Fake or real? What children think of dinosaur fossils and replicas
Children find that both dinosaur fossils and replicas belong in a museum, but they appreciate the real objects more. This is shown by research from Leiden University and Naturalis Biodiversity Center. 'Children look beyond superficial looks and attach great value to less obvious characteristics, such as the history of an object.'
Science museums find it important to show real objects to their audience. Not so strange, when the question 'Is it real?' is one of the most frequently asked questions by museum visitors. But, how do visitors interpret the difference between real and fake? And how do they value real objects? To this end, Master's student Dylan van Gerven and researcher Anne Land-Zandstra of Leiden University together with Welmoet Damsma of Naturalis examined how children think about real dinosaur fossils and about replicas. The results of the research can help museums to bring their objects to life more.
In Naturalis seventy children from eight to twelve years old got to work with the Dinometer: a life-sized abacus on which they indicated how much certain objects belonged in a museum. It involved two real objects and two replicas. The two real objects were a T. rex phalanx and the paw print of a dinosaur. The two replicas of the phalanx looked identical, but one had supposedly belonged to famous TV biologist Freek Vonk. The children assessed the complete objects, but also indicated how much a small piece of the object was still museum worthy.
The test with the Dinometer showed that children appreciated the real fossils more than the replicas, although they found that both objects belonged in a museum. However, even a very small piece of a real fossil, according to them, was worth more than the replicas. A small piece of replica, on the other hand, was ‘just a fake piece of a replicated dinosaur fossil’ and did not belong in a museum. The replica of Freek Vonk did score higher than the 'normal' replica.
When children reason why an object belongs in a museum, they do not only look at the appearance. They also value the association with the past that the object brings about. A dinosaur fossil, for example, is associated with the large T. rex. In addition, they have the feeling that 'something' of the dinosaur still sticks to the object. ‘So, a dinosaur once stood in this clay. You do not see that every day!’ one of the children said. This argument is called contagion and seems to underlie the appreciation of real objects in museums.
So, because the phalanx once was part of a real dinosaur and because a dinosaur once stood in the clay, the objects still have a connection with it and thus belong in the museum. 'We found it special to see that these children are thinking about the story of such a fossil, that it really belonged to a dinosaur,' adds Land-Zandstra.
Bringing objects to life
Science museums can make use of these outcomes by thinking carefully about which associations and stories are hidden behind an object. They can then show them explicitly. 'Children are also very capable of appreciating that deeper layer of an object. A nice example of different layers of authenticity can be seen at Naturalis' own T. rex Trix. This object includes the story of the dinosaur itself, the adventure of the excavation and the exciting work of paleontological research into the life of Trix,’ according to Land-Zandstra.
Land-Zandstra explains that this study is the beginning of a research collaboration between Naturalis and the Science Communication and Society department at Leiden University. The goal is to do more research on how visitors deal with real objects. 'For example, we have already investigated how families talk about objects, such as a dinosaur egg or a stuffed spider. It is nice to see that the results of this research find their way directly in the museum in the form of family activities or text signs.'
Gerven van, D.; Land-Zandstra, A. & Damsma, W., 2018. Authenticity matters: Children look beyond appearances in their appreciation of museum objects. International Journal of Science Education, Part B, DOI: 10.1080/21548455.2018.1497218
'Contagion means that previous contact with of the object, for example with a living dinosaur, continues to act on the object after the physical contact has been severed', explains van Gerven. He illustrates this with a striking example: "Suppose there are two glasses, one of them containing a cockroach. I thoroughly clean both glasses so that they are both 100% clean and then fill them with water. Then you will see that every person prefers to drink from the glass that did not had a cockroach in it, even though both glasses are just as clean.'