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Museums and the Web

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Hot-Button Issues: Using Technology to Address Topicality, Uncertainty, and Controversy in Science Exhibits

Miriam Roberts, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, USA


The exhibit Emergence: A New View of Life’s Origin is a collaborative project involving scientists, students, and museum professionals, and a case study for using a new way of understanding our world—complexity science—as the framework for exploring the origin of life and biological processes. It is also a case study for using new technologies to incorporate ongoing research into science exhibits. Two aspects of ongoing research, topicality and uncertainty, make exhibits more exciting, especially when controversy is involved. This new approach educates public audiences about the importance of basic research and museum collections and interests students in science and science careers. To adopt the new approach, museums need to develop partnerships with outside researchers, identify practical and affordable technological solutions, and adapt to new roles and an ongoing commitment.

Keywords: complexity science, controversy, partnerships, exhibit technologies, origin-of-life, educate

Emergence: A New View of Life’s Origin as a case study

New digital media are enabling exhibits that present science as research and not a body of knowledge. Topicality and uncertainty, two aspects of ongoing research, are especially exciting when information is contested. Controversies are an essential and fascinating part of the scientific process, and developing means to incorporate them into exhibits is an important advance over the present situation, where new discoveries often make museum displays almost instantly obsolete.

The exhibit Emergence: A New View of Life’s Origin is a case study in the use of technology to make science exhibits updateable and expandable as research unfolds and while results are still uncertain. The project was initiated in 2006 by the Santa Fe Institute (SFI;, an international center for complexity science, as the education and outreach component of its five-year, $5,000,000 research project, “The Emergence of Life: From Geochemistry to the Genetic Code,” funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The exhibit is on view at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science in Albuquerque and online ( The photostream is on flicker (

Project background

Whoever answers the question of how life began will have solved one of science’s great mysteries. The prevailing origin-of-life theory since the 1950s has been that life emerged through the chance production of a primitive gene out of naturally occurring organic molecules. Genes came first. Most natural history museum origin-of-life exhibits still present the story this way.

The Emergence exhibit presents a new theory, gaining support in scientific circles, which posits that life emerged as a consequence of ordinary chemical reactions that naturally—and perhaps inevitably—led to metabolic reactions; and that one of these, the citric acid cycle, the core metabolic process common to all living things, is the prime candidate for having been the bridge from a non-living to a living planet. This theory falls under the broad category of “metabolism first” origin-of-life theories.

Only a few museums have updated their origin-of-life exhibits to reflect new theories—for example, the Boston Museum of Science’s NSF-funded 2008 collaboration with Nobel Laureate scientist John Szostak, Exploring Origins ( The online exhibit Emergent Universe ( is an interactive learning experience created by the Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter, a partner in the Emergence project.

Researchers as content providers, and  students as exhibit designers

Most museums do not have the in-house expertise to present ongoing research. The solution is partnering with scientists at universities and research institutions to assist with content development. Content partners can also become funding partners. Their research grants often require public outreach, so it is possible to have your exhibit become their education and outreach component.

This happened to us in 2006, when Ginger Richardson, SFI vice president for Education and Institutional Outreach, approached the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs (DCA) about producing a traveling exhibit based on DCA’s origin-of-life research project. This is how our collaboration began.

At that time, the DCA had a nascent partnership with the Media Arts Program at New Mexico Highlands University (NMHU). The Emergence exhibit became the first joint project in a three-way partnership between SFI, DCA, and NMHU designed to make SFI research broadly accessible and understandable and to interest, excite, and inform the general public about complexity science and its importance as a new way of understanding our world.

The 2006 project was the first of three iterations of the Emergence exhibit. It was produced by an exhibit design class and was presented in two venues: a vacant storefront in the rural community of Las Vegas, New Mexico, where the primary audience was middle school students; and in the SFI atrium, where the main audience was researchers and summer interns. In 2007, NMHU graduate students Lauren Addario and Kara Pajewski redesigned the exhibit, and it was presented at the Mesa Public Library Gallery in Los Alamos and in the National Science Foundation headquarters atrium in Arlington, Virginia.

