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Education & Outreach

Tackling Evolution Challenges at Museums and Parks

Public schools have dominated the spotlight when it comes to the controversy over how to teach evolution, and whether to include religious interpretations as “possible alternatives.” The issues, however, are not limited to the classroom.

A museum docent speaks with visitors at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. About 10 million visitors have toured the Prehistoric Journey exhibit, which demonstrates the process of evolution on Earth. Courtesy of DMNS.

The vast majority of scientists agree that intelligent design (ID) — the belief that the complexity of life is evidence that something intelligent must have designed it — is not a scientific theory. But the rising popularity of the belief has led museums and national parks to rethink how they present information to visitors. Both groups are working to further educate staff and volunteers, and also to present clear information about why evolution is accepted among most scientists.

“The bottom line is that intelligent design is a threat to the credibility of science in our culture,” says Kirk Johnson, chief curator at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science. “Since science ought to be in a museum, we realized that as a museum, we could do a better job of educating people about what science is, and how we know what we know.”

In the 10 years since the Denver museum created an exhibit on the history of life called “Prehistoric Journey,” more than 10 million people have passed through, learning about the patterns of life that have existed on Earth for the last 3.8 billion years. Johnson says that people of all beliefs are welcomed into the museum, and that people of all beliefs do indeed visit.

One group in particular visits regularly with a guide to explain the exhibits from a creationist point of view. Johnson says that he has heard statements come from the group such as “scientists will change facts to match their ideas,” which Johnson says is the opposite of the truth, that science creates and changes ideas to match the facts. But he says that the group has a right to be there and have their own opinions.

According to a September Gallup poll, the number of people who disregard the scientific evidence for evolution is growing. In the poll, more than half of Americans think that God created humans exactly as the Bible describes — in our current form without the role of evolution. About one-third of Americans say that evolution occurred but with the guidance from God — an idea similar to what some ID proponents suggest (see Geotimes, September 2005). “I think [the poll] galvanizes us to say, ‘hey, there’s a substantial percentage of the population that actually thinks intelligent design is science, which it is not,’” Johnson says.

Scientists may think that the numbers look grim, but the polls also provide a clear idea of the change that Johnson says needs to take place within museums. The mission of natural history museums is always to explain how science works so that people can understand it, “but clearly there are individuals who are tempted to conflate what science is and make it confusing,” he says. “It makes us more inspired to make it understandable.”

One way that the Denver museum is working to make that happen is by preparing the docents with intensive training, so that they are comfortable answering questions from anyone about their designated exhibit — whether it’s the display showing the rise and fall of the dinosaurs or the evolution of mammals. The goal is not to engage in arguments, but to encourage discussion.

At an Oct. 12 staff meeting at the Denver museum, everyone from ticket-takers and restaurant and gift shop employees to science specialists discussed the history of the ID movement. “With this issue becoming more important on the radar screen, it’s important for the staff members to understand what intelligent design is, what creationism is, what evolution is, what science is,” Johnson says.

Another approach, by the Museum of the Earth in Ithaca, N.Y., has been to create a guide for docents to follow. Museum director Warren Allmon wrote Evolution and Creationism: A Guide for Museum Docents, which provides background about the two schools of thought, as well as suggested answers to frequently asked questions. For example, if a visitor asks if evolution is “just a theory,” the docent could reply with a description of what a theory means in science: that theories occupy the highest rank among scientific ideas and can be overturned, but scientists accept them as provisionally true because of the overwhelming evidence.

Allmon’s guide is not limited to museum use — National Park Service officials also refer to parts of the material. Kim Sikoryak, interpretive specialist for the Intermountain Region of the National Park Service, says that a parallel exists between the worlds of museums and national parks, and that both want to find the best guide and support materials for their docents.

When it comes to scientific jargon, park interpreters are also facing confused visitors, Sikoryak says. The majority of people do not have the scientific background to be familiar with how terms such as “theory” are used in science, Sikoryak says. “Most of us are not professional scientists, let’s face it.”

The park interpreter’s goal, Sikoryak says, is to present the best current scholarly information in a digestible format. “We have found that the public has great confidence that what we say is on the up-and-up,” he says, and interpreters are trained to select their words carefully, so as not to create misunderstanding.

Some interpreters find the responsibility a large burden to carry. “Everybody thinks you get to walk around in the outdoors, you get to jump on fires and hug bears,” Sikoryak says. “But if you are dealing with public contact and visitor service, it’s a level of responsibility much more like a teacher.” The interpreter’s job, he says, is to help visitors explore ideas and understand science, and then let them make up their own minds.

Ted Fremd, a paleontologist at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument in Oregon, and the science advisor for the Pacific West Region’s national parks, agrees, and he insists that it is best to present the information and then say “take a look for yourself.” And there is plenty of information to see at the fossil beds: Eroded volcanic deposits have preserved more than 40 million years of the Cenozoic Era, which scientists call the “age of mammals and flowering plants.”

But how the science is presented makes a significant difference in public understanding and interest, Fremd says. The John Day Fossil Beds museum was previously housed in a 90-year-old historic building with about 10 retrofitted cases for the fossils. Fremd says that visitors would say: “’Look at this cool house — what are all these dumb fossils?’ … We couldn’t tell the story there at all.”

Only one-quarter of a mile away, the new Thomas Condon Paleontology Center is much larger, dedicated to paleontology, and filled with text and graphic displays about the fossil record. At first, Fremd says, he worried that the new displays would be too complex, but he is now pleased by how many people spend hours reading the fine print. Prior to visiting the park’s center, Fremd says that it is easy for people to think that bones in one layer of a fossil bed could have been the result of Noah’s biblical flood. But with the rigorous explanations in the museum, visitors can begin to put the data together and understand the complexity of evolution.

Part of the problem, which can lead to nonscientific ideas such as ID, is that some museums, rangers and docents are apologizing for how complex the story is, Fremd says. “But it is the very complexity that makes it interesting. Don’t apologize for making it complex.”

Kathryn Hansen

"Evolution & Intelligent Design: Understanding Public Opinion," Geotimes, September 2005.

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