Evolution has been a hard subject to teach in a number of places, but the hardest might be in the Museums. In the Rethinking Evolution in the Museum: Envisioning African Origins the author Monique Scott goes into detail about the problems with doing museum exhibits, and peoples reaction to these exhibits, using the answers that she got from interviewing visitors of the major museums in the world. She states that the main problem within these museums is that the visitors are “native ideological agents” that project their own meanings onto the exhibits. These meanings come from a variety of places including their own cultural backgrounds and even the media and pop culture.
When people enter a museum and see an evolution exhibit they either see the “march of progress model” or the dioramas, or casts of the different hominids, all in a linear model of progression. These exhibits are then interpreted by the visitor along with the knowledge that they already have in their head which they have picked up from various sources throughout their life (from their parents, from school or from television, books or movies) thus producing a skewed version of the idea of evolutionary progress. At this point then, the museum isn’t a place for the visitor to learn more about evolution, but more to validate what they have already learned from other sources.
Besides just the influence of other areas, there is another problem in the evolution exhibits, the idea of scientific racism. There is this idea that goes along with the Out of Africa theory of the noble savage, and that people of African descent are more primitive than the Caucasians because they have not moved out of Africa. Then there is the association of the primitive man that has darker skin and more Negroid features, and that those features are eventually weaned out as man has evolved. When Scott interviewed the visitors of the museums, and especially in the museums in America and Europe she founds that there is an association of Africans and animals, primitive and the savage, basically dehumanizing them from what Scott calls “western eyes.” Thankfully for the most part these ideas have been stamped out as the evolution exhibits have grown over the years, and in the 20th century museums moved away from the noble savage and to cultural empathy.
Another aspect that visitors have a problem grasping is the Cradle of Mankind idea. Most of visitors have the cemented idea in their heads of Adam and Eve, whether they learned about it in church, or learned about them from pop culture references. Most visitors have trouble with this because they aren’t comfortable with it. They don’t like thinking that they came from a primitive Africa where “hairy-ape men” roamed the savannahs. In the 19th century this was more of a problem, and in the 20th century the notion if Africa as an evolutionary relic was produced, authorized and reinforced in the museums.
So after learning all these problems with exhibits on evolution, the question then becomes: How do we create an exhibit that is cohesive, understandable and that won’t be offensive to anyone? Well first, we can’t promise that everyone with understand, believe and not take offense to the exhibit, but we can do our best. The first problem to tackle is to make it cohesive. Many museums have casts, or have dioramas of what hominid man looked like. What becomes the important aspect that is missing is what Scott calls the “evolutionary narrative.” The narrative provides a story of evolution through textual evidence that gives something to the exhibit that the dioramas have left out. It is not practical to present these dioramas simply by themselves, because there are always things that are left out, and then they become open to the interpretation of the visitor. This is when the outside influence comes in and the visitor might be misled to what is actually going on since they only have that visual. This evolutionary narrative then becomes essential in communicating the evolutionary information to museum visitors in a different way than the dioramas and other visual representations do. Another aspect that would help is the whole process behind evolution needs to be shown and not just the finished product as in so many museums. For the visitor to see the process all the way from the discovery of the remains to the typing of the species and explanation of where it fits into the lineage of man, will bring them in closer to the exhibit and allow them to understand it more.
Thus the idea to do an exhibit based on the dates that the discoveries were made instead of where they fit into the progress of man becomes the perfect tool to express this idea. By going through the first discovery of hominid remains to the most recent discovery, the visitors can see what the important finds have been over the years, and what scientists think about these finds, without having to deal with scientific racism, or cultural influence as much. If the exhibit shows the dates, the person who discovered the remains, casts of the remains, the species of the remains, why they were significant back when they were discovered, and why they are significant now, the exhibit will provide the visitor with a clear cut journey of the evolutionary process.
Samantha (Sam) Curtin is a Geospatial Information Science Graduate Student at University of Maryland and a Penn State Anthropology Alum. She has a passion for horror, dark fantasy, anthropology, technology, and religion. By day, Sam is a technical editor for the federal government. Her first books "Dark Cell," "Deal with the Devil," and "Summer's Hollow" are available on Amazon.com. All are published through her publishing company “Behind the Curtin Publications.”