GSA Annual Meeting in Seattle, Washington, USA - 2017

Paper No. 335-1
Presentation Time: 1:30 PM


WING, Scott L., Paleobiology, National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC 20560, WINGS@SI.EDU

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History is designing and constructing entirely new exhibits to present the history of life on earth. More than 30,000 ft2of new fossil displays will open in June 2019. Our first major exhibit renovation in 35 years reflects recent developments in paleontology and earth science, especially the growing recognition that life changes the atmosphere, climate, ocean chemistry, and local environments, just as it responds to changes in those systems. We show how fossils are key to understanding the interaction of earth and life systems, and explicitly make comparisons between events in the history of life and current human alteration of earth systems. The portion of the exhibit focused on the ‘Age of Humans’ does not treat the scholarly discussion about a formal Anthropocene Epoch, but rather emphasizes that human alterations of climate, carbon cycle, and ecological systems are large, pervasive and rapid, and that they are similar in some ways to events in the geological past.

The biggest challenge in creating the anthropocene section of the exhibit has been developing an effective tone. Sociological research has shown that when negative messages predominate people feel powerless and are less likely to take in new information or change their behavior. To be accurate and effective the exhibit must portray rapid, pervasive, unplanned and generally undesirable anthropogenic global changes while also showing how people are mitigating these changes and their side effects. We are using several media formats to convey these messages, including large screen documentary video and interactive video.

In trying to balance scientific accuracy with effective messaging we have made the concept of legacy central. Visitors are inheritors of a legacy vastly longer than most of them realize, which we show in the deep time portions of the exhibit. We encourage them to see themselves as members of a species that has the power to change earth systems at a rate and scale that is unprecedented. We wish them to gain a larger sense of the legacy they leave behind as well as the one they have inherited.