In 2010, the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science joined the collaboration. This coincided with their planning for a renovation of the Hall of Origins, which contains a standard version of the origin-of-life story circa 1986, when the museum opened. Reluctant to part with the vintage exhibit, the museum staff opted instead to locate the Emergence exhibit on the adjacent mezzanine. There, the new exhibit serves as a prototyping experience for museum visitors, classroom teachers, and others for planning the permanent exhibit. SFI was able to secure a $160,000 supplement to their research grant to fund the project.

The Emergence exhibit was a project of the Program in Interactive Cultural Technology (PICT;, a biannual, full-semester, immersive academic and hands-on program at NMHU. PICT students help create a professional museum exhibit and participate in internships. Graduates receive a Certificate in Cultural Technology from NMHU and DCA.

Museums as sources of current information

New Mexico’s natural history museum is not unusual in having on view an exhibit about life’s origin that is more that two decades old. When science is thought of as a body of unchanging knowledge, permanence is a non-issue. It is only when science is presented as research that the ability to revise information and to incorporate multiple viewpoints becomes important.

The mandate for the Emergence project was twofold: to make ongoing scientific research on origin-of-life accessible to public audiences through a multimedia exhibit that is updateable and expandable; and to use network media to connect exhibit content to people wherever they are—in the museum, in the classroom, or accessing content via mobile devices.

For the scientists, the priority has been to create an exhibit that (1) presents a plausible scenario for how life in its simplest form emerged; (2) is honest about what is known and what is unknown; (3) stays within what is supported by scientific research without straying into speculation; and (4) communicates in ways that are interesting and engaging to broad public audiences.

Complexity science: a new approach to interpretation

The Emergence exhibit is the first effort that we know of to bring complexity science to broad public audiences through a museum exhibit. Complexity science provides a compelling alternative to traditional taxonomic and chronological displays.

Complexity science studies whole systems and processes to understand in depth how their parts interconnect and interact. Complexity scientists rely on conventional methods such as laboratory experiments and fieldwork, but they also depend increasingly on new tools such as advanced mathematics and sophisticated computer modeling. Research teams from diverse disciplines cooperate to share expertise, knowledge, and insights. For their research project, SFI brought together scientists from George Mason University, University of Colorado, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Arizona State University, and Carnegie Institution of Washington, D.C.

Reaching new audiences and challenging misperceptions

The point of disseminating exhibit content via online distribution systems is to vastly increase audience size and diversity. Middle school and up seemed an appropriate target for the onsite exhibit and educational resources. But students on the exhibit team did not want to limit the exhibit’s appeal by using age-specific strategies like a mystery game or treasure hunt. They opted for a straightforward presentation that engages without condescension to reach the broadest possible audience, from interested laypersons with little or no science background to scientists themselves.

The students made a few assumptions about their audience based on their own life experience growing up in New Mexico that inform the exhibit:

  • Most visitors will be uninformed or misinformed about the basic knowledge needed to understand the exhibit content. How old is the Earth? When did life begin? What materials were available on early Earth? What conditions existed? The exhibit therefore does not presuppose knowledge of this kind.
  • Most visitors will probably have a stereotypical image of scientists. The students were amazed at their own stereotypical images, which were subverted by SFI scientists. Rather than lone geniuses working in laboratories, SFI scientists work in teams, much as the students do. Whereas articles and television shows about origin-of-life research have emphasized competition and conflict, the students chose to emphasize cooperation and teamwork.
  • Language is important. The students enjoyed listening to how scientists ask and answer questions. Preserving their language while distilling and condensing it for the purpose at hand—an exhibit—took a lot of perseverance. The exhibit lets the voices of the scientists come through, instead of the disembodied voice of authority that museums too often use.

Beginning at the beginning with video

Figure 1: Introductory video

Video is a very handy tool for incorporating topicality and layering information because it is economical both in terms of budget and space and is easy to update. Advances in affordable headphone and directional speaker technology can minimize the annoying problem of sound bleed. Another virtue of video is that it can be used to create online entry points to content—for example, on YouTube.

