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

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

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number25
JournalEvolution: Education and Outreach
Issue number1
StatePublished - Nov 15 2014


  • Diagram design
  • Evolution education
  • Informal science education
  • Tree of Life

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Education


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