Playing in the Sandbox: Meaningful Exhibit Design

by Dr. Alton Dooley, WSC Executive Director

“Dig site” boxes  (which we usually refer to as sandboxes) are an almost ubiquitous part of any paleontology exhibit. These days they’re often filled with foam crumbles instead of sand, and they’re generally populated with casts of various fossils, usually anchored to the bottom of the box. Using some combination of whisk brooms, plastic trowels, and pails, children will crawl around the sandbox and uncover the fossils Jurassic Park style. Sandboxes are always extremely popular, especially with families with small children, and they are invariably one of the most heavily used parts of an exhibit. We did a sandbox in our Stories from Bones exhibit last year, and we’re doing another one for this exhibit.

I hate sandboxes.

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The sandbox from Stories from Bones.

But my dislike doesn’t stem from the sandbox itself, but rather how it is all too often implemented as a playground with no other function.

In a research museum such as Western Science Center, I see the role of exhibits as being to educate our visitor about whatever topic is covered by the exhibit. As we plan an exhibit, the first question we ask is “What is our story?” Whatever that story is, each component of the exhibit should contribute to the story. In many ways, developing an exhibit is like developing a screenplay from a novel. There may be great ideas in the novel that just don’t work as part of the screenplay; they are too tangential to the main story, or they take up so much time that they pull attention away from the main theme. In exhibit design, we make the same types of choices. The story of science is huge (essentially infinite), complex, and deeply interconnected, and we only have 3,000 square feet to work with; there’s usually no room for extraneous components that don’t contribute to the theme.

This doesn’t mean an exhibit component can’t be fun! In fact, it should be; who wants to see a movie based on a screenplay that tells its story thoroughly, but with no drama, comic relief, or variety of any kind? Exhibit components should be engaging and (usually) fun, but they still need to contribute to the story.

That’s where my issues with sandboxes arise. The way they are often implemented, they do a great job being fun and engaging, but not so much being informative. If some of our visitors are going to spend half of their time in the exhibit at the sandbox, they should at least have the opportunity to learn from it.

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Building the sandbox – you can see the fossil horse cast here before it was covered with foam crumbles.

To that end, we’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about what a sandbox can offer to our story, and testing out ways to make it more informative. Brett and I have spent a lot of time looking at sandboxes at other museums, and have seen some that were pure playgrounds and others that were well integrated into the larger exhibit themes.

In our exhibit, we’re using the sandbox in several different ways. We’re focusing on the hominin diversity at Olduvai Gorge, which is a major part of our overall human evolution theme; Homo sapiens represents just one branch of a formerly much more diverse clade. As a second order concept, we want to get across that hominin remains are almost always fragmentary, but that it’s still possible to make identifications and infer relationships, behaviors, etc. from fragments (a lot of people have difficulty accepting how much we can infer from limited data). So we’ll have exercises where the visitor has to identify the specimens they uncover and determine things like the minimum number of individuals. (As an additional twist, every few weeks the contents of the sandbox will change; repeat visitors won’t necessarily find the same things every time.) Young children will still be able to play in the sandbox and have a good time moving sand around, but we hope their older siblings, parents, and grandparents will be able to take part as well, and learn some things about hominin history at the same time.

A Study in Case Studies

by Erik Ozolins, Professor of Anthropology at Mt. San Jacinto College

Since the semester ended last month, I thought I should provide an update on the internship class in which the students participated. Of the 7 students who registered for the class, 6 completed the semester, all earning passing grades. The 6 students wrote numerous pages on the various fossil hominin species, as well as a number of other more specific pieces of information. We are currently calling these special interest components “case studies” and as of now they include interesting aspects of paleoanthropology such as Acheulean Tools or Shanidar I.

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Shanidar I. Image Source.

I believe the identification of these “case studies” was one of the most valuable aspects of the student internship class. At this point we are not sure how much of what the students wrote about each of the fossil species will ultimately get into the exhibit. The student interns and a few others (who have now started working with us but were unable to take the class) are currently working to try to turn their pages of research into panel size pieces of information for museum guests.

During our regular meetings with the Museum staff, however, we would have the students share their favorite parts of their research and as we discussed their ideas and discoveries we realized that we wanted to spotlight many of these specific stories. These are the case studies. They are the surprising, engrossing, humorous or disturbing stories that are associated with paleoanthropology, but they are also the interesting stories that will connect with the museum guests.  These are often the stories that I like to highlight in my college classes, that I think make the information accessible to my students.

