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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.


Blog me like a hurricane

October 30, 2012

by Wendy Lovelady and Helen Chappell

What can a museum–a place generally associated with old, dusty stuff–tell you about the weather right now? Well, we do try to keep things as up-to-date as possible around here, but it’s hard to update traditional exhibits for one-time events (no matter how BIG those one time events might be).  The monster storm Sandy is pummeling the East Coast right now, so here are a few ways for you to think like a scientist during the storm.

Satellite image of Hurricane Sandy on October 29, 2012

NASA’s Aqua satellite acquired this image of Hurricane Sandy at 2:20 pm EST on October 29, 2012. At that time, the U.S. National Hurricane Center reported that Hurricane Sandy was located about 175 miles south-southeast of New York City and had maximum sustained winds of 90 miles per hour. Image courtesy NASA.

1. First let’s take a moment to appreciate the wind. Sandy’s swirling winds are mesmerizing, and you can see them here in this real-time map:

Still image of wind animation

This is a still image of the wind animation from 3 p.m. eastern today. Click through to see the live animation.

This visualization is based on data from the National Weather Service. Taking raw data and presenting it in an attractive visual format is one of the main goals of museum exhibits. This particular site is simple, elegant, and easy to understand, exactly what we hope most exhibits will be. Of course you can bookmark it, but this wind site can also be viewed in one of the Investigate Labs in the Nature Research Center.

2. Water, water everywhere! When scientists see a storm like this, one question they have is how to analyze the water involved–where did it come from? Where does it end up? To that end, they collect precipitation samples and analyze the isotopes of the elements in the water. It’s difficult to collect data from such a large area, so they often request help. If you live in Sandy’s path and you’re willing to collect rain and snow samples for study, go to the SciStarter website to learn more.

Cumulative precipitation map

This NOAA map shows the 24-hour rainfall totals across the country, as of this morning. All that water’s got to go somewhere! Click through to see the most up-to-date map.

3. When in doubt, go to the most reliable source. For weather info, that’s NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their Environmental Visualization Laboratory has the most recent images from weather satellites, like the geostationary GOES-13 satellite, which updates every 30 minutes. When we develop content for exhibits, resources like these make a world of difference.

4. Stay safe!  Scientists who work in dangerous conditions–whether that means outside in a storm like Sandy or inside a laboratory with toxic chemicals–always take measures to protect themselves.  You should too!

Medical lab protection equipment

Though this getup will probably work better in the lab than it will in a hurricane.  Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Person playing outside during Hurricane Sandy on Staten Island, NY

Don’t do this! Stay inside during a hurricane. Raincoats are no protection from flying debris. Image by Kate Tomlinson, via Flickr Creative Commons (Staten Island, 10/29/12)

Exhibit Outtakes: Beer Coolers are Scientific Instruments

October 4, 2012

by Helen Chappell

Though we Museum exhibitionists are ultimately responsible for what our exhibits say and how they say it, we always consult the science experts.  We certainly like to think we’re crazy smart people, but even so, we can’t possibly know everything about every topic in the exhibits.

Depending on the specific exhibit we’re working on, sometimes we draft the text and design first and ask for expert feedback; other times, we ask for text and images from experts first and then do our own edits.  It’s always an iterative process, with multiple rounds of edits from both us and the science experts.  A lot of the time, we end up having to trim out content that we really love.  Today’s post is the first in a semi-regular series of “Exhibit Outtakes,” where we give you a chance to see what we loved but had to cut.

Our “Windows on Research” interactives in the new Nature Research Center are one case where we get content from scientists and then edit it.  If you haven’t seen Windows on Research, come by and check it out on the Nature Research Center’s second and third floors!  It’s a chance to meet the Museum scientists—both as people and as scientists—and to look at the tools and techniques that are crucial to their research.

Photo of interactive display

“Windows on Research” is literally on the research lab windows. The funny purple spots are a reflection of our third floor’s giant glowing DNA strand.

Our Paleontology and Geology folks recently handed us lots of content about the tools and techniques they use most often, like sieving screens, quarry mapping, jackhammers, air scribes, and lots more (you can see a few listed in the image above, if you look closely).  Sadly, there was one tool they submitted that we couldn’t include in the interactive: the beer cooler.

Below is the text and image we got from the scientists.  Betcha didn’t know beer coolers were so important to research, huh?

Beer Cooler

What is it?

Beer coolers are insulated boxes that hold various beverages, though mostly beer, keeping them ice cold in the desert.  In a pinch, a standing body of water (or mud pit) will do.

Photo of scientists relaxing in water

Scientists demonstrate proper use of an improvised beer cooler.

Examples of use:

Paleontologists require relaxation and proper body cooling after long, hard days pounding rock in the desert sun.  Cold beer obtained from beer coolers or mud pits provides both.  The biggest disadvantage to most beer coolers is that they are not large enough to hold beer for more than one day, though this is not a problem with mud pits.

Bottle openers are not required to open our beverages.  Instead, paleontologists use items such as lighters, silverware, rocks, other beer bottles, chairs, car doors, bumpers, hammers, and in desperation, teeth.

You can read all about our paleontologists’ and geologists’ adventures in the field—including how they use beer coolers and other tools—at their blog, Expedition Live!, or at the Museum’s Research and Collections Blog.

