|Niles Eldredge is passionate about his science. An evolutionary biologist and research paleontologist who is a Curator in the Department of Invertebrates at the American Museum of Natural History, he has been focusing some of that passion toward the Museum's new Hall of Biodiversity. He is the chief curator of the Hall, so he struck us as a good person to ask for advice about putting together an exhibit on biodiversity.
Obviously, a school exhibit will be smaller and less complex than a permanent exhibit hall in one of the biggest natural history museums in the world. "That does not mean there aren't a lot of possibilities," Niles said. In some ways, they may be even greater. For example, with a permanent exhibit in a museum, he told us, the ideal thing is to have a single vision and a single voice. "But a school exhibit could be designed to speak in the many different voices of the student scientists."
Those many voices could be presented as a way of showing the diversity of thoughts and opinions about the subject of biodiversity. "In a project like this, different students will see different things in the same place and will have different responses to it," Niles said.
"If each individual talks about what he or she likes about what was observed and why he or she thinks the rest of us should care about it, the result could be a very rich and personal tour of the ecosystem." It makes it possible to understand and appreciate the value of biodiversity from many points of view.
Aside from words, Niles recommends communicating with images. Collecting specimens is fine, to the extent that it is possible, he said. "But I am a paleontologist, so I don't go out and collect living specimens. I am also a bird-watcher, a hobby I took up because I am interested in ecosystems and it is a great and fun way of going out and studying different habitats. In that activity, I do my collecting with my eyes." Binoculars and cameras (both video and still) are important collecting tools, he said, and so are sketch pads, pencils, and paints. Niles also suggests collecting sounds and playing tape recordings as part of the exhibit.
Parts of the exhibit could be organized according to themes. "Following up on a theme--such as interactions between organisms in an ecosystem--can be very rewarding. Who's eating whom? What happens when one thing changes? How does that affect everything else in the ecosystem? That sort of thing."
Niles said curating an exhibit is, in many ways, like putting on a show. It is important to engage the audience, keep people interested, and make them care. "In the Hall of Biodiversity, we want visitors to walk in and be overwhelmed by the beauty of life. The exhibit is layered, so it can be experienced in different ways depending on people’s age and interest and how much time they have. And we expect that many people will come back and look at it more than once. But on that first visit, we want them to have a gut-level response--an emotional experience--that they can get without reading a word, or maybe just a couple of words."
Those words, Niles said, have to be clear but also interesting, and they must speak to the audience on an understandable level. Identifying the audience and the appropriate level is one of the biggest challenges the team of curators is facing.
"We need to know to whom we are speaking and figure out how best to speak to them. It's all about communicating: We want to be sure the message is getting across, but we don't want to short-change the science. The writing has to be punchy, but we also need to give information that is often complex. It's a very tricky balancing act," he said. Niles has been showing the text he has written to a number of people and asking for opinions. "I take their comments very seriously when I think about changes to make in the text."
It all comes back to passion, Niles thinks. If the curators can communicate their passion, the audience is sure to pick it up. His advice to student curators? "I believe it's important to figure out what really turns you on as an individual, what you like about science or whatever it is you're doing or learning."
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