Translating Science

SeaDragonIntro

No matter what type of museum visitor you are, or what your learning style is, you’ve probably noticed them—the traditional text panels and information labels that let you know what you’re looking at.

The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology is unique in many ways. With the incredible richness of fossils found in Alberta, and the active research conducted by our scientists, there are endless specimens to display and exhibits to build. My job is to translate the main messages that our scientists wish to present to the public. Translation meaning to explain often complex information to the broadest audience possible. Our annual visitation is over 370,000 thousand people of every age, so it can be a challenge.

The Process

Once the focus of a display or exhibit has been decided, a team is gathered from most sections of the Museum from management and scientists to the technicians who mount specimens for display. The curator(s) and the interpretive planner will decide on the direction of the exhibit, what stories should be told, what specimens should be on display, and what the expected learning outcomes should be. Once that has been decided, I gather all the information available to research the topic. I need to understand the subject matter completely so I can explain it to someone who doesn’t have specific knowledge about the topic. This can include an extended content document from the scientific team, scientific publications, books, specimen reports, interviews, and through various other means. We are very fortunate to have a comprehensive library that contains scientific books, research papers, maps, field notes, journals, and historical papers. But the most accurate information about Late Cretaceous Alberta is available from our research scientists and curators. I can go directly to the source by walking down the hallway. We have experts in vertebrate palaeontology (which includes dinosaurs), palynology, geology, dinosaur palaeoecology, fishes, herpetology, and fossil mammals.


“Writing text panels is a specialty.
Writing science text labels is a special specialty.” – Michael Shurman


Here’s an example of some content I was given about a new type of elasmosaur for the 2012 exhibit
Alberta’s Last Sea Dragon: Solving an Ancient Puzzle.

Animals, plants, fungi etc. are categorized based on their characteristics – as a specimen is described in greater detail it can be grouped with other specimens. That is until it reaches the species level. At this level, its characters make it unique from all other life forms. We know that plesiosaurs are not fishes, and are the descendants of formerly land-living animals because they have the same basic pattern of bones in their fore and hind limbs that other land living animals have (e.g., a single bone at the base – humerus or femur, followed by two smaller paired bones – radius+ulna or tibia+fibula). We know that plesiosaurs are reptiles based on the construction of their skulls and jaws (e.g. the lower jaw is composed of several bones on each side, unlike the mammalian case where there is just single bone on each side). Although the skull of Albertonectes was not found, the rest of the skeleton is very similar to other elasmosaurs known from the same period in geological time from elsewhere in the world, and the simplest explanation is that the fossil represents another kind of elasmosaurid plesiosaur.

It can take many drafts before final text panel is ready to be reviewed by the exhibits team. The writer has to bear in mind that text panels should be conversational, clear, concise, free of jargon and technical terms (unless introducing an unfamiliar topic or word specific to palaeontology that needs to be explained). It needs to be simple; yet not necessarily boring. Words and sentences should vary in length, but not be longer than 25 words. Often people are reading aloud to others, so that is something I always do while writing.

And this is the text panel that is on display:

75 million years old, but brand new
The operator of a large excavator at the Korite International mine uncovered this specimen in 2007 during routine ammonite shell (known as Ammolite) mining. Palaeontologists determined it was a new species of long-necked plesiosaur—an elasmosaur. The first clue was the number of bones in its neck. This marine reptile specimen has 76 neck vertebrae, the most of any animal known. That’s more than ten times the amount of a giraffe—with only seven neck (cervical) vertebrae.

Depending on the exhibit, there may also be introductory text panels, specimen labels, conclusion panels, photograph captions, and more. We’d like to tell you everything we know about our specimens; their stories are incredibly interesting, but it would be overwhelming. Museum visitors are generally standing while they are read and only spend a certain amount of time in each exhibit.

I would like to think that even if you don’t read everything, your curiosity about the fascinating science of palaeontology will be piqued, and you will be inspired to learn more.

Wendy Taylor, Writer/Editor

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