In the coming weeks, we will be installing a brand new set of signs at Dinosaur Park, which we’ve been working on for well over a year. The first step in creating an exhibit is to decide on the story we want to tell. We can’t relate the entire history of life on Earth or list every single fossil found at Dinosaur Park – instead, we need to select the themes and ideas that best express what Dinosaur Park is about.
Our visitors are a big help here. We took notes on what questions we were asked most frequently, as well as which parts of our old displays were being ignored or misunderstood. For example, lots of visitors wanted to know about the biggest or most important fossils found at the Park. These weren’t illustrated on our old signs, but they’re integral parts of the new ones. Visitors also wanted an illustrated list of the dinosaurs and other animals that lived in Cretaceous Maryland, so we made sure to include one. Meanwhile, we removed a map of the Potomac Formation that wasn’t clearly labeled and was being regularly misinterpreted.
Other topics are not specifically asked for, but we feel are crucial to understanding Dinosaur Park and its significance. One is the story of the iron miners who first discovered dinosaurs in Maryland, as well as the iron industry’s connection to the African American history of Prince George’s County. Another is how the fossils at Dinosaur Park come from a window of prehistory that is not well understood. Our early Cretaceous fossils show us how plants and animals were evolving in North America between the famous fossil bonanzas of the late Jurassic and late Cretaceous. We also take care to explain not just what we know, but how we know it. We want to show what specific evidence led to each conclusion, and invite visitors to take part in the process of scientific problem-solving.
Two things are at a premium when designing exhibit signs: space and attention spans. Dinosaur Park is a fairly small site, and there are only so many places to put signs where they will comply with ADA requirements while not blocking sight lines or traffic flow. In a way, this is helpful. It forces us to be choosy about what to include. We rewrite text countless times, minimizing usage of passive voice, adverbs, and other flourishes that make labels hard to read. We keep jargon to a minimum, only using difficult words when absolutely necessary to convey the intended meaning. Wherever possible, we use images to convey information instead of words.
Ultimately, we want signs that are informative and interesting to both adults and children, and which can be read and understood in as little time as possible by people on the move. A successful sign is not a distraction, but an integrated part of the Dinosaur Park experience. Rather than hunting for answers, visitors should be able to seamlessly find the information they need to make meaning from the Park. Hopefully, our displays will also introduce visitors to new ideas that they would not have otherwise considered, and encourage them to leave more curious about the past than when they arrived. Let us know how we did once the new signs are installed!