Museums at the intersection of science and citizen: An example from a Silurian reef
Published:November 27, 2018
Patricia Coorough Burke, Peter M. Sheehan, 2018. "Museums at the intersection of science and citizen: An example from a Silurian reef", Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making, Gary D. Rosenberg, Renee M. Clary
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Milwaukee Public Museum has been presenting scientific concepts to audiences for 134 years. The exhibit methods have moved beyond specimen display and beyond the museum walls. Today, museums bring science to the public and scientific community through searchable collections databases, contextual websites, and social media. The “Silurian Reef” exhibit, with associated collections, website, and online database are examples of the ways science, public audiences, and museums interact and how these interactions have evolved over the past 130 years.
The Schoonmaker Reef in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin, was the first fossil reef recognized in North America and attracted geologists such as James Hall (1811–1898), T.C. Chamberlin (1843–1928), and I.A. Lapham (1811–1875) to recognize its importance. Fossils from this locality and others in SE Wisconsin form the large Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM) collection. The MPM Silurian diorama, reconstructing one of these reef ecosystems, was created in 1985 as part of the “Third Planet” exhibit. This was one of the earliest museum exhibits to present plate tectonics and the evolution of life as one story. MPM’s Silurian collections were central to published research on the biodiversity and ecology of Silurian communities (Watkins, 1993). The collections, research, and exhibit were the foundation for an innovative website; The Virtual Silurian Reef (VSR) was developed in 1997. The VSR is an educational outreach website that explores the significance of Silurian reefs and concepts of evolution, plate tectonics, and biodiversity. More recently, MPM, in partnership with the Field Museum, digitized our Silurian collections and created a searchable online database housed on a redesigned VSR.
The collections, website, and searchable database have given academic researchers better access to specimens in both MPM and Field Museum of Natural History (FMNH) in Chicago collections. A larger impact has been the broad audiences reached. The website and exhibit have been used in National Science Foundation–funded educational outreach, by educators, artists, and fossil-hunting kids. Images and text from the website and database are found on interpretive signs in local and state parks and on trails that overlook historic collecting localities. The fossil specimens have even been used to model bronze fossil play sculptures for a city park.
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Museums at the Forefront of the History and Philosophy of Geology: History Made, History in the Making
Natural history museums have evolved over the past 500 years to become vanguards of science literacy and thus institutions of democracy. Curiosity about nature and distant cultures has proven to be a powerful lure, and museums have progressively improved public engagement through increasingly immersive exhibits, participation in field expeditions, and research using museum holdings, all facilitated by new technology. Natural history museums have dispersed across the globe and demonstrated that public fascination with ancient life, vanished environments, exotic animals in remote habitats, cultural diversity, and our place in the cosmos is universal. This volume samples the story of museum development and illustrates that the historical successes of natural history museums have positioned them to be preeminent facilitators of science literacy well into the future.