There are some excellent examples online that use video to engage the public with science. The University of Nottingham deserves credit for their online projects:

The Emergence exhibit uses video clips of the scientists to draw in visitors, break down their resistance, and build their trust by casting the scientists essentially as storytellers. In New Mexico, introductions are culturally necessary. In a social context, not introducing yourself, where you come from, and who your family is can be considered rude. An important feature of the exhibit’s introduction is a video clip of Principal Investigator Harold Morowitz welcoming and orienting visitors (

E-books and mobile apps

Figure 2: Complexity Science e-book

As with video, e-books and apps for mobile devices offer the possibility of updating and layering information and expanding entry points to exhibit content via online apps stores. The Complexity Science e-book and app produced for the Emergence project contextualize exhibit content and fills in the back-story with an introduction to the characteristics of complexity. This topic is worthy of a whole separate exhibit, and in fact the text was repurposed from an earlier exhibit that SFI had produced for a children’s museum. The e-book is available free (, and the mobile app is free from iTunes.

As this paper was being written, Apple introduced two free and user-friendly software tools, iBooks 2 and iBooks Author. Museums, even those with limited budgets, are now able to create e-books for iOS devices, including the ability to embed videos, photos, quizzes and interactive images—perfect for repurposing digital exhibit content. There is an application process to sell or give away iBooks through iTunes. An ISBN number also needs to be purchased. Apple will still take a cut of the revenue, and the audience is limited to those who own iOS devices.

iPad kiosks: Periodic Table of the Elements

Figure 3: The elements

The Periodic Table of the Elements—there couldn’t possibly be anything topical or controversial about it could there? After all, it was developed by Dmitri Mendeleev in 1869, and has stayed more or less the same with the addition of new elements. But we were surprised.

Our original intention in including the Periodic Table was to make the same point that other origin-of-life exhibits have made: six elements—carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, phosphorus, and sulfur—have been present on Earth since its formation about 4.6 billion years ago and are common to all living things on the planet. They are not the most abundant, but they are the best suited for bonding in various combinations to form the four kinds of molecules that constitute the basic building blocks of life—sugars, lipids, amino acids, and nucleobases.

Yet even as we were working on the exhibit, research was shedding new light on the possible role of other elements in life’s origin. Biochemists have known that trace amounts of Elements 21 through 30—including iron, copper, and nickel—play critical roles in biological living processes. Origin-of-life researchers have noted that these ”transition metals” can attach themselves to small molecules (which then become known as “ligands”) and serve as catalysts for the synthesis of metabolites—essential parts in the network of compounds that constitute life’s biochemistry. Some scientists now hypothesize that transition metal–ligand complexes could have served as catalysts in life's earliest biochemical pathways. If experiments validate this hypothesis, it will be big news for origin-of-life science and for the Periodic Table.

But we didn’t know any of this when we set out to find the right way to include the Periodic Table in the exhibit. A number of excellent Periodic Table exhibits have been developed, ranging from Theodore Gray's wonderful museum displays ( to the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry’s interactive “Create a Chemical Reaction.” The problem with these options is the price. We needed a solution that was practical and affordable.

This led us to search online for an interactive Periodic Table suitable for kiosk display. We found excellent options, even a nice one developed by nearby Los Alamos National Laboratory ( Then Apple released the iPad, and Touch Press, the digital publishing company, released their marvelous and popular app, “The Elements.”

The display we settled on features a large backlit graphic of the Periodic Table from “The Elements” above an iPad with the app, which is housed in a neat enclosure purchased from nClosures (, one of several enclosure options on the market. Text on the kiosk rail contextualizes the Periodic Table and its relevance to life’s origin. The exhibit actually includes two iPad kiosks because while it was in development, Touch Press came out with a second app, “The Solar System,” and we decided to include that as well.

The iPad kiosk has many virtues. It is self-contained, affordable, and extremely compelling to visitors. Museum designer Matt Celeskey has provided a detailed account of the museum’s experience. The iPads have proved to be durable, and the enclosure offers a high degree of protection, especially with the addition of a silicone rubber skin, which provides a snugger fit. In mounting an enclosure directly onto a rail panel, adding a one-quarter-inch spacer beneath the enclosure would make it much easier to unlock.

