If you don’t ask, you’ll never know. And Carnegie Museum of Natural History is asking thousands of its visitors what they’d like their experience to be when Dinosaurs in Their World opens this November.
By Julie Hannon
The new Dinosaurs in Their World exhibit, as you might guess, will be all about dinosaurs. And one lesser-known co-star: the visitor.
Even before old Dinosaur Hall closed—and certainly now, as the gigantic new dinosaur exhibit is being built and Pittsburgh’s most famous residents are returning to their fantastic new digs—each future step through Dinosaurs in Their World is being plotted not only with the visitor in mind, but often with visitor input in hand.
“We’re most interested in people learning in the hall,” says Diane Grzybek, chair of the division of education at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “And through extensive onsite research, we’re learning what the visitor wants to know—and is most confused about—and moved those things to the top of the priority pile.”
Consider the emphasis placed on time periods. By gathering feedback from visitors to Dinosaur Hall before its closing, the museum learned that, without a doubt, many visitors thought all dinosaurs lived together, during the same time period. Visitors didn’t have a clear understanding, for example, that T. rex lived closer in time to people than to much more ancient dinosaurs such as Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, and Stegosaurus. As a result, the new exhibit, to be housed in a space nearly three times the size of the old hall, emphasizes the three distinct periods of the Age of Dinosaurs—the Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous—and make it clear which dinosaurs would have co-existed and in what kinds of environments they would have lived.
The most often-asked question—which dinosaur skeletons are real?—will also be prominently addressed in the new exhibit, oftentimes down to the bone. Of the approximately 230 specimens that will be on display in Dinosaurs in Their World, about 75 percent are actual fossils. And visitors will be able to tell which are which, since the process of cleaning the specimens has left them lighter in color and looking more like the actual fossils they are.
The team working with the Museum of Natural History to make educated decisions about the Dinosaurs in Their World visitor experience is UPCLOSE, the University of Pittsburgh Center for Learning in Out-of-School Environments. Two years ago, following previous work with UPCLOSE, Carnegie Museums hired the researchers, and graduate student researcher Sasha Palmquist has been actively embedded in the planning process ever since. With the help of two undergraduate research assistants, she’s already interviewed well over 1,000 visitors about a variety of exhibit experiences. And she’s far from done. The true benefit or her work, says Grzybek, is the almost immediate feedback—coded and placed in a database—now being used by a collaborative team of museum scientists, educators, and exhibit designers.
Visitors’ input often holds surprises, making the team look at things from different angles.
“As a scientist, at times it was discouraging to hear that visitors didn’t want to know as much as we wanted to tell them about a particular specimen or its environment,” says Matt Lamanna, the museum’s assistant curator of vertebrate paleontology and lead scientific advisor for Dinosaurs in Their World. “But we also understand that the goal is to present information in the most accessible and engaging way possible. And this research is helping us accomplish that.”
Of course, there are loads of fascinating stories and facts to tell—so many that Lamanna and company could easily fill volumes. But if it all ended up on labels or in interactive kiosks, what would visitors really walk away knowing? After years of experience in museum education, Grzybek says not enough. And Palmquist’s research backs her up.
“It’s been important to have the conversation with visitors and come back and share their perspectives with the team. While it’s important to tell a scientifically accurate story, you need to tell it in a way that’s engaging and layered, in a bite-sized capacity,” explains Palmquist, who routinely shows museum visitors prototypes of informational labels and other exhibit material. The real balancing act, she notes, is appealing to novice visitors while also providing opportunities for repeat visitors and dinosaur enthusiasts to mine new information.
Palmquist is not only an important neutral external voice; she and her team bring expertise on how to integrate both learning and design when posing questions to visitors. “We bring to the table ideas of learning and provide evidence for what visitors are doing so that decisions can be data-driven,” says Kevin Crowley, Director of UPCLOSE. Otherwise, they’re best guesses.”
In addition to gathering ‘front end’ information from Dinosaur Hall, the museum, for the first time, has made a commitment to gather such feedback from the beginning of the process to the very end, even after Dinosaurs in Their World’s grand opening.
“It’s rare to find an institution willing to take that chance,” says Crowley. “Universities and museums have had a hard time talking to each other, while both trying to get children to learn about evolution, natural history, and dinosaurs. The trust, energy, and commitment that Carnegie Museums and Pitt have shown is unique and worthwhile. Both institutions are sticking their necks out a bit and, hopefully, in the end, we’ll have done the best possible job for the public.”
“Why continue doing something if you’re not serving your visitors?” Grzybek asks. “The great thing about the work we’re doing with UPCLOSE is that we learn from hard data as we go, and we make changes as we go. If this kind of icon or storyline isn’t working, we find out, adjust, and test another version.”
One exhibit concept already getting high marks from Palmquist’s interviewees is Trax Tracey, a friendly-looking prehistoric sleuth that will appear on signage throughout Dinosaurs in Their World, giving fun facts to visitors. The same goes for the museum’s decision to help parents converse with their kids about what they’re seeing by adding something so simple, but oh-so helpful to exhibit signage: pronunciations of dinosaur names, such as Coelophysis [SEEL-o-FIE-sis].
“More so than any other natural history museum that I’m aware of,” says Crowley, “this really is a museum having a conversation with its visitors about what this exhibit ought to be.”