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Virtual trip

Virtual trip to three online Human Evolution exhibits

Given the golden age of the Internet, it is no wonder that nowadays we can go to a museum virtually. My goal was to get a different experience in each case. So I picked one stand-alone site purely about genetics, another stand-alone site purely about human evolution, and the third companion site dealing with human evolution and a little bit of genetics.

BecomingHuman.org was the first website I investigated. The site is stand-alone and belongs to The Institute of Human Origins (IHO). The purpose of the site is to promote greater understanding of the course of human evolution. Its most prominent feature is interactive documentaries covering the history of human evolution and early stone tools. One documentary interprets the evidence for human origins fossil hominin discoveries such as 3.2 million year old remnants of Australopithecus afarensis found in Hadar, Ethiopia; Homo erectus dating to 1.8 million years ago found in Kenya, and Homo neanderthalensis found in Germany. Another documentary gives information on tools usage and development from the dawn of technology dated 2.6 million years ago to Later Stone Age Tools to figurines and creative arts.

Additional referential information is embedded into videos, which is very convenient and up-to-date. Resources include glossary, and a list of useful links, books, book reviews, etc. Classroom materials are given in printable form and as online games. The site is not overloaded with information. It is a good stepping stone for those who just got interested in this field of knowledge.

Humanorigins.si.edu. is a companion site to theNational Museum of Natural History. The site is highly interactive. The home page offers a bunch of interactive features: the evidence for human evolution, climate change,species, and milestones in becoming human can be explored in the interactive timeline; Adventures in the Rift Valley vividly demonstrate how our ancestors lived during the past one million years; a great number of 3D casts can be used by advanced anthropologists, as well as studied by beginners. One of the sections provides material on a correlation between climate changes and human evolution. Human adaptability was one of the forces that helped Homo sapiens survive climate change.

The Smithsonian Institution website on human evolution provides detailed information about the latest research in human evolution.Articles on genetics explain about inheritance, sharing genes with all living organisms and debates about Neanderthal DNA in modern humans. As the previous site, humanorigins.si.edu covers fossil hominin discoveries and stone tools but contains a great deal more information. Climate and Human Evolution, Human Evolution Evidence and Human Characteristics are given with great details. Multimedia resources on the site include videos, podcasts, and slideshows. Information is available both for teachers and students with Teacher Forum, lesson plans, fun facts, glossary, etc. Thanks to E. A. Mammal Dentition Database, the extensive 3D Collections of artifacts and fossils, and East African and Asian Research Projects, the site can be useful for academic anthropologists, as well. The interactive exhibit floorplan combined with details about exhibits prepares a visitor to a physical museum visit.

The website is extremely informative and user-friendly. It creates desire for a physical real-time visit. The only change I would like to offer is to make lighter the dark background of the site. My eyes hurt.

The Tech Museum of Innovation located in San Jose, California, USA, apart from in-person exhibits has a number of online exhibits. Genetics.thetech.org deals mainly with human genetics presenting basic notions of it and a range of online exhibits. By watching short videos or participating in activities, a visitor can apply genetic knowledge to everyday events and behaviors. It invites everyone to consider and discuss the world around them in terms of genetics. Such important issues are raised like the pros and cons of doing various genetic tests but also the site runs a bunch of interesting tests and activities such as "What Color Eyes will your Children Have?", "Are you a Super Taster?", DIT Strawberry DNA, etc

The site is targeted at multiple audiences anyone who is interested in genetics and wants to get some preliminary and general knowledge. Thanks to the option "Ask a Geneticist" and links given with answers there is a possibility to investigate this field and specific questions more thoroughly. The site is clear and easily navigable. However, videos and animation are a bit primitive looking. In this case, visual attractiveness of the material is less important as the meaning. So my improvement would be to offer transcripts for those who prefer to skip watching.

All three websites are informative, easy to navigate, and with active links. All three websites provide in-depth information and are not just a business card for the museum but a learning environment. Visiting all three museums was a great fun and a good educating experience. My conclusion is that usually no online touring can substitute an in-person visit, but there are exceptions. For example, it is really hard to properly display genetics in a museum setting. The premises have to be equipped with computerized displays at least. So for that scientific field a stand-alone website is enough.

The virtual exhibits usually lose in terms of scale and texture. Indeed, if theNational Museum of Natural History displays life-size reconstructions of early humans I want to see it in person. However, the same museum made available the 3D images of objects from their David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. So in this case three-dimensionality is not lost. As for the amount of materials, descriptions and explanations, the online exhibits are very effective. A visitor can take his/her time to study related materials. In-person museum visits make a deeper impression, but virtual tours offer more possibilities to concentrate and remember a lot of the material. So a successful variant would be to get some insight before going to the museum and to solidify it after visiting by reading additional literature about what was seen. I would prefer to browse the website, then to visit the museum and then to look through the website again just to brush up the information I learnt.

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