4.4. Making science understood – interpretation of scientific discoveries for the average visitor (Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Dissemination of results is part of the process of scientific research that puts new ideas to test and, at the same time, makes them part of professional discourse. When publishing research, we communicate with peers who understand our way of expression, even if our mother tongues are different and we have to resort to a language we have mastered to varying degrees. The style of scientific communication among professionals in the same field is concise, accurate and focused. (In descriptive zoology, scientific dialect is deprived even of the use of the English substantive verb.) In communicating about science, we often use abbreviations (an obvious example is the periodic table of elements), we resort to a terminus technicus to spare an explanation and use a combination of letters to indicate complex chemical compounds. Formulae in mathematics and chemistry replace long textual explanations.

Scientific visualisations are graphic interpretations of research results. They appear on conference posters and presentations and represent facts and data in novel, expressive, but sometimes ambiguous forms. In conference presentations or in a book, these graphs and charts are intriguing supplements of verbal information. Researchers (or designers helping them) are very inventive when designing their posters: they often use puns and gags, sometimes even involve the third dimension and attach real objects to images. Bold, large lettering, colourful photographs, diagrams and other forms of imaging call attention to new results.

Graphic representation of data: human figure and circle shapes.

4.33. picture: Information is beautiful – page from a blog on visualisation

Four types of graphical representation of quantities.

4.2. graph: Four types of graphical representation of the same dataset: above: linear and bar-chart, below: 2D pie-chart and spider web diagram. 

Three different types of posters.

4.34. picture: Three poster styles. On the left: precise text boxes, in the centre: somewhat stilted lettering, on the right: minimal information: this poster is used to lure visitors to the project’s home page. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

What if experts have to communicate science to laypeople? They are often unable (or unwilling) to alter their professional mode of expression and keep on using abbreviations and phrases that no one outside their area of study is likely to understand. The use of Latin and Greek words is also an inhibiting factor as these languages are no longer part of the knowledge base even of university graduates. There are two reasons for the use of these phrases: scientists find them natural, and, in many languages, these phrases have no exact translations. Moreover, laypeople tend to find a presentation more “scientific” and trustworthy when the speaker uses words the audience has not heard before.

A text only information panel at an exhibition.

4.35. picture: An example of the overuse of science and technology concepts that will not be understandable for the average visitor. Text writers are often pressured by museologists for a more scientific wording. Hungarian Museum of Natural History, Budapest. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Two sets of numerical data represented in four different visual forms.

4.3. graph: Data presented on Graph 4.2 in two more effective visual interpretations: pie chart and cylinder diagram.

If we intend to show results of scientific research, we should use simple explanatory language and visualisations to represent important data. Didactic interpretation should be our guiding principle. Utilising genres of scientific communication is well-known from the media: illustrated, short texts, picture sequences with catchy captions or film strips as teasers are important for our audience to be able to understand sophisticated messages. Learning styles of visitors (be it verbal, visual, kinetic-multimodal or mixed) should also be considered.

A collection of colourful butterflies in a showcase with text.

4.36. picture: Humour helps make complicated scientific issues digestible. The poster uses the well-known slogan of the Benetton fashion design company (“United colours of Benetton”) in a twisted form to explain the multiplicity of the colouring of the wings of butterflies and their meaning. Zoology Museum, Rome, Italy). (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Cloth-covered dinner table with bread and a giant model of a black cockroach.

4.37. picture: Humour used to interpret a serious issue: infection caused by bugs feeding on the leftovers in a household. The dinner table seems to have been laid for the bug to dine there. A measuring device placed on the right side of the table, showing actual proportions, provides the installation with an element of scientific accuracy. Hungarian Museum of Natural History, Budapest. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

an image showing the colour scale from black to white using stuffed birds.

4.38. picture: Birds are rarely used as “stuffed objects” only. Here, however, the message of the installation is the variety of colour hues in nature. In the box, colours of feathers are dominant; no other feature of the birds attracts attention. Zoology Museum, Copenhagen, Denmark. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

The next images show the presentation of body structures of animals – an exhibition development problem solved in a variety of different forms by developers around the world.

