This semi-permanent exhibition showcases seven current research projects focusing on evolutionary biology as a means to illustrate and explain current research in evolution. The museum is part of a consortium of six museums that worked together to develop the exhibit, a $2.8 million project spearheaded by the University of Nebraska State Museum and funded by the National Science Foundation.
Other cooperating musems are the University of Nebraska State Museum; the Exhibits Museum of Natural History at the University of Michigan; the Natural History Museum and Biodiversity Research Center at the University of Kansas; Texas Memorial Museum at the University of Texas; and the Science Museum of Minnesota. Each museum will feature the permanent exhibition.
The project was begun partly in response to recent studies that show widespread misconceptions about evolution among Americans.
"We know that many people think of evolutionary theory as a series of static ideas," said Judy Diamond, professor and curator at the University of Nebraska State Museum and principal investigator of the NSF grant. "The concept of the project is to show the public that research on evolution, like research in all areas of science, continuously changes our ideas of how we think about the natural world.”
The exhibit consists of seven interpretive areas, each exploring cutting-edge scientific research. The research covers a wide range of subjects, and each project illustrates how the evolutionary principles of variation, inheritance, selection and time are at work in different organisms.
HIV: Tracking an Evolving Target explores how scientists are studying the mutation and evolution of the HIV virus in order to develop treatments that can block it. Diatoms: A Species is Born looks at the most rapid evolution of any species in the fossil record: a one-celled diatom from Yellowstone lake that evolved over a relatively brief 4,000 year period. Ants and Fungus, Coevolving Partners follows research into the co-evolution of leaf-cutter ants and the fungus they farm. Fly, Evolution of Mating Songs and Dances shows how a researcher in Hawaii has found more than 800 species of fruit fly that evolved from a single species over millions of years. Finch, Evolution in Action takes a look at modern research into Darwin’s Galapagos finches to examine how changes in the size and shape of their bills can occur quickly in response to dramatic changes in the environment. Human Family Ties illustrates recent genetic research that shows how the DNA of chimpanzees and humans differs by only 2 percent of their more than 2,700 pieces. Whales, Walking into the Past shows fossil discoveries in Pakistan that illustrate the evolution of modern whales from ancient four-footed mammals.
Though the subject of evolution is often fraught with controversy, Explore Evolution is not intended to comment on religious beliefs. The exhibit presents basic evolutionary principles from a scientific point of view – using current ongoing research – with an aim to providing the public with information and clarification on a subject that is complex and often incompletely understood.
“This is an exhibit that illustrates how science is done,” said former museum director Ellen Censky. “All science proceeds as a series of steps. Scientists observe natural processes and from those observations they form hypotheses. They then set out to test those hypotheses by performing many experiments. Eventually, as more and more supporting evidence is accumulated through these tests, a theory or “law” is articulated. Our reason for bringing this exhibit to the museum is to showcase that process.”