Title:Hot-Button Issues: Using Technology to Address Topicality, Uncertainty, and Controversy in Science Exhibits
Authors:mimi roberts
Publication:MW2012: Museums and the Web 2012

How can museum technologists and multimedia designers partner with researchers and content specialists to communicate cutting-edge science to public audiences? Advances in communication and multimedia technologies offer new possibilities for developing exhibits that are not only more engaging to audiences but that are also updateable and that layer information.

This is especially exciting for topics where information is contested. Controversies and uncertainties are an essential and fascinating part of the scientific process, and developing means to incorporate them into exhibits is a great advance over the present state of affairs, where too often new discoveries and ongoing research are ignored.

The exhibit Emergence: A New View of Life's Origin at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science is a case study that prototypes ten (or so) strategies for engaging visitors--onsite and online--in one such cutting-edge topic that is relevant to every person on the planet: How did life on Earth begin? The museum is using the exhibit to help plan a renovation of their permanent Hall of Origins, which has not been updated since the museum opened in 1987. Of particular interest is how technology and social media can be used to connect a physical museum exhibit to audiences beyond museum walls.   

The Emergence exhibit and exhibit website ( incorporate (or will soon incorporate) a complexity science iPad app and e-book, three interactive components (a new geologic timeline, a new tree of life, and making a cell), 3D and 2D video, and more. The project was initiated by the Santa Fe Institute, an international research center for complexity science, and funded through a National Science Foundation grant to them. The exhibit was a project of PICT: the Program in Interactive Cultural Technology at New Mexico Highlands University. This biannual full-semester immersive experience engaged twelve students in all aspects of exhibit development from start to finish. The project team also included scientists from the Santa Fe Institute, faculty and staff from the university and the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, two interns from our AmeriCorps Cultural Technology Program, museum staff and other professionals, and many others who volunteered time and expertise.