As summer is moving along we are still meeting. As I mentioned, the students are working on putting their information into panel form. Over the course of the semester, I had the class and the grade to hold over their head. Now, with the semester being over, the students are working without that incentive. They appear equally interested and driven as during the semester. At this point, they are as invested in this project as the museum is and as I am. We are also meeting and discussing some of the other, more interactive, aspects of the exhibit. I am not going to tell you what they are yet, but rest assured if we can do what we want to do, they will be very cool!

The Search for Inspiration

by J.M Sandlin, Museum Intern

Last April I wrote my first blog post for the Western Science Center. In it I confessed the excitement and uncertainty I felt about building a hominin exhibit from scratch. The post’s title, “All In,” reflected not only my personal commitment to the project, but also the enthusiastic participation of my fellow student-interns. Now that preparations for the exhibition are well underway, I’d like to talk a little about the research and brain-storming that has enabled us to achieve this stage of development.

As I mentioned in my previous post, the exhibit’s basic trajectory had been selected prior to any student involvement. Our job, then, was twofold: first, to reconstruct the long and complicated evolutionary journey from tree-dwellers to builders of skyscrapers and space stations; and second, to come up with engaging and visually appealing ways in which to present that information to the general public.

To date, our modus operandi has been more or less as follows. Under the joint supervision of college and museum officials, each student-intern has taken on one or more hominin species as personal research projects. At regular intervals, we have present the fruits of our labor to the entire exhibition team, offering insights and suggestions to be discussed by the group writ large.

Of course not all scientific study takes place in labs, libraries, or in the virtual halls of the World Wide Web. A couple of months ago, for example, most of the exhibit team took a road trip to the Museum of Man in San Diego. It’s the perfect place to get an overview of hominin evolution as well as some ideas about display possibilities.

In crafting an exhibit, however, it’s not our objective to emulate the work of others. Rather, we’re actively striving to gather as much information as we can from the best and brightest sources, then share that knowledge in ways that make sense for local audiences. It’s a balancing act which every museum, large or small, must engage with to a certain extent. But though the road ahead remains fairly long, I’m increasingly confident we’ll be able to offer the public something that’s simultaneously worthwhile and complementary to other California museums.

Wish us luck!

 

Museum Marketing 101: Science is Cool

by Brittney Stoneburg, WSC Marketing & Events Associate

Insert Exhibit Name Here has been floating around the museum blogosphere for a few months now, and I help keep this blog running, coordinate posts, and come up with all of the (extremely witty) titles.

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My mugshot for #MuseumSelfieDay

I like to think I have a unique perspective to offer when it comes to this exhibit. My academic background isn’t in science; I graduated with an English degree in 2012. However, I’ve always had a love for science, natural history, and the like, which eventually led me to the Western Science Center as a volunteer and later as a staff member. It can be intimidating to walk into a room full of professional scientists when you don’t have even a hint of a scientific background. I can’t really offer any insight on the stone making abilities of early man, or the evolutionary line of Neanderthals – but I can listen, and learn.

In a meeting, when the students are discussing the finer points of hominin behavior, I’m thinking: how are we going to present this information to the public? What’s our social media campaign going to look like? How can we get people to not only understand, but to care? I’ve often explained my role as the person who isn’t doing the actual science, but who helps explains why the science is cool! I’ve found my position at the museum to be a great marriage between my passion for natural history and my skills as an editor, writer, and former journalist, and it has been especially fun to pour my efforts into Insert Exhibit Name Here for the past few months.

Projects like this blog allow us to give visitors to the museum an inside look into the process of exhibit design, something they wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. An exhibit never just springs out of the ether, fully formed and ready to dazzle visitors with knowledge. It is the culmination of the hard work and dedication of dozens of people, toiling behind the scenes to explain, interpret, and present.

Normally, visitors to the museum don’t see any of that; they just see the finished product. But with blogs like this one, we can engage our community before the exhibit has even opened, and invite the public to be a part of the process. What better way to get people excited about science?

Working with the students throughout the semester has been an eye opening experience for me. They each have so much interest and energy invested in the topic, and I’m sure that will be evident throughout the exhibit when it opens this fall. That kind of passion for science can’t help but bleed through!

 

Between a Rock & a Hard Place: Lithic Tools

by Rebecca Byrnes, Museum Intern

My section of the exhibit, as stated in my previous entry, will focus on Homo habilis as well as Homo erectus, and I’ve chosen to have one of the most prominent features in the exhibit to be about stone tool making.

