Four Museums Nationwide Install Mike Horn’s ‘Life on Earth’ Exhibit

Mike Horn

Soon the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago will feature an innovative exhibit developed by SESP assistant professor Michael Horn and his colleagues at other universities. By late spring, the Life on Earth installation, which invites discovery about evolution and the history of life on Earth, will be open at four science museums nationwide.

Currently the California Academy of Sciences has the exhibit, which will open on February 22 at the University of Nebraska State Museum and on March 5 at the Harvard Museum of Natural History. In late April "Exploring Life on Earth" will open at the Field Museum of Natural History.

"For the first time, we're enabling visitors to explore the entire Tree of Life in one interactive exhibit. You can take an awe-inspiring journey from the very earliest organisms that appeared on Earth some 3.5 billion years ago, to the remarkable diversity of species that we see today," says Horn, a faculty member in the SESP Learning Sciences program.

Life on Earth allows museum visitors to view, touch and explore more than 70,000 related species through hands-on activities. Visualization of large scientific databases is one of the innovative aspects of the exhibit.

To improve museum visitors’ understanding of evolution, Life on Earth combines innovative ways of displaying information with interactive tabletop technology, which invites collaboration among family and friends. The exhibit contains three types of activities related to evolution:

  • The DeepTree visualization illustrates the evolutionary relationship of species from the beginning of life to the present. Visitors can “zoom” through thousands of images of living species, seeing the traits they share and when they diverged.
  • The FloTree activity allows several users to simulate the processes of evolution. Through this interactive “game,” users see how organisms change over the generations as well as how new species form.
  • A Build-a-Tree puzzle game gives visitors the opportunity to construct tree diagrams to show the evolutionary relationships of organisms. In this activity players depict these relationships by dragging icons on a screen.

“Our goal is to help people understand the history of life on Earth through common ancestry,” the developers say. Both macro and micro evolutionary patterns of change come to life in the exhibit.

The interdisciplinary project team that created the Life on Earth exhibit includes computer scientists, learning scientists and biologists. In addition to Horn, the lead developers are Chia Shen of Harvard University, Judy Diamond of University of Nebraska and E. Margaret Evans of University of Michigan. The National Science Foundation funded the development of the Life on Earth exhibit.

By Marilyn Sherman
Last Modified: 1/30/13