The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘We want everybody’s attention on this’: A new exhibit on climate change aims to hit home.

Lauri Halderman, vice president for exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Lauri Halderman, vice president for exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. (Chris Sorensen/For The Washington Post)
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Lauri Halderman, 63, is vice president for exhibition at New York's American Museum of Natural History, where she collaborated on an updated climate-change hall last year. She lives on the Upper West Side.

What was the impetus to update the climate change exhibit?

In the almost 20 years since the hall had opened, we know a lot more today than we did then about climate change. We were fortunate to have a chance to update this exhibit because of how important climate change is. We knew that people aren’t always sure where to get information about climate change, because in the popular press and on the Internet there’s a lot of noise. We know from opinion polls that museums are highly trusted sources of information, highly credible in comparison with NGOs and federal agencies and even daily newspapers.


What we did was take the data that’s available from NASA, NOAA and other government agencies, and put it into a form that’s accessible to visitors of all ages, even kids, and to work hard to make it beautiful and engaging. And those words are not what normally come to mind when you think about looking at data. The designers really did a great job of finding ways to make using the digital interactive intuitive — you turn a knob or you slide a slider and the data unfolds before your eyes.

It’s interesting to make an interactive climate exhibit because it turns out that we interact with it and have a bigger effect on it than we thought.

One of the exhibits we thought of has cascading consequences. Here’s the initial piece that happens: You have temperatures rise. But then you look at all of the knock-on effects. Sometimes people don’t think about how climate change affects the food supply, for example, or look at how climate change affects public health. And so we developed a set of circles that unfold from an initial event to a kind of cascade of consequences. And it makes sense when you see all the in-between stages.

If you’re watching people experience the exhibit, what are you seeing that helps you know it’s working?

Some people are here just for half a day. It may be the only time in their lifetime; they've come from far away. They want to try to see everything, and that is a big challenge in a museum as big as ours. And so sometimes they just seem tired. But what I'm watching for is for them to stop. And what I love to see is when they point. Parents with children, or two adults, and one of them sees something, and they don't think about it but they're pointing at something, and then they'll talk, and then the other people will talk. I don't need to listen to understand, but I can see they're engaged. They are wondering or they are disagreeing or they're surprised. We have their attention, and that's what we want with an exhibit about climate change. We want everybody's attention on this.

Has there been any sort of political pushback or controversy?

I don't know of any formal group of people. We're lucky that we are a science museum and people come for the science.

Do you think there are still people on the fence about if climate change is human-caused who are still persuadable?

I think I persuaded my mom about this. My mom had not really thought about this as much as I had— it’s not her business. But she is an ordinary person who is open to evidence and discussion. Maybe if everybody talked to their moms about this we’d be better off.

What’s an example of climate change that has had the biggest impact on you personally?

I grew up on Cape Cod, and I think a lot about sea-level rise because I look at the way that we built the Eastern Seaboard, and I look at all the houses and where the roads are. Sea-level rise is a global problem, and we have to understand that we can’t just keep building where we’ve been building and build the walls a little higher and houses are going to withstand the flooding that’s coming. We’re not going to be able to keep going the same way we are. We’ve got technology; we know how to be smarter now. But there’s a cost to doing that.

It seems like the more we learn about climate change the more dire it gets. Could education actually be making the problem seem more hopeless?

We are inherently a fairly clever species, and we actually did create this problem ourselves, and we’ve created other problems that we have found our way out of. Remember the ozone hole?

July was globally the hottest month ever recorded, and when it’s hot outside people go to museums to stay cool. So is climate change kind of a blessing in disguise that way?

I guess so! We do cool the museum, and the climate change exhibit is a cool place.

Is there anything else you wish I had asked?

We’ve managed to avoid the phrase “fake news” in this conversation, and I haven’t ever seen “fake news” in a sentence with science museums —

Well, it’s there now that you said it.

Oh no!

This interview has been edited and condensed.