THE PAST WORLDS GALLERY: INTERPRETING PALEOECOLOGY AND EVOLUTION AT THE NEW NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM OF UTAH
The team identified key themes (evolution and paleoecology) and messages to communicate (the Museum conducts research and preserves systematic collections) and focused on Utah’s fossil record. Paleontologists selected time periods and sites best represented in the collections and worked with developers on content outlines. Exhibit designers and architects collaborated to create a soaring space with a sloping ramp for visitors to view exhibits on two levels. Platforms display mounts and cases showcase original fossil material. Label copy is layered, following the word count formula of NAME. Hands-on interactives, multimedia exhibits, and a smart-phone “trail” enhance the experience.
Collections storage and the paleo prep lab have windows to give the public glimpses into core research functions. A flexible learning lab may be used as a classroom, demonstration space, or gallery extension with self-directed activities. An exterior terrace includes a fossil mammal dig.
Formal evaluation began before the Museum opened and continues through 2014. Based on staff observations and visitor feedback, changes to railings and labels were made soon after opening. Stay-time and timing/tracking studies indicate that, regardless of age or demographics, visitors tend to spend more time in Past Worlds than other galleries, though sweep rate through the gallery, 450 sf/ min, is higher than the optimum of 300 sf/min. Readerboards are more effective labels than spinners. Adult-only groups take full advantage of media; groups with children do not. Visitors spend more time talking and taking photos and less time sitting than elsewhere, indicating a high degree of engagement. Upcoming studies include in-depth evaluation of what visitors are learning and how well we communicate key messages.