© 2020 Abigail Sarver-Verhey

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telling local science stories

For this project I was tasked with creating an exhibition centered around the city of Philadelphia. I chose to dive into the local natural history, developing and designing an exhibition that took visitors on a journey through millions of years of environmental change to explore what the region's past can tell us about our current climate crisis.


gallery windows

Whimsical imagery and bold statements about Philadelphia’s environment give potential visitors a sense of what the exhibition is about.


In one of the windows a 3D bar graph (created by exhibition visitors) shows what concerns Philadelphians have about climate change. 


Visitors enter the gallery at the base of the Philadelphia region’s stratigraphy. A graphic path of geologic strata unfolds in front of them, sweeping up  the wall and over their heads. 


tracing change infographic

An infographic runs throughout the exhibition, tracing the rate of global temperature change over roughly 500 million years. It illustrates an important point of the exhibition: the environment is always changing, but the rate of that change is what impacts ecosystems the most. It also helps to bridge the significant time gaps between sections and put them in a larger context of geologic time.


The simple, sketchy style of the graphics and witty, approachable captions make the complex climatological information they represent less intimidating.

mountain making hotspot

The first section transports visitors back to Precambrian Philadelphia, a time of intense geologic activity. A central scenic rock outcrop replicates the local Wissahickon Valley, where evidence of Precambrian geology can be seen today. It showcases how we use local geologic resources and what the rocks around us have to say about the region’s geologic past.


Cut into the organic rock face is a stark, geometric white shelf with rocks from the Wissahickon Valley that visitors can pick up and investigate. White models of stromatolites, simple life forms from the Precambrian, are displayed along the rock face to show what life was like at the time and illustrate the complexity of this seemingly sparse environment.

A digital interactive allows visitors to manipulate climatic and geologic conditions in order to better understand how they shape the volatility of an environment. Given a blank “Philadelphia” landscape, visitors adjust various climate conditions such as precipitation and tectonic activity to see different states of the local environment over time.

fossils in the sand

In the next section visitors move into the Cretaceous, when dinosaurs and marine reptiles inhabited the coastline of an ancient ocean. Ideal conditions for fossilization preserved these animals, which are now found all across Southern New Jersey.


Visitors step into an underwater scene with a model Plesiosaurus swimming above them. This scene can also be viewed by a second floor walkway where passerby can peer in to the Cretaceous sea and come face to face with the Plesiosaurus. Visitors explore the process of fossilization by comparing the lifelike model with a nearby fossil plesiosaur. 

Visitors step onto the shores of the coast and see a fierce Dryptosaurus poised to attack an unsuspecting Hadrosaurus. The display alternates between mounted fossils and life-like white models in a scenic backdrop. This mix of fossil and life-like model provides a balance of compelling authenticity and informative realism. 

The section continues by considering the larger context, both past and present, of Philadelphia's Cretaceous life.


Cases of insects preserved in amber and Alphadon, a small early mammal, are surrounded by a wall of replica Cretaceous plants, showing the broader ecosystem the well-known dinosaurs were part of.


Peering over the edge of a set of oil drums, visitors see graphics of the ancient coal swamps and phytoplankton from which we get coal and oil — revealing just what "fossil" fuels we’re burning when we drive our cars and turn on our lights.


The third section evokes the Port Kennedy Bone Cave, a treasure trove of Ice Age remains located in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Once a temporary sinkhole, the cave provides a thorough picture of the complex ecosystem that thrived on the chilly grassland.


A large, curved screen displays an animated film that takes visitors on a journey into the cave through the words of an 1847 expedition team. Eventually traveling thousands of years back in time, visitors see a giant sloth die and become preserved in the cave. 

Twenty different plant, animal, and insect specimens that were found in the cave are connected in a food web diagram that illustrates how deeply connected they were in the Ice Age ecosystem. Visitors are encouraged to explore the food web and think about the ramifications of these connections, as well as the factors that make certain organisms more vulnerable to environmental change. This diagram approach allows a large number of the remains from the cave to be displayed in the limited space and activates them as a larger view of the entire ecosystem.

Around 55,000 years after the bone cave sealed off, a major change occurred in the ecosystem: humans arrived.


Across Pennsylvania, a site called Meadowcroft Rockshelter provides some of the earliest

evidence of people in the Americas. One such discovery is an elk bone with stone tool cut marks that visitors can view. Visitors read about the lifeways of these early residents and the