Launching the Titanic

September 28, 2012

by Jenny Profet

Since April, there have been signs around the Museum announcing that Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition would be here in September. For the past several months, staff members from all sections of the Museum have been working hard to get ready for this fateful launch.

Floor plans were drawn by the Exhibits department, and the marketing team got the word out. Lots of special events have been planned (costume contest, anyone?). But how does an exhibit go from one city to the next?

Photo of a truck full of crates holding pieces of the Titanic exhibition

Happy Monday! The Titanic trucks start to arrive.

It can take anywhere from several days to many months to install an exhibit. It took our staff over two months to install the Dead Sea Scrolls back in 2008. But Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition will be installed in just eight days!

Bright and early Monday morning, six tractor trailers and nearly two dozen people arrived at our loading dock. The company that created the exhibition sent a crew to direct various aspects of the installation, from carpentry to lighting to artifact installation. We hired some local theater crews to help, and several of our own staff members will be working furiously over the next few days.

By the end of the first day, all the trucks had been unloaded and the exhibit hall was overflowing with crates. The crew was even able to start putting together a few sets!

Photo of construction of the Titanic exhibit, with lumber, ladder, and lift visible

Walls are built inside the traveling exhibits gallery, and then the painting begins.

Photo of crates and artifact cases in the Titanic exhibit

Artifact cases are moved into place as crates are unpacked.

Read more…

Bugging Out, Exhibits Style

September 13, 2012

By Wendy Lovelady

Recently, we were asked “what was the weirdest thing you’ve ever had to make for an exhibit?” Our model-makers, Dwight and Jane, both found it difficult to name just one thing. Would it be the giant eyeball model that Dwight built for the Teaching Collection? Or maybe the sparkly brain, with built-in LED lights, created for an exhibit called “The Human Spark”? Bugs and other invertebrates ended up on the list more than once—a giant walking stick, a giant African land snail, all memorable models.

Photo of an exhibit case featuring a light-up brain model and a Neanderthal skull

“Braaaaiiiins!” said the zombie Exhibit Designer. “Braaaiiins with lights!”

Photo of Dwight and his Giant African Land Snail

Dwight shows off his model of a Giant African Land Snail. His office is full of creations like this.

We still have no clear winner on the question of the “weirdest,” so this is not technically an Ask the Exhibitionist answer. But I wanted to show off one of my favorites, the giant ladybugs in our Arthropod Zoo exhibit. Dwight sculpted a total of three of these colossal beetles for the exhibit on the fourth floor of the Museum’s Main Building. These Nine-spotted Ladybugs, normally a mere 7 millimeters in length, were designed to be 65 times larger than normal size, coming in around 18 inches long.

Photo of ladybug model in the Arthropod Zoo

A giant ladybug climbs giant leaves of grass in the Arthropod Zoo.

Read more…

Mantid Madness

September 13, 2012

By Wendy Lovelady

As Bugfest fast approaches, I’ve been thinking more about mantids, those alien-like arthropods with long, graceful limbs that belong to the order Mantodea.  The Praying Mantis is the most commonly-known, but there are more than 2,400 species of mantid found in temperate and tropical habitats worldwide.

Photos of Conehead mantis and Malaysian Dead Leaf mantis

Yes, I said alien-like. I think these two are tuning in to the Mother Ship right now. (That’s a Conehead Mantis on the left, Malaysian Dead Leaf Mantis on the right.)

One of the best parts of working at our Museum is the daily opportunity to learn about weird, exotic, or unusual animals. Mantids are an excellent example.  They are named after the Greek word for “prophet.” They are sometimes confused with walking sticks or leaf bugs, but they’re more closely related to cockroaches and termites.  Their forelegs are called “raptorial legs,” because they use those spiky appendages to capture and grasp prey. If there is an insect equivalent to the famed Velociraptor, the mantid has got to be it.

Photo of a Chinese Mantis eating a cricket

A mantis munches on a cricket. Apparently they like drumsticks.

Photo of a Texas Unicorn Mantis watching a monarch fly by

Wings are also on the menu.

Read more…

Ask an Exhibitionist Bonus: Literal Water Lentils

August 24, 2012

by Helen Chappell

While I was scoping out the answer to our first Ask an Exhibitionist question, I learned a nifty little fact about one of our exhibits that I want to share here.

Part of our huge Mountains to Sea exhibit is a black water swamp diorama.  The water is made using a sheet of plexiglass with a resin layer for texture, like I talked about in a previous post, but it also has ducks and plants like duckweed “floating” in it.

Photo of black water swamp diorama

The advantage of floating on a solid plastic surface is that you’ll never sink.

Duckweed, if you’re not familiar with it, is a tiny aquatic plant that grows on the surface of still or slow water.  Its texture is somewhere between pond slime and lily pads.  Another common name for duckweed is “water lentils,” which should give you a good general idea of duckweed’s size and shape.

Close-up photo of duckweed

Yum? Photo courtesy of Eric Guinther.

Our fake duckweed looks even more like lentils than the real thing – because it is lentils!  It’s made from red lentils painted green.  It’s just one of the many examples of crazy creativity around the Museum.

Close-up photo of fake duckweed

A few of our water lentils need some repainting. The swamp water could use a good dusting, too. How often do you get to say that outside of the museum world?

If you have a question you’d like to Ask an Exhibitionist, email us or tweet it with the hashtag #AskAnExhibitionist!