less than 5% of our palaeontology collections can currently be seen.
Through an upcoming exhibition and scientific workshop, we are endeavouring to use exhibit space and the Internet to break down barriers between the public and the scientific process. We will be devoting exhibition space to almost our entire mastodon collection (see Fig. 1), much of which would not be considered for display otherwise. We will also encourage scientists to interact with the public while doing research in the space, and then to share the information that they have gathered through social media, webcasts and other platforms. In this way, we’re hoping to give visitors a better idea of the scientific process and make them more scientifically informed and engaged.
Palaeontology and public outreach:
As a scientific field, there are certain outreach challenges unique to palaeontology. For better or for worse, most people’s idea of palaeontology is still influenced by the film Jurassic Park (1993) rather than recent publications; public opinions on the origins of life also do not always match what most scientists think, especially in more conservative areas; and in the public eye, a natural history museum is often seen as a place for children, not for adults. Smaller museums like the Western Science Center also have limited budgets. So how should museums with palaeontological collections use them effectively for public outreach?
We first tried this with a previous exhibition, Stepping Out of the Past, which focused on human evolution. It was developed with Mt. San Jacinto College in California, and from the beginning it used student interns to come up with ideas for, research and produce parts of the exhibition — directed by museum and college staff.
To open up this development to the public and to market the exhibition, we ran a behind-the-scenes blog, ‘Insert Exhibit Name Here’. Each intern wrote a blog post about their experience, and other posts were contributed by college faculty members and museum staff. This not only gave the students experience writing for public outreach, but also gave readers the opportunity to see the numerous steps that are needed to prepare an exhibition. It also resulted in several enlightening discussions that otherwise would not have happened — writers got to interact not only with the public, but also with scientists who were not previously familiar with our museum but had come across the blog (see Fig. 2).
Stepping Out of the Past had more visitors than average for our exhibitions. It closed in May, but ‘Insert Exhibit Name Here’ remains available and several of the interns continue to volunteer at the museum. Having seen demonstrable results with the methods used for Stepping Out of the Past, we’re now looking to apply these techniques to the process of research.
Valley of the Mastodons:
Our new exhibition, Valley of the Mastodons, presents a particular challenge, even given our experience with Stepping Out of the Past. The display focuses on an extinct species that looks similar to an animal with much larger name recognition: the mammoth.
The mastodon, Mammut americanum, is only distantly related to mammoths. The physical resemblances are mostly superficial: both were large mammals with tusks and trunks, like elephants but covered in fur. Mastodons were, in general, shorter and stockier than the Columbian mammoths (Mammuthus columbi) that lived in North America, with a sloping skull and completely different teeth that indicate that they browsed on fruits and nuts (the name mastodon literally means ‘breast tooth’). Mammoths, on the other hand, are thought to have grazed on grasses. In public-outreach events, we have found that the simplest way to compare the species (and one that does not require us to take giant skull casts to every offsite event!) is to look at casts of individual teeth (see Fig. 3). Teeth are especially useful for us, considering that part of the goal of Valley of the Mastodons is to research the unusual size and shape of mastodon teeth from California.
It was a conscious choice to make mastodons a focus of the Western Science Center. Our mastodon collection is one of the largest in the Western United States, and the fossils simultaneously provide a huge research opportunity and a unique emotional connection for visitors (the title Valley of the Mastodons refers to the valley in which Hemet was built). The museum also uses ‘Max’, the largest mastodon ever found on the West Coast, as a mascot for public outreach, through a Twitter feed and a stuffed animal for events. Valley of the Mastodons is a natural extension of these efforts.
The exhibition will be bringing scientists from across North America to study the museum’s collection. We mean to bring these researchers and their work directly to the public in four ways:
1. Opening an in-floor case containing ‘Little Stevie’, one of the most complete mastodon skeletons found in our locality (see Fig. 4). Members of the public will be able to ask questions of the researchers as they measure the skeleton. This will be a massive undertaking — Little Stevie’s case has not been opened since the museum was established in 2006.
2. Inviting local students to listen to talks by the researchers before the exhibition opens. We are hoping to livestream these talks online.
3. Having the scientists present their early findings on each mastodon by writing them down on whiteboards, which will then be on display. This will allow visitors to see the observations long before any papers are actually published.
4. Disseminating this information through social media, blogs, discussions with the press and more. This part has already started: every Monday, the museum and the committed researchers post on Twitter using #MastodonMonday, and we are repurposing Insert Exhibit Name Here for this display as design starts to get under way.
Finally, we are also commissioning an art piece of some of the mastodons from palaeoartist Brian Engh. According to observations of the skull (see Fig. 5) and CT scans, it’s very likely that Max was injured in a fight with another mastodon. The art piece will display this prehistoric brawl as close to life size as possible. Once Valley of the Mastodons is over, it will be moved permanently to our main hall. Although this kind of artwork may take up a large amount of an exhibit’s space (and budget), it is hard to overstate the visual impact that two mastodons fighting can have on a visitor!
Through these various means, visitors will be able to speak to scientists directly, ask them questions and observe the research process in real time. At the same time, further scientific collaboration will be encouraged — only a few researchers study mastodons, and this is a rare opportunity for so many of them to be gathered under the same roof!
The results of this initiative are yet to be seen, but we are confident that Valley of the Mastodons will succeed in researching California mastodons and making that research available and digestible for the public (see Fig. 6).
Public outreach is best done when meeting the public where they are, whether that’s behind a computer screen or in a museum’s exhibition space. Doing research directly in the public sphere gives visitors a chance to see portions of the scientific process otherwise unknown to them. Although not possible in every instance, allowing the public to glance behind the curtain of museum operations and research creates well-informed and often well-motivated citizens who are more likely to support the museum in future.
1Western Science Center, 2345 Searl Parkway, Hemet, CA 92543