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Depicting the tree of life in museums: guiding principles from psychological research

Novick, Laura R.; Pickering, Jane; MacDonald, Teresa; Diamond, Judy; Ainsworth, Shaaron E.; Aquino, Adriana E.; Catley, Kefyn M.; Dodick, Jeff; Evans, Evelyn Margaret; Matuk, Camillia; Sacco, Janis; Scott, Monique


Laura R. Novick

Jane Pickering

Teresa MacDonald

Judy Diamond

Shaaron E. Ainsworth

Adriana E. Aquino

Kefyn M. Catley

Jeff Dodick

Evelyn Margaret Evans

Camillia Matuk

Janis Sacco

Monique Scott


The Tree of Life is revolutionizing our understanding of life on Earth, and, accordingly, evolutionary trees are increasingly important parts of exhibits on biodiversity and evolution. The authors argue that in using these trees to effectively communicate evolutionary principles, museums need to take into account research results from cognitive, developmental, and educational psychology while maintaining a focus on visitor engagement and enjoyment. Six guiding principles for depicting evolutionary trees in museum exhibits distilled from this research literature were used to evaluate five current or recent museum trees. One of the trees was then redesigned in light of the research while preserving the exhibit’s original learning goals. By attending both to traditional factors that influence museum exhibit design and to psychological research on how people understand diagrams in general and Tree of Life graphics in particular, museums can play a key role in fostering 21st century scientific literacy.


Novick, L. R., Pickering, J., MacDonald, T., Diamond, J., Ainsworth, S. E., Aquino, A. E., …Scott, M. (2014). Depicting the tree of life in museums: guiding principles from psychological research. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 7, Article 25.

Journal Article Type Article
Publication Date Nov 15, 2014
Deposit Date Mar 16, 2015
Publicly Available Date Mar 16, 2015
Journal Evolution: Education and Outreach
Print ISSN 1936-6426
Electronic ISSN 1936-6426
Publisher Springer Verlag
Peer Reviewed Peer Reviewed
Volume 7
Article Number 25
Keywords Evolution, Representation
Public URL
Publisher URL


Ainsworth article PDF.pdf (2.1 Mb)

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