Installations of a mouse and a turtle.

4.39. picture: Grotesque installations. On the left: the skull of the turtle and bones of its legs are inserted in a natural arrangement in its tortoise shell. On the right: phases of the preparation of a stuffed animal, shown on the body of one squirrel. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Stuffed foxes and turtle.

4.40. picture: On the left: fur of a fox, its body made of gypsum and the animal ready for show, with the fur applied on the gypsum body. On the right: stuffing the shell of a turtle to develop an exhibition item with a solid body. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Birds of prey with wings in flying position and a skeleton of a bird in a similar position.

4.41. picture: This installation shows how the relatively small body of a bird is enlarged by its feathers. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

The environment may alter the meaning of an exhibited object completely. Sometimes long texts are replaced by a short and catchy phrase that conveys the meaning in a more expressive manner. We give examples of both exhibition arrangements in the following pictures.

Ancient reptile remnants in stone and model of the same species in front of the stone slab.

4.42. picture: An object that helps us to understand the meaning of an exhibited item: the print on the stone comes to life when we look at the reconstruction of the animal whose remnants are conserved in the stone slab. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

garbage bin with a fox peeking into it.

4.43. picture: In order to present an animal that has become part of the urban environment, the exhibition designer shows how it actually intrudes into our realm, looking for food in the garbage.  (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

the image shows a beaver chewing on the wood trunk.

4.44. picture: The beaver and the trunk with the traces of its teeth are both interesting objects for an exhibition – when shown together, however, it is easy to discover how the trunk obtained its peculiar shape and how beavers feed on wood. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Multisensory exhibition solutions may serve the purposes of a variety of didactic interpretations. They are extremely beneficial for promoting a deeper understanding of natural processes. Museums are on the lookout for new exhibition ideas and sometimes even copy successful solutions from one another. In the pictures below we provide an overview of such solutions in different collections.

Part of a geology exhibition. The floor is covered with rough, ashlar tiles.

4.45. picture: The uneven surface of the floor supports the mood of the mineralogy exhibition. Museum of Natural History, London, UK. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Glass cases showing different objects: a stack of old newspapers and a layered rock.

4.46. picture: Layers of rock produced during the phases of the formation of the Earth. The formation of rocks is illustrated by the piled up newspaper collections where the oldest papers are at the bottom. Museum of Natural History, London, UK. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

A dusty old car behind a barrier used by builders or police for blocking the road.

4.47. picture: Volcano eruptions are a catastrophe for people. The car provides the impression of a tragic escape. The lights are on, the doors open and the vehicle is covered by dust – passengers must have left it in frenzy.  Museum of Natural History, London, UK. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

An interior of an old small town shop. In the foreground, a shopping trolley includes a display with films showing the effects of an earthquake in a small country town.

4.48. picture: : On one occasion the effects of an earthquake were documented by a shop camera. We can see how objects start dancing on the shelves; the room seems to be moving. Visitors hear the noise, feel the shaking of the floor (through a motion engine underneath), and thus experience some effects of the earthquake. Museum of Natural History, London, UK. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Two exhibition panels on the floor with security issues marked with big question marks.

4.49. picture: Questions in the exhibition environment provoke visitors to think about security issues in connection with potential earthquakes. The dinosaur exhibition of the Natural History Museum in London is developed in an educational manner, guiding the attention of visitors throughout the flow of huge spaces. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Old iron with a quiz question that calls attention to its special features.

4.50. picture: “Do you remember the first steam iron?” – A good Hungarian example for the use of questions in exhibitions. The short quiz invites you to stop and recall personal memories and, at the same time, teaches about the object exhibited. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

A scene from a museum education event: children drawing, sitting on the floor in front of a glass walled diorama.

4.51. picture: Classic, iconic museum scene: children filling out a task sheet make use of knowledge and experiences gained during their visit. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)