Representing Science at the Dinosaur Museum

According to one of the educators at Australia’s Dinosaur Museum in Canbera, Deinonychus is “the raptor that should have starred in Jurrasic Park.” It is bigger than the Velociraptor (which was misrepresented in the famous film) and it is now believed to be warm blooded, fast and smart.

I met this champion of science outreach as part of my visual sociology series exploring how “science” is represented in museums, galleries and public displays. In this case, the tour, which was very good, included a lot of dispelling of Jurassic Park myths and amusing editorial by the presenter.

The presenter noted that many of the dinosaurs on show likely would not look the way they’ve been represented, with many dinosaurs long-believed to have feathers. No one asked why the dinosaurs are being displayed incorrectly, but this is likely because of Hollywood (and perhaps the cost of updating the figures)

The public has a fascination with dinosaurs and they come to museums expecting them to look a certain size and shape, with a more lizard-like exterior rather than a bird-like, feather-clad appearance. Birds are living dinosaurs; the closest species to the dinosaurs, more so than reptiles, with their legs standing directly beneath their bodies. This is something any young dinosaur lover would tell you. Young children are likely more malleable to new and shifting information about dinosaurs than their parents, whose expectations of paleontology is derived from out-dated science.

The presenter was very engaging especially with the questions from kids, and even though most of the questions were about Tyrannosaurus Rex.

At one stage, having finished discussing dinosaurs found in Australia and moving to discoveries in the USA, the presenter said: “In America, where they actually value science and fund it properly, unlike in Australia…” Oh how I scoffed with delight at this comment! My American colleagues in the natural and physical sciences might disagree, and social scientists everywhere could probably sound even more bitter, given our funding is even more restricted. What a kick to get this type of commentary as part of a dinosaur show!

Audience expectation is a key issue in the representation of science. Museums may sometimes be pressured to cater to what is popular and what is funded. Hence there are more museum exhibits about dinosaurs and space-themed shows than other sciences like the immunology or parasitic studies, or any social science topic other than paleoanthropology. Hence in some cases, the public gets a narrow view of what constitutes a science experience at museums, based upon what the public and funders think is most interesting.