GSA Annual Meeting in Denver, Colorado, USA - 2016

Paper No. 41-1
Presentation Time: 1:35 PM


LIPPS, Jere H., Museum of Paleontology, Univ of California, Berkeley, CA 94720,

The earliest natural history museums attracted public attention largely through their exhibits. These museums focused on the diversity of life, rocks, and minerals in static displays, often with complex labels. A few people were taken with these, but most glanced at them and walked on by because the exhibits and labels did not grab their attention. Even today, only certain exhibits, dinosaurs or human sexuality for example, attract large attendances while others commonly lack attendance.  To decrease scientific illiteracy, museums must switch from centuries-old techniques to up-to-date and changing technologies based physically interactive exhibits.

Museum visits have declined significantly over the past two decades while scientific literacy has increased from ~10% to ~30% of Americans. Thus museum visits contributed little to increased science literacy. Many factors are related to increasing literacy, but the most obvious ones are media based, especially with the movement away from large, complex websites to instantaneous or reactive FaceBook, Instagram, Twitter, QR codes, and other applications, and the rise of compelling science programs mostly on cable TV. Museums visitations correlate best to households with children, and this provides opportunity for engaging both kids and adults. Once engaged, kids and their parents are more likely to maintain an interest in scientific understanding. But long-lasting engagement will require new and innovative approaches to what museum do.

Museum displays and activities need to be creative and focused on children as well as adults. This will mean more interactive (not tech) exhibits where kids take an active part in the displays. For example, comparing themselves to a skeleton of Lucy mounted at floor level or a cast of hominin footprints kids can touch and put their own feet into while their parents get excited to see them interacting. Technology must play important and creative roles too, with special smart phone and tablet applications designed to illustrate exciting points in exhibits, interact with viewers with special “tours”, games, or activities that can be done in person. New applications integrating smart devices with all the exhibits can be created but it will require a sustained creative effort with dedicated staff to do it.