Museum exhibits can serve multiple and diverse audiences. Will the audience for your new exhibit simply be your general audience, or will you target a specific demographic? Should you use a tree even if you are targeting young children?
Children and families; elementary school groups. The idea that all living things are related can be conveyed to visitors as young as ages 5 or 6. Children as young as seven can understand hierarchical relationships, and children older than 7 can additionally understand shared ancestry. For these audiences, consider a simplified tree with or without characters indicated. It will be more effective to use a tree with relatively few taxa (i.e., seven or fewer). You may want to break down a more complicated tree (i.e., one with more taxa) into several smaller sub-trees. Consider including humans if relevant, especially if it helps tell the story more effectively. Include local or familiar taxa where possible.
Adult public; middle school, high school, and college groups. Even though these groups can tackle more complex trees than children can, you should still aim to simplify and provide tree-reading guidance where possible. Some curators or biologists on your staff may assume that trees are easy to read, but this is not the case. Research suggests that trees are not intuitive and are often misconstrued — even by college-educated adults. You’ll want to familiarize yourself (and perhaps your curators!) with some common ways that people misinterpret trees.
Teachers and audiences with advanced knowledge. If you need to serve audiences with more experience (e.g., advanced biology students) as well as the broad public, you can supplement with programs, activities, teacher guides, docent guides, and extra education materials that provide more complex trees and information. See our section on teaching tools for ideas about supplemental activities. For teachers, you can provide supporting links to school curricula and lessons through supplementary materials. These can be made available as handouts or can be distributed online. For inspiration, check out these supplemental materials involving trees from the University of Kansas Natural history Museum:
- Museum Discovery
- Your Natural History
- Shared Characters and Evolutionary Tree
- Evolutionary relationships in the museum and beyond
- Interpreting evolutionary trees
Have a grasp on what you want to do for your audience? Then get down to the brass tacks of selecting and developing your tree…
1 Ainsworth, S., and J. Saffer. 2013. Can children read evolutionary trees? Merrill-Palmer Quarterly: A Journal of Developmental Psychology 59(2):221-247.
Deneault, J., and M. Ricard. 2005. The effect of hierarchical levels of categories on children's deductive inferences about inclusion. International Journal of Psychology 40(2):65-79.
Evans, E.M., B. Frazier, A. Hazel, A. Kiss, J.D. Lane, A. Spiegel, et al. 2010. Tree-thinking: Do pictorial representations of phylogenetic relationships help or hinder museum visitors' understanding of evolution? Paper presented at the Understanding the Tree of Life. Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh, PA.
2 Novick, L.R., E.G. Schreiber, and K.M. Catley. 2014. Deconstructing evolution education: The relationships between micro- and macroevolution. Journal of Research in Science Teaching 51(6):759-788.
Halverson, K.L., J.C. Pires, and S.K. Abell. 2011. Exploring the complexity of tree thinking expertise in an undergraduate systematics course. Science Education 95:794-823.