In the summer of 2016, the Natural History Museum hosted a special exhibition called Genome: Unlocking Life's Code, developed and produced by the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and the National Institutes for Health's National Human Genome Research Institute. As is our practice at NHMU, the Museum developed additional exhibit elements and programs to enhance and expand the exhibition narrative, and to help our visitors find personal relevance in the scientific content of the exhibit.
One such project was the production of a “Trait Tree.” At other venues hosting this exhibition, museums and science centers had created a large wall graphic to illustrate that while each of us looks like no one else, there are many traits we share—traits that are written in our DNA. Some are common; others are not. We followed suit and created a beautiful and enormous wall graphic to bring this concept to life.
To create the graphic, we held a number of photo shoots around the Salt Lake City Community, inviting individuals to come and share a select set of visible physical traits through photos of themselves: attached earlobes, a widow's peak hairline, the ability to roll one’s tongue, and dimples. We photographed 1030 people and chose from these for the big installation of photos on the wall. But we really wanted to include all of the participants and more, so we took it to the next level.
We created a digital interface into which all of the photos could be searched and viewed according to like traits. We then created a custom piece of software to allow all of the visitors to the exhibition to participate in the project digitally. By the end of the 3-month exhibition, more than 1600 had added their live photographs to our digital Trait Tree. We learned through a summative evaluation that this was among the most popular elements in the exhibition with more than 70% of visitors engaging deeply with—and chatting about—their place on the Trait Tree.