There are some issues in running off-the-shelf apps in kiosk mode. Although Apple has built in some settings that are beneficial to a kiosk environment, other critical functions are lacking. These include automatic startup of the app and automatic refresh to a default state after a period of inactivity. If content can be viewed within a Web browser, there are several kiosk apps that might allow for automatic refresh, although automatic startup does not appear to be an option. Bruce Wyman at the company Second Story has apparently solved these problems by using a jailbroken iPad, which is described on the company's blog, but jailbreaking involves risks, which include loss of warranty.

The iPads are plugged into an outlet that is live for 10 to 15 hours a day, and shut down at the breaker each evening. The batteries keep the iPads operational for some hours after the museum closes, then drain and are powered up again each morning. The program does not restart automatically—whoever is on morning duty launches the app manually. The enclosure covers the Power button on the top of the iPad, and the Home key on the front, one of which needs to be pressed to turn the iPad on. The museum staff used to open the case each time, but have since realized that they can slide the corner of a credit card under the face of the enclosure to press the Home button.

Built-in iPad settings were used to disable Mail and Safari, which appears to eliminate the visitors’ ability to break out of the apps using the touchscreen; nevertheless, there are occasional reports that visitors are accessing other programs, probably using the same method as the museum staff. One iOS-savvy visitor was even able to lock the museum out of the iPad entirely with a custom password. The iPad was easy to reset by plugging it back into the computer that was used to set it up initially, and it is now set to not allow this.

Synthesizing data from multiple sources: Formation of Earth and Geologic Timeline

Figure 4: Geologic Timeline

We needed a Geologic Timeline for the exhibit that was based on up-to-date information on early Earth's ocean and atmospheric chemistry, geology, and biology, and tailored to a focus on life’s origin. Researchers from multiple disciplines are figuring out what the conditions on Earth were like when life emerged. A monumental task was compiling the latest information from the most reliable sources. Among the scientists who provided valuable input were Michael Russell of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA) Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Ariel Anbar of Arizona State University. Inspiration also came from researcher Robert Hazen’s theory of mineral evolution (

We also needed the perfect way to graphically represent our message of geochemistry and metabolism. The Geologic Timeline has been illustrated in various ways—as a line, a clock, and a spiral. It was student Gabriel Garcia who illustrated the interconnectedness of the geosphere and the biosphere as a double helix, with one strand representing the geosphere and one strand representing the biosphere, and a graphic image depicting stages in the formation of Earth, in a 16-foot long timeline mural. “The Solar System” app is located on the text rail below the Formation of Earth section. The mural also includes four digital paintings illustrating stages in the evolution of the planet—Black Earth, Red Earth, Snowball Earth, and Blue-Green Earth—created by other students with the help of scientific illustrator and graphic artist Karen Carr ( Finally, several rock and fossil samples from the museum collection were selected for display in light boxes along the timeline.

An interactive version of the timeline is a work in progress.

Kiosk design: The New Tree of Life

Figure 5: The New Tree of Life

The Tree of Life has been part of understanding biological evolution since the nineteenth century and the publication by Charles Darwin of The Origin of Species in 1859. Most museum visitors are familiar with the Tree of Life concept in one form or another from biology textbooks. But the Tree of Life is changing.

Until recently, scientists could compare only physical features to describe evolutionary lineages. Today powerful new technologies permit comparisons of DNA and RNA, yielding detailed, objective information on evolutionary connections between organisms. This advance has led to development of a new, genetically based Tree of Life, sometimes called the Phylogenetic Tree of Life, which allows deeper insight into the evolution of species than their physical features alone and provides important new clues to life’s origin.

Tracing the evolution of billions of organisms and species that have existed on Earth over billions of years will be a never-ending process in which the Tree of Life itself will evolve continuously and, along the way, provide important clues to life’s origin. There are a number of projects that address the issue of expandability and combining data from multiple contributors, notably the online Tree of Life Web Project (

The Tree of Life interactive we wanted for the Emergence exhibit was a bigger project than students could complete within the time constraints of one semester. To do the job, we engaged educational exhibit designer Suzi Tucker and programmer Steve Hartzog. D. Eric Smith and Rogier Braakman from SFI helped them come up with a graphical representation that is aesthetically beautiful and conveys how life’s evolution provides clues to its origin.

