Visitor engagement and curating the Anthropocene

Anna Schanne standing next to the Anthropocene Living Room sign displayed in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History exhibition


Visitor engagement and curating the Anthropocene

Museum Studies Intern at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History – Fall 2019


Natural History museums provide a space of learning and inspiration for visitors to better understand the natural world around them -- past and present. This Fall semester, I interned with Dr. Nicole Heller at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History with their Anthropocene Living Room exhibition. The Anthropocene is a proposed new epoch in our planet’s history, defined by humans’ rapid transformation of the biology, land, water and air everywhere on Earth. The opportunity to assist in curation of the anthropocene themed gallery truly changed my view of natural history, focusing my attention on the modern relevance Natural History museums have on visitors. 

My favorite part of the Anthropocene Living Room is its approach at including contemporary research and showcasing visitors that nature is dynamic, not something we can simply put in a display case. Science Today is the portion of the exhibit that artfully exhibits seven fresh articles about nature in the present and human involvement, however connected. Part of the curation process is to find new articles and prepare them for display. This is where I come in. During this internship, I curated 9 articles over the course of two Science Today rotations.

It is not surprising that a Geology major like myself would greatly enjoy nature articles, but natural history museums need to present themselves in a way that is appealing and welcoming to anyone and everyone. 

I created a survey using Qualtrics program to understand the overall visitor sentiment towards the exhibit, as well as the idea of the “anthropocene” in general. I later compared the results of over fifty completed surveys to a different, but related survey from the previous year. My results provided insight into how visitors interact and learn from an exhibit. This also helped me to see the bigger picture of how small tasks like visitor observations and survey collection can give significant insight into what works and what does not when wanting to excite and educate visitors.

An additional aspect of my internship was to record visitor observations and make comparisons to evaluate what features and topics draw in a visitor to engage with a space. The result of this project is a series of data that can now go towards creating a map of visitor dwell time throughout the museum. This can later be used for new exhibit placement to reach maximum efficiency and pleasure for visitors.