UBC Theses and Dissertations

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UBC Theses and Dissertations

From "Extinct Monsters" to Deep Time : an ethnography of fossil exhibits production at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History Marsh, Diana Elizabeth


This dissertation traces the relationship between changing institutional cultures and the communication of knowledge to the public through exhibits, explored through an ethnographic and historical case study of a single set of halls at one museum—the fossil halls at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). Having documented the first six months of planning for the NMNH’s new exhibit project, Deep Time, I show that many of the values and practices in current exhibits production have their roots in major cultural, professional and institutional shifts of the late-1950s. These changes, enacted and dramatized in exhibits production, came to transform the communication of science through exhibits. Indeed, I argue, the production of exhibits offers unique insight into the workings of an institution by describing a microcosm of the museum where what I have called disciplinary “complementarities” and “frictions” are debated and performed by small, increasingly interdisciplinary groups of people. Exhibit development thus emerges as a political and subjective creative act, rooted in particular institutional contexts and histories, that takes place at the intersection of paradoxical institutional missions and divergent disciplinary cultures. In the chapters of this thesis, I will contextualize and trace collaborative complementarities and frictions that emerge at three levels of exhibits production: exhibit content, group dynamics, and institutional mission. I will argue that these three layers of complementarities/frictions (from the micro-level of content specific to the planning of the fossil hall complex, to the experts that develop exhibits, to the broadest institutional mission of the museum) as revealed in the exhibits production process, have at their root foundational dual roles of the Smithsonian that are both paradoxical and necessary in creative exhibits production.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5 Canada