We wanted to populate the tree with species relevant to our own region. Penelope Boston, a researcher from New Mexico Tech, and her colleague Michael N. Spilde from the University of New Mexico, provided invaluable guidance as well as many of the images of microorganisms.

In creating exhibits that are topical, it is not only necessary to keep information up to date; the technology itself must be kept up to date. New equipment models are constantly making old equipment obsolete, so budgeting for the purchase of backup hardware is a good idea. Our experience in repurposing the kiosk Tree of Life for the web embodied one of the biggest challenges in this regard. Late 2011 brought the end of the Flash era and the advent of HTML5 for creating and deploying browser-based content across mobile platforms. Since the kiosk version was created in Flash, a decision had to be made about whether to proceed with the web version in the legacy format of Flash or seize the moment to transition to HTML5. The extra cost was weighed against the benefits of longevity and flexibility, and the decision was made to go with HTML5.

Local interest: Extremophiles in New Mexico in 3D

Figure 6: Video shoot in Carlsbad, New Mexico

Topicality can refer to subjects of current interest but also to topics of local interest, and one of our priorities was to dispel the idea that science is something remote from the everyday daily lives and experiences of New Mexicans. We decided to focus on extremophiles—single-cell microorganisms that live in extreme environments where scientists are discovering thousands of species of microorganisms whose genes have remained virtually unchanged over billions of years. These organisms may harbor important clues to how life originated and help our space program decide what to look for while searching for life on other planets.

Making three-dimensional (3D) video requires specialized equipment, which NMHU had recently purchased, so the decision was made to make the video in 3D. The video team headed out to look for extremophiles in the famous Carlsbad Caverns with Professor Boston from New Mexico Tech and Mr. Michael N. Spilde from the Institute of Meteoritics, University of New Mexico, leading experts in the fields of cave geology, mineralogy, and microbiology and its relevance to the search for life on other planets. The video also features Dr. Larry Crumpler, a NASA scientist with an office at the museum, who works on planetary missions, including the Mars Rover Exploration, and who is also an expert on planetary volcanism and on young volcanic terrains in New Mexico and Arizona.

Using 3D video usually requires 3D glasses, which are a cost and a nuisance for the museum. Student Ben Jeremiah worked on the solution of using glass panels covered with commercially available film that is circularly polarized in opposite directions. This filters out half of the image, so when the visitor stands where the two panels are joined, each eye sees only one of the two projected images, which combine to make the 3D image without the need for glasses. The set up is nifty, but it does require instructions.

As mentioned above, video can be used to create online entry points to exhibit content. The video “Extremophiles in Caves” is accessible in the following ways:

Competing theories—Making-a-cell interactive

Figure 7: Making-a-cell interactive

Almost all exhibits that address modern origin-of-life research begin with the famous 1953 Miller-Urey experiment and accept its theoretical premise that life emerged by chance. Powered by lightning or sunlight warming a tidal pool, a group of molecules happened to join together into a complex molecule that could reproduce itself. This set off the chain reaction of reproduction, variation, and evolution that constitutes life on Earth. In the years following the discovery of DNA and RNA, it was hypothesized that an unidentified forerunner to RNA was that first replicating molecule.

As mentioned above, the Emergence project is one of a few museum exhibits to present an opposing point of view—the metabolism-first theory that life began with the development of metabolic processes out of combinations of naturally occurring chemical reactions. These processes evolved into the chemical pathways and cycles now shared by every living creature. Thermal vents on the ocean floor could have provided the right conditions for this process. According to this theory, life on Earth may have been inevitable.

The challenge was how to condense and reinforce all this information, which is presented on graphics panels, through an interactive experience. With the help of Michael Wilson and Chris Weisbart from the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the decision was made to create the making-a-cell interactive. The effort to make the interactive robust also brought into the picture Stan Cohen, a retired Los Alamos physicist and museum volunteer, who helps to produce, maintain, and repair the museum’s computer interactives.

The introduction to the interactive is very frank that no one really knows how life on Earth began, that there are many uncertainties and controversies, and that the interactive presents a general picture that is emerging as researchers from diverse fields put together the pieces of the puzzle.