I first learned about stone tool creation in my archaeology courses this semester. Though I’d heard brief descriptions of lithic (stone) tools, I’d never been introduced to how they’re manufactured. In archaeology class I watched a video featuring Bruce Bradley, one of the best specialists on lithic manufacturing. The tools needed for the job are simple- a hammer stone or antler, and a type of stone that breaks in a particular pattern.  I was amazed to hear of the very specific cone-shaped breakage found when hitting a piece of obsidian. This shape of breakage is termed as being “conchoidal.” Bradley was able to predict exactly what the flake would look like, which was a feat I thought impossible.

Often when we hear of hominins making stone tools, we believe that it’s a relatively easy process. We figure you bang on a bit of stone for a while and when it looks about right, you go off and slay some large animal. I must admit that I also believed this before studying anthropology, but this is definitely not the case.

In my archaeology lab class I had the unique opportunity to try to manufacture my own tool. I was given a brick and some sand along with a plethora of raw materials. I selected for myself some shell, bone, and rock as I had recently seen a picture of bone beads and stone projectile points and felt inspired.

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I sat down and considered my approach. I concluded that my first step would be to break the rock into a more manageable piece. So I hit it with a rock. The rock shattered, leaving me flabbergasted and having to now pick up the shards of its remains. I then began the shaping portion, something I assumed would be rather easy.

It wasn’t.

I tried sanding it and using a small hammer stone to break off smaller bits, to no avail.

“Well, I didn’t want a projectile point anyway,” I said in a defeated tone, placing the rock down and picking up bone. So I sat there for the remainder of class sanding a little piece of bone against a brick. By the end of two classes I had a piece of bone exactly the same size as before with a slightly smooth edge and a brick that had been substantially sanded down.

What I’m trying to describe here is that it’s simply marvelous to stop and consider the complex stone tools found at some of these sites. The hand axes found with H. erectus specimens are so amazing when you take into consideration the skills needed to complete such a difficult task. This is why I want to make lithics such a prominent piece of the exhibit. I hope that through the design of the exhibit the museum is able to illustrate how astonishing and impressive tool making really is in a way that sticks with the visitors.

An Educator’s Perspective

by Brett Dooley, MSJC Professional Development Coordinator

The students and scientists involved with this exhibit have already shared their experiences. I come with a slightly different perspective, which I’d like to share. I am married to Alton, and thus have been around museums and discussing exhibits with him for over 15 years, but this is the first time I have been “in the trenches” for an exhibit design. I am a teacher, having taught elementary, middle, high school, and currently community college, and I have a research interest in geoscience education. The perspective I bring is a focus through these lenses. What I see in this collaboration are the myriad ways all of the participants are benefiting from the project, along with a few ways it could be even better.

Since I’m married to the big guy, I’ll start with what he and Erik seem to be getting out of this. In these two you have a tremendous amount of knowledge but not in the same fields. What links them are the ties between physical anthropology and vertebrate paleontology, most significantly surrounding evolution. The excitement and enthusiasm they bring presents itself through series of positive feedback discourses, which are rather amusing to watch. One of them will make a comment, which sparks an idea in the other, who then rambles off on a somewhat relevant tangent, both of them with richer notions of exhibit design or content for the conversation.

Meanwhile, the students, along with the benefits derived from conducting their independent research, have the opportunity to witness these conversations. At times they ask questions or make comments, but generally they sit back and listen. This is, however, not simple, passive learning. What the students have the opportunity to witness is the true nature of science!

IMG_4495Science, for all the stereotypes that scientists are socially awkward, is a field that relies heavily on communication, collaboration, and creativity. People think artists are creative and scientists are logical. Well, okay, scientists tend to be logical, but the field also involves a great deal of innate curiosity and creativity. How else could one come to understand all of the new discoveries and constantly think of new questions and new problems to solve? The students are seeing an exhibit come together, and doing extensive research about a few species of hominins, but more significantly, they are experiencing science. They are seeing, some for the first time, that they are not alone or strange for their love or passion for learning about long extinct organisms. They are getting to see the tangible rewards for and value in the research they are doing, knowing the children and adults in their community will benefit from what they are doing.

This semester has been exciting. I look forward to its continuation in the summer and fall, to observing the various interactions, and even adding my two cents every now and then.

If You 3-D Print It, They Will Come

by Bo Cheshire, Museum Intern

My father fit the bill of ‘mechanically inclined’; when I was 12 he designed a hydraulic lift to attach a motorcycle to the side of an 18-wheeler, and in the basement of our house he designed and built neon light systems. He enjoyed working on motorcycles and cars, and loved to think about and understand how systems worked. I grew up watching him tinker.

