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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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