The making-a-cell interactive uses Arduino ( to control five steps in making the cell—metabolism, catalysis, memory, encapsulation, and replication. Mounted above the touchscreen, there are five light boxes with captioned photographs from nature. Users activate the light boxes by holding their hands over hand images on the kiosk that hide photosensors. Arduino is described on the team’s website as an open-source electronics prototyping platform, based on flexible, easy-to-use hardware and software, for creating interactive objects or environments. It is rapidly replacing computers to control museum interactives and has put the technology within reach of many more museums with limited in-house technological expertise and budgets.

The ongoing scientific quest—Newsfeed kiosk

Discoveries relevant to life’s origin are made daily. Visitors are invited to explore current research on a touchscreen newsfeed kiosk with links to articles from an RSS feed from Science Daily. We are currently working on a better newsfeed kiosk system that will allow display of articles from multiple sources, perhaps using Pipes (, a free tool from Yahoo.

Education and outreach

Figure 8: Emergence online website

Once the physical exhibit was open to the public, work began on connecting it to classrooms and online audiences. Museum education consultant Selena Connealy is working with museum education staff and classroom teachers to evaluate the exhibit and help create resources for classroom use. The exhibit website serves as a centralized online repository for exhibit content and educational resources. Because most schools in New Mexico lack the bandwidth to access the interactives online, a DVD will be produced and disseminated to classroom teachers.

An exciting outgrowth of the Emergence project was the decision of volunteer Stan Cohen to found the Center for Art and Exhibit Electronics Design (CAEED). This hands-on learning and teaching institute for museum exhibit makers and artists will offer workshops and consultation on the use of electronics, electronic sensors, and controls in exhibits and art installations, with an emphasis on making them robust and easy for museum personnel to maintain (


Reinterpreting museum collections in light of new information and engaging museum audiences in the ongoing process of science will deepen public appreciation of and support for basic research, increase public awareness of the importance of museum collections, and interest students in science and science careers. To take advantage of these new capabilities, museums will need to address three challenges:

  • Developing external partnerships with researchers outside their own institutions to rethink the interpretation of their collections in light of new information
  • Identifying practical and affordable technological solutions that are robust and that the museum has the financial and human resources to maintain in working order
  • Adapting to new roles and an ongoing commitment of time and energy of exhibits and education staff.


The guiding light for the Emergence project is Professor Harold Morowitz, principal investigator on the research project. SFI External Professor D. Eric Smith and Omidyar Fellow Rogier Braakman were the primary content providers. Department of Cultural of Affairs Director for Media Projects Miriam Roberts and science writer James Liljenwall wrote the exhibit text, which was carefully vetted by other members of the team and outside experts including Michael Russell and Ariel Anbar.

The students worked under the supervision of two NMHU faculty members, Megan Jacobs and Kerry Loewen, with help from Graduate Assistant Stacy Kay Romero. Students included Johnny Alvarez, Arianna Andreatta, Gabriel Garcia, Daniel Delgado, Josh Hicks, Virginia Marrujo, Naomi Padilla, Josh Phillips, Deanna Threadgill, Rianne Trujillo, and AmeriCorps Cultural Technology interns for the museum, Michael Jackson and Ben Jeremiah. Professor Miriam Langer supervised the e-book and mobile app project, Rianne Trujillo designed the layout, Gabriel Garcia was the illustrator, and Jonathan Lee was the interaction designer.

New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science staff members who provided liaison with the museum and production services included David Baccadutre, Matt Celeskey, Chris Ellison, and Daniel Secrist from the Exhibits Department, and educator Michael Sanchez, with IT support from Charles Compton.

Department of Cultural Affairs Web Manager Douglas Patinka helped with the newsfeed kiosk and exhibit website; Stan Cohen, Michael Wilson and Chris Weisbart worked with the students on the making-a-living-cell interactive; Educational Exhibit Designer Suzi Tucker and Steve Hartzog created the Tree of Life interactive; and digital painter Karen Carr worked with the student team that created the digital paintings.

Last but not least, none of this would have been possible without the support of the Santa Fe Institute and National Science Foundation, who put their trust in a group of students to tell this amazing story.