Randi Korn & Associates
Case Studies

Cenozoic / Age of Mammals Hall

A front-end evaluation with a natural history museum
Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles, CA

The Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County asked RK&A to test concepts to inform the reinstallation of the Cenozoic/Age of Mammals Hall.   The study was specifically designed to examine visitors’ perceptions and understanding of potential content, including visitors’ engagement with and knowledge of fossils, in general, and fossil mammals, in particular, and their familiarity with climate change. 

How did we approach this study?

RK&A values curators’ scientific knowledge and the collections that natural history museums collect and study.  Therefore, when we are asked to explore how visitors understand specific scientific ideas, we believe that we must use specimens as part of our evaluation strategy.  Thus, we used fossil specimens as a point of departure for our conversations with museum visitors.  We conducted open-ended, in-depth interviews with a random sample of English- and Spanish-speaking drop-in visitors as they entered the Cenozoic/Age of Mammals Hall.  Forty groups of visitors, including 45 adults and 16 children, were interviewed for this study in March 2008. 

What did we learn?

Although interviewees expressed curiosity about the fossils, their observations were often cursory and limited to the specimens’ prominent physical characteristics.  As interviewees talked about the specimens, it became clear that they did not know how to glean information from fossils—that is, visitors did not know how to “read” fossils.  Since this exhibition intended to demonstrate how fossils have contributed to scientists’ knowledge of climate change, we also explored visitors’ understanding of climate change; one-half of interviewees said they had little or no understanding of the topic.  The other one-half said they had some familiarity with the topic but often expressed misconceptions.  Regardless of how interviewees responded to questions about current global climate change, two-thirds accepted that the Earth’s climate had changed in the distant past.  They either noted that climate change in the past was slower than today, cited the dinosaur extinction and ice ages as examples, or referenced Biblical examples.  As interviewees talked about global climate change, none connected climate change to fossil mammals.

What are the implications of the findings?

The findings indicate that the reinstallation affords the Museum a unique opportunity to craft interpretation that builds visitors’ visual literacy skills by showing them how to “read” fossils. The findings also indicate that the reinstallation will need to clearly define fossil mammals and global climate change to forge connections between these concepts. 

The full report can be read at www.informalscience.org.

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