This curiosity has extended to me through the lens of the natural world, but I also love engineering and technology. One could just ask my wife about the state of unfinished projects in my garage to get the full view of my obsessions, so getting the opportunity to utilize 3-D printing in conjunction with this exhibit is a dream come true.

The idea sprang from Professor Ozolins during out first meeting as a group in February. When the problem of how we might best exhibit specimens that we couldn’t get casts for was broached, he mentioned that we might be able to print them; I volunteered for the project immediately.

Professor Ozolins put me in contact with Dr. Nick Reeves, Professor of Biology and program manager for the STEM program at Mount San Jacinto College. Dr. Reeves, who has been gracious and generous with his time, was just as excited as I was to be printing hominin skulls. We met last month and he introduced me to the 5th generation Makerbot.

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The 5th generation Makerbot 3-D printer.

I was pleasantly surprised at how easy and user friendly the system was. In most cases it was as simple as uploading a file, providing a little editing and manipulation, review, and print. My initial run was a small block in order to train me on the software and provide a proof of concept that the technology indeed printed exactly what we asked it to.

Next, we set our sights on the Homo naledi specimen, perhaps the newest and most exciting find in paleoanthropology in the last couple years. To place that statement into perspective, the principal investigator for H. naledi, Dr. Lee Berger, was just named as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people for this year.

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The Makerbot software in action.

One of the great things Dr. Berger has done is provide all of his research and castings in an open source format. This allows wannabes like me to access the materials and print the models. So in order to assess the technology’s ability to deliver quality models, we selected a reconstruction of the H. naledi skull and shrunk it to 1/12th the original size. That initial printing went flawlessly, and encouraged, we decided it was time to scale up the model.

Our initial try at a full size H. naledi reconstruction was estimated to last 12 hours; both Professor Reeves and I were excited but cautiously optimistic. When I arrived the next day I found only the lower third of the specimen had printed. As with any technology there are bound to be hiccups. Undaunted, I checked all the potential error points and found that the full size model hadn’t completely loaded, leaving us with the bottom third. The printer had done exactly what it was supposed to.

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The first failed attempt.

After an update to the software, Professor Reeves loaded the printer for another run at the full size skull. Now estimated at 26 hours, it was set to run over a weekend. That Monday morning, I was full of anticipation, and after my first class I checked my email. Success!

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The finished 3-D printed skull.

Being able to utilize this technology is going to allow us to share an important new find in paleoanthropology with the community. It allows us to go beyond the photographs and drawings that we may have otherwise used and provide the people who visit something tangible, a piece of our collective heritage that you touch and examine for yourself. I’m excited for how we’re incorporating this work into the exhibit, and am looking forward to finding new innovative ways to utilize this technology.

A New Direction

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by Lisa Hathaway, Museum Intern

Hi everyone! I would like to introduce myself: my name is Lisa Hathaway and I’m a student at Mt San Jacinto College. I’m fortunate enough to be part of such a wonderful project conducting research on hominin fossils.

I have been a student at MSJC for the past two and a half years. When I started at the college I was working full time and raising my little girl Sabryn, who is now seven years old. I started with nursing as my major, but then I was introduced to Cultural Anthropology and Professor Pam Ford. After that, nursing went out the door! I liked it, but not the same way as anthropology. It makes me spark like a kid in a candy store – it’s exciting and fun and I really love it.

Did I say that I really love it?

It’s been such a wonderful journey and learning process. I enjoy meeting people and learning about different cultures. I’m originally from the Caribbean; Trinidad and Tobago to be exact. It’s a cosmopolitan population so I can appreciate everyone and the unique qualities that they have to offer. I have lived in several different places and states and enjoy learning. The San Jacinto Valley has been our home for almost four years and I have met many wonderful people here.

As a child I always loved going to the museums in New York. That was always one of my favorite past times. I have great memories going there with my mom, aunt, and my brother Nick. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would have such a wonderful opportunity to be part of this project! I am learning so much and I am enjoying every moment. Last month we had the opportunity to see some of the casts that were ordered and they were so awesome. I hope everyone follows and enjoys this journey with us.

