Neurodiverse Perspectives in Paleontology: An example of collaborative museum exhibit design and self-advocacy, crafted for and by neurodiverse people

Please welcome guest bloggers, Taormina (Tara) and Katrina Lepore. Tara, a paleontologist, writes about the work she and her sister did to develop an exhibit for neurodiverse folks at Katrina’s life skills workplace. 

My sister and I have always been different. What does ‘being different’ mean, in a big world with endless types of people? Sometimes, our differences are really apparent; other times, they’re much more subtle. Identifying as members of both the disabled and neurodiverse communities brings an awareness to how difference is ‘embodied’ in our societies. And, we think, the perspective that difference can bring makes for better science, and a better world all around. Disabled and neurodiverse people aren’t always under the spotlight in science, but my sister and I decided to work together and make our own museum space with the perspective and ingenuity of these communities.

We began this project in summer 2020, and collaborated with my sister, Katrina’s, life skills workplace, Communitas, Inc. in Woburn, Massachusetts. I’m also affiliated with the University of California Museum of Paleontology (UCMP) at UC Berkeley. Several of Katrina’s coworkers and colleagues participated in a hands-on paleontology day, with the opportunity to make plaster fossil molds, construct a model T. rex skeleton, and identify fossil trading cards with their definitions. The highlight of our paleontology day was the creation of a small fossil museum exhibit in a lobby jewelry case, where all visitors and employees could experience an exhibit crafted with neurodiverse perspectives. It was so fun and a valuable experience to work together on what works, and what doesn’t work, in museum exhibit design for disabled and/or neurodiverse people.

Some of the things we implemented included touchable fossil items, large print labels, and fossil organization by time period and by environment (ocean vs. land, etc.). We also created some augmented reality (AR) prompts where visitors could hold up their phone to a fossil in a specific app, Adobe Aero. The Aero app would recognize the fossil and pop up with a video narrating what the label said, as a way of providing accessibility to non-readers or non-verbal people. The exhibit designers shared that some of the things that are helpful at museums include touchable objects, quiet spaces to interact with exhibits, and more than one way of interacting — for example, videos plus text panels. Things that were challenging for the designers included loud and busy museum spaces, being unable to read or interact with the text panels, and the brightness of the overhead lights in some museum spaces. After the summer museum exhibit design project was completed, Katrina sat down for an interview on the design process and how her experience with museum paleontology felt.

A few online paleontology events also happened over the next year or so, and in summer 2021 we had another in-person paleontology day, focusing on touch tables and bringing museum topics to the same cohort of museum exhibit designers from summer 2020. We’re planning on presenting some of this collaborative work together at a symposium for community connections to natural history collections, this upcoming summer! It’s our hope that my sister and I can continue to learn about paleontology together, and inspire other life skills workplaces and museums to collaborate in including neurodiverse and disabled perspectives in exhibit design.