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.

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3 thoughts on “Creating Exhibit Panels: #TeamConglomerate or #TeamSeparateSpecies?

  1. This is an issue that comes up almost every other day in my department. Someone is giving a talk to first years, or a presentation to the public. How to convey the complexity of the hominin family tree?

    One strategy a lot of people around here has settled upon is using the grade system. This groups hominins into 6 or so groups. These can be talked about generally – with maybe a few specific species from each group being highlighted – without getting lost in the nuances of what a zygomatic arch is.

    Have you found a preferred strategy for this sort of stuff yet?

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    • Hello Adam, it’s Erik Ozolins.

      First of all, thanks for reading our blog. We were super excited to know that there are folks reading along!

      Second, in answer to your question – not really. As you know, and as you described, this issue can be dealt with in a number of ways and often it will change based on the audience. In my Introduction to Physical Anthropology classes I try to mention most of the different species, even if I do so only cursorily for some. That way future anthropology majors will have some connection when they are reintroduced to them in their upper division undergraduate level classes. However, in our exhibit, we are leaning towards focusing on those events or developments that will be of interest to a museum-going audience. So rather than mention every Australopithecine and describe what makes one species different from another species, we will focus on those better known specimens (that we can also get casts of!) and use those to describe the features related to the development of bipedalism for instance. This is also where I really need the Museum staff to keep me in check. I have 18 weeks to try to make information relevant to students, we will have a fraction of that time in the exhibit.

      Also, we checked out your blog and really enjoyed your posts too!

      Erik Ozolins, MSJC Professor of Anthropology

      Liked by 1 person

      • Providing some concrete, relatable examples seems like a great idea. But are you not worried this might downplay the scale of evidence for human evolution. In my experience, most people think the hominin fossil record is a lot poorer than it really is.

        I’m not suggesting an entirely different approach, but I hope there’s at least some reference to the fact that the fossils being discussed are part of a much larger collection.

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