WHY IS THE MUSEUM ON THE WEB?

JUDITH SCOTCHMOOR and CLAUS HEDEGAARD

THE CLASSIC usage of the term museum implies a collection of objects, not a display, though this has been the common usage since the late 19th century. The University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) ispredominantly a museum in the classic sense. In this case the collectionof objects is a research and study collection of fossil and Recent organisms. Visitors will find a few display cases, a very impressive Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton accompanied by a Pteranodon ingens flying overhead, a couple of dinosaur skulls, and plans for expansion. However, the overwhelming part of the collections is not usually accessible to the public. Nonetheless it is the mission of UCMP "...to facilitate the understanding of the history of life through service to research, to education, and to the public." It is the use of technology that has allowed us to more effectively reach the public sector.

In 1993, several graduate students started developing the Virtual Museum of Paleontology on the World Wide Web (WWW) (http://www.ucmp.berkeley.edu). It is a new forum, a modern approach to outreach and display enabling the museum to expand its presence to the public. It is not a substitute for showcases in the hall, nor merely an infatuation with modern technology, but rather, an important tool to cover other kinds of information, to convey it to new target groups, and to utilize a wider range of resources.

What began as a grassroots effort has developed into an award-winning Web site. One reviewer described our site as follows:

"You might think that paleontology is nothing more than the study of old bones, but as this site beautifully illustrates, it is much, much more. This monumental and exceedingly rich site accomplishes nothing less than telling the story of the growth and development of life on our planet. It's a tremendous undertaking that comprises well in excess of 2,000 individual Web pages, with new pages being added almost every day."
— I-Way 500: Best Science Site on the Web. February 1996 Review.

Certainly this is complimentary, but it also alludes to the power of this technology. We can begin, and continue, to tell the story of the Earth. The Web site is constantly changing and expanding to be kept up-to-date, thereby also distinguishing it from classic museum displays, which by necessity may have half-lives measured in decades. It is a great encouragement for the authors that the Web site imposes virtually no constraints of size and content, and there is no trade-off between popular displays attracting many visitors, and sections catering to more specialized interests. Consequently, construction of a new display does not force an old one to be dismantled.
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The scope of the Web site differs from that of a traditional exhibit in other aspects. Most museums display a lot of specimens ideally tied together by narrative according to some kind of theme. To be effective, there is invariably an emphasis on the "Wow!" factor — ferocious carnivores, colorful birds, yucky arachnids, the bigger the better. Certainly our WWW Museum does not turn its back on the "Wow!" or the gigantic, but nor do we ignore the less dramatic or the minute. It may seem paradoxical, but our Web site revives the spirit of the late 19th Century natural history museums, attempting to display representatives of all known organisms. Thus, the use of our navigational tool called the Taxon Web Lift currently reveals 187 stops (or taxa) to investigate, and it is growing. These exhibits vary from the construction of T. rex to the test (shell) of a type specimen of foraminifera (Figure 1). The exhibits provide an interesting combination of information (text), photos and other graphics with numerous links to related side trips. We can respond to requests for the development of displays suitable for varied audiences — from the professional, to the student at different grade levels, to the dino buff, to the casual visitor. And we can reach a vast audience.

The audience we target is in many ways a larger and more diverse group than those who are able to physically visit the museum. By nature of the Internet, the geographical constraint is gone. Our Web site has been visited by people from all over the Untied States and from virtually every country in the world. Approximately half a million individuals pay a visit per year, a number which is constantly increasing, and only rivaled by the number of physical visitors to very few museums.

To many visitors, there is an obvious element of sheer entertainment. So as a teacher, why should you or your students be part of this audience? Aren't things busy enough (some might even say chaotic) without letting students loose on the Internet? Will they actually learn anything? The answer is a resounding "yes", but of course they need guidance. When I questioned one teacher as to how she was using our site in her classroom, she also shared her basic philosophy re: the Internet and the classroom: "I would no more send kids out to explore the net without guidelines than I would load up a field trip bus without having planned a destination."

With respect to teaching, this Web site serves as a readily available source of factual information and current research results. Where else will you find information on Dilophosaurus, a biography of Louis Agassiz, or an account of a field trip to the Precambrian deposits of the White Sea all in one place? This information may serve specific purposes, or be a source of general inspiration to students.
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Quite some time ago we received a letter from a teacher up in Washington. We are grateful that he took the time to write, or we would not have known about the great project his students were involved in. His class was studying a local stream bed as part of an ecology unit. The students began investigating one particular mollusc, Astarte. The teacher had visited our web site previously and so suggested looking to see if there was any information about the fossil record of this particular organism. He directed his students to our On-Line Invertebrate Catalog . By typing in the name of the organism, the students were able to retrieve the most recent data on the fossil localities of this particular taxon. Not only did they find that it was indeed represented in the fossil record, but they found out something much more significant. Astarte is a cold water taxon, meaning that it will only be found in cold waters. If the water is warm, they do not occur. By mapping the fossil occurrence of Astarte back in geologic time, these students were able to map the cooling trends of the Pleistocene! They were doing real science — gathering data and making inferences about past climates. An excellent use of this technology in the science classroom.

Another advantage is simply appeal. The combination of text, images, audio, and now video and animation is a package that is very appealing. Information is placed in context so that an exhibit on microfossils not only tells you what they are, but also will link you to the appropriate geologic time period, other fossils of that period, what else they are related to, and you can even visit a field site where specimens have been collected. It is a self-paced exploration with numerous side trips that can be easily "controlled" by the teacher by providing a focus to the trip.

Above all, our Web site portrays more than just specimens — it portrays science, scientific ideas and concepts. Apart from enjoyable entertainment and sheer factual information, we like to impart to the visitors a dynamic view of science and its process. It is the line of thought leading from observation via interpretation to a conclusion in the form of a testable hypothesis, i.e., an inferred mechanism, believed to have general application. The important point is that the conclusion reflects the current interpretation, our best understanding of the data, not necessarily a gospel. It is what allows science to progress. It allows us to answer the question — "How do we know?"

There are obvious advantages to using some of the materials on the WWW, but note the use of the word some. As suggested by a previous author, anyone can put up information on the Web. But just as we teach our students to consider the source of printed information (supermarket check-out stand tabloids vs. The Wall Street Journal), so we should teach them to evaluate sources on the Web. That assumption made, one of the obvious advantages is accessibility to up-to-date information — not just vast amounts of accurate content on innumerable subjects, but also current research, fossil records, and scientific data in a variety of formats.
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The World Wide Web provides us with a unique opportunity to reach new audiences, and to present material in an appealing fashion. This approach should not obscure the fact that we as paleontologists and educators have the absolute best tools for communication: The Real Thing! A picture of an ammonite may portray a vision of past life, but holding one in your hand, however common and mundane, and knowing that is 180 million years old, inspires awe. Equally, we can marvel at what can be seen in local cliffs, beach exposures, quarries, and road cuts. Each can tell a portion of the story of the history of the Earth and every single fossil can be a broadside of inspiration.