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New Year, New Labels? We Hope Not!

January 22, 2013

by Helen Chappell

One of the biggest challenges we exhibitionists face is making sure that everything that goes on the Museum floor is durable — and not always in the way you might expect.  Sure, we need models and labels that can stand up to rough treatment by millions of visitors, and that can be tough.

Sometimes exhibits don't just break, they migrate.

A case in point: this treetop left its home, climbed the stairs, crossed a bridge, and flew off a balcony to end up in a whale’s eye socket a full city block from where it started. It has since returned home, with a good bit of help from the exhibitionists.

But we also need to make sure our writing can stand up to rough treatment by millions of scientists, and that can be tough in a different way.

What we know about science is constantly changing.  Check out this storify about extraterrestrial life and bacteria for an example of how much can change in just two weeks! When we write for exhibits, our job is to write about science in a way that will still be accurate next year, or even five years from now.  In a museum like ours, with a whole wing that focuses on current scientific research, this can be a daunting challenge.

There are a few simple writing tricks that help.  We don’t often use firm numbers, choosing a construction like “more than 1,000 species” over one like “1,038 species.”  We avoid phrases like “recently,” “just discovered,” and “new” that you might see in newspaper articles about science.  We write our labels to be correct but not complete, not only because most visitors aren’t captivated by fine details, but also because those details are more likely to change than the big ideas.

Those tricks don’t cover everything, though.  Sometimes we have to approach a topic in a different way.  You can see a great example of this on the first floor of the Nature Research Center in the “Researching Right Whales” exhibit.

Photo of right whale exhibit

It’s pretty hard to miss. Just look for the whale.

Instead of using the exhibit to tell visitors everything scientists know about right whales, we used the exhibit to tell a story about scientific research.  What we know about right whales might change next year or even tomorrow, but the story we tell won’t.

For “Researching Right Whales,” the labels and interactives tell the story of Stumpy, a pregnant whale who died after being struck by a ship (Stumpy and her son are the skeletons on display).   Scientists used her body — especially parts of her skeleton — to figure out what it takes to break a whale’s bones. Which ship speeds will kill a whale, and which ship speeds only cause minor injuries?  After completing the research, the scientists helped change the law and reduce speed limits for ships in whale territory.

While our understanding of whales and ship collisions might change, the story of how Stumpy’s death helped change speed limits will always remain the same.

Sometimes, though, changes are unavoidable.  One of the biggest ongoing challenges we have is keeping taxonomy up-to-date on animal labels.  We learn more and more every day about how species are related, and it changes species names, genus names, and the relationships we describe in our labels.

Photo of megalodon jaw and note pointing out an inaccuracy

Poor great white sharks. One of our visitors just let us know that they lost their coolest ancestors, megalodon sharks.

For taxonomy problems, well, we just have to do our best.  Most of our live animal labels are designed to be temporary anyway, since the animals on display change fairly often.  The rest we just have to redo when we have the time and resources.

We try to be quick when there’s an error, though, or else we’ll get smashed by Taxonomy Hulk.

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