83rd Annual

Monday, 10 February 2003: 11:15 AM
The Hall of Planet Earth at the American Museum of Natural History as an educational resource
Edmond A. Mathez, American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY
In 1999 AMNH opened the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth (HOPE). The exhibit portrays the Earth as a set of interacting, dynamic systems, thereby capturing the essence of the modern science, and covers the workings of the whole planet, from the atmosphere to its depths. HOPE has been successful because it (a) speaks to imagination, (b) is accessible to wide audience from children to adults, (c) possesses intellectual authority by being rooted in academic science, (d) presents information in layers of differing detail and complexity, and (e) has mechanisms to remain current. Here I explore how these were achieved.

The exhibit is organized around five questions: how has the Earth evolved; how do we read the rocks; why are there ocean basins, continents, and mountains; what causes climate and climate change; and why is the Earth habitable? This organization forced us to think about the knowledge from the point of view of the visitor, and the questions themselves invite intellectual exploration. The exhibit is built around samples, many of which are large, dramatic, and touchable. Objects, whether rocks, artifacts, or tools of the science, speak to the inner self and provide a means of seeing our relationship to the world. The samples are important as the evidence of the science. The workings of the climate system, for example, are told through paleoclimate indicators, such as coral, tree rings, sediment cores and a model of several meters of a Greenland ice core. The tactile and dramatic nature of the samples gives the exhibit its wide accessibility.

The centerpiece of HOPE is the Earth as one might imagine it from space, presented as an internally projected hemisphere mounted on the ceiling. As the Earth slowly rotates, clouds disappear, the ocean drains, and vegetation and ice dissolve, leaving only a rocky planet. The centerpiece is a source of wonder. It glows in the low ambient light, and a small amphitheater below invites visitors to sit and contemplate. The hemisphere visualization is based on real data. The strict adherence to reality, in the hemisphere as well as by models and other visualizations, provides intellectual authority. The detailed science is told on panels and in supporting video. One set of videos features scientists in the field and lab, providing a human face. A second set describes dynamic parts of the Earth and illustrates how numerical computer modeling and visualization are used. Many of the objects also provide deep lessons. For example, a model in sand showing the formation of a mountain belt illustrates the concept of scaling.

Prominent in the exhibit is the Earth Event Wall, a projected map of the Earth where reports of current events appear. Its purposes are to help to keep HOPE current, demonstrate that the Earth is dynamic, and provide a link between the scientific community and visitors. Meteorological events that have been reported on it include hurricane Mitch and its effect on Honduras, the destructive tornadoes that struck Oklahoma City in May, 1999, and the derecho that hit Minnesota that same year.

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