An Anthropological Christmas

by Erik Ozolins, Professor of Anthropology at Mt. San Jacinto College

Last month was Christmas in July (well, March, but the temperature made it feel like July). When I got to campus at Mt. San Jacinto College, there was an email from UPS that our Bone Clones order of the 30 casts I had ordered with the grant funds would be arriving. After checking with our warehouse folks, I ran to lunch, returning to find a large box in the middle of my office. Since we were meeting with a journalist from the Press Enterprise at the Western Science Center later that day, I decided to bring the box to the WSC so we could all look at the casts that we will be using in the exhibit. I barely managed to fit the large box into the back seat of my Civic and headed off to the WSC.

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A very large box of casts.

At the WSC, Brett Dooley and I opened up the box, pulling out all of the individual cast boxes, reading each label enthusiastically.  The time of the interview arrived and we went to the office to greet the journalist and photographer. Brett, Dr. Alton Dooley, Darla Radford (WSC Collections Manager), Brittney (WSC Marketing & Events Associate), and Becky Byrnes (one of the student interns) spent the next half hour speaking to the journalist and photographer, unwrapping each of the boxes and laying out the skulls and other casts on a table in the WSC receiving bay.

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Intern Rebecca Byrnes and Collections Manager Darla Radford lay out the casts.

Tim Sheridan, the journalist, asked us questions about the items or about our history with the museum or anthropology, but invariably two or three of us would start talking about some aspect of the specific cast we were uncovering, from the Shanidar Neandertal’s eye injury (after much discussion we seem to have decided to have a side display devoted to Shanidar 1), to the oldest fossil we are likely to be exhibiting, Aegyptopithecus zeuxis, dating to around 33-35 million years ago. It was thrilling to see the excitement of all involved. After the photographer left, Alton took the journalist on a tour of the exhibit space where we continued to answer questions for the article.

Little by little the exhibit is moving forward. The excitement of that day provided a boost of energy that should help us keep going when the exhibit opening seems so very far away. Looking at the actual items that will be in the exhibit was a tangible connection to the exhibit opening in November.

Creating Exhibit Panels: #TeamConglomerate or #TeamSeparateSpecies?

by Rebecca Byrnes, Museum Intern

I am absolutely loving the opportunity to have a role in creating a museum exhibit. At the same time, one of the most annoying things about creating an exhibit is wading through the countless facts about your specimen to choose a couple that will really appeal to the visitor. You will spend hours researching a hominin and realize that there are arguments everywhere. I don’t know why I assumed that all scientists came to conclusions about a specimen and stuck with them, but the fact is, they don’t.

Scathing articles are written and teams appear. Are you team conglomerate or team separate species? It’s both hilarious and terrifying how willing I’ve become to argue over the finer points of my group of hominin. While this is great for an anthropology major to know, it’s quite overwhelming for anyone who hears me ranting.

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For example, one task I was given by my professor was to write up a draft of what I felt should go on the panels next to the display cases, so I set about writing down everything I knew about Homo habilis and Homo erectus, complete with sources. I didn’t even consider what it must have sounded like to someone who has never even encountered the idea of hominin before. Not until my siblings came home, that is.

My siblings walked up to my computer desk and asked excitedly if I was doing “museum stuff.”

“Indeed I am!” I responded with glee, happy to have someone to share my research with. They paused, staring at my word document. I watched their faces, expecting to see surprise and wonderment. Instead, I was horrified to watch their eyes glaze over as I realized they skipped over two paragraphs.

My siblings turned to me with a confused look and said, “you used words I didn’t understand to talk about things I don’t understand.” The glass shattered. Of course these fourth graders don’t know what the zygomatic bone is and why it’s important that Homo habilis has a less convex one. Ok, well, I could reword that. I told them that I would change that part.

“Yes but it’s still a lot of reading,” one of my siblings said.

“I wouldn’t stand there and read this much in a museum,” said another. I swiveled my chair around, defeated, and began the painful task of deciding which of my precious paragraphs was going to get slashed.

Knowing all of this information is great, it truly is. I enjoy the ability to discuss early hominins and have interesting facts to tell. I guess the point of the story is that though I may find something to be fascinating, the visitor might not. When I’m at a museum I always love to read the panels to the side. Everything on it is interesting and explained in a way that makes sense, and I appreciate it. Without this internship I would have never even considered that there was more that they wanted to say but couldn’t. That’s why I think this blog is such a wonderful idea! On here I’ll be sharing interesting stories, tidbits, and articles that couldn’t make it into the museum though I so desperately wanted them to. I hope you enjoy reading further posts on here as I share more of my ramblings with you.

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Rebecca holding a Bones Clones cast.