Wednesday, October 26, 2005

KU's Explore Evolution exhibit

The AP wire piece is right here.

I just snuck in and took a peek at the exhibit, which officially opens next Tuesday (I believe).

The exhibit was developed by a consortium of museums, and for its size, is truly excellent. People who know the KU Museum of Natural History will remember the space where the exhibit resides as the old resting home of Comanche, the only Army survivor on the battlefield at the Little Bighorn. Comanche has moved to a more accessible location, so never fear.

Those of you who've never been to the museum don't really care about that, I guess. To get to the exhibit, you come in under a gigantic mosasaur skeleton, suspended behind the tail of a giant fish. In front of you is a panorama scene, originally shown at the Chicago Columbian Exposition of 1893. The museum was built to house that panorama, which shows representative scenes from Arctic North America down to the neotropics.

If you go upstairs , you'll get a better look at the mosasaur, and more importantly, you get to see Explore Evolution. There's a little station to explain what evolution is about in brief, and a reminder of what a theory is.

Clockwise from there you have 7 stations, the first about the famous Galápagos finches, then one about the evolution of whales, including fossil skulls and feet from Pakicetus, Rhodocetus and other protocetids. Then there's an exhibit about the evolution and speciation of Hawaiian Drosophila. Then there's a station discussing the similarities between humans and chimpanzees and a discussion of how such small differences in DNA (pointed out by tiny Svante Päabos!) can produce the visible differences between humans and chimps. Then there's a neat station discussing the co-evolution of harvester ants and the fungus they feed on. That station is based on work KU's Cameron Currie does, so that's pretty sweet. Then there's a station about HIV and a section about evolution of diatoms in Yellowstone, based on lakebed cores.

What's nice about the exhibit is that it isn't a retread of hoary old examples that everyone already knows. These are aspects of evolutionary biology which have come into clearer focus in the last decade or so, and some much more recently. The exhibits focus on individual scientists, and are set up as discussions with the researchers who did the work. The whale exhibit is "narrated" by an illustrated Phil Gingerich, Kenneth Kaneshiro describes how he abandoned medicine to study fruit flies, Svante Pääbo and Henrik Kaessmann explore the DNA of chimps and humans, Cameron Currie gives a local flavor to exotic ants and shows an actual experiment (how some bacteria growing on cut leaves prevent harmful molds from driving out the mold the ants eat), and so forth.

I'm not a kid, and I'm not an unbiased lay person, but I think this exhibit does a nice job showing not just what evolution is, but how scientists work. That's something that's difficult to show, especially in a static exhibit, and I'm really excited about it.

For more on the exhibit, check out the communal site for all the groups that contributed, and for more on the KU museum, come to our website, visit us on top of the hill, or get in touch with me. Regular readers who plan to visit (it opens November 1) should feel free to get in touch with me, we can try to meet up if you like. I might even let you peek at the mammals collection.

Photos when I get a chance.

Oh, someone just sent an email to a bunch of people in the museum, I'll post it here, leaving identifying information out, of course.

I just wanted to let you know that you've just lost a customer.  I have always enjoyed visiting your museum, but now that you have the "Evolution" exhibit ruining your museum from within like a disease, I will never set foot in it again. 
 
It's obvious that you do not care that our Lord Jesus Christ is being blasphemied [sic] here because you are choosing to second guess the teachings of the Holy Bible.  You are wasting your time and money on an idiotic concept that is purely theory, not fact whatsoever.  You are contradicting the Holy Bible, and I just hope that you feel bad about what you have started and plead for forgiveness before it's too late. 
 
You are embarrassing the entire city of Lawrence in addition to the state of Kansas and the MidWest, and just know that I speak for thousands that will never aid in your museum's financial existance [sic] ever again.  The only way I will enter your doors is if I have a mouth full of spit that needs getting rid of.
Mmmm, warm creationist spit. Somehow, he never realized that we deal in evolution here, despite the exhibit downstairs on the evolution of flight, the fossils clearly identified as being millions of years old, etc.

I leave debunking the creationist errors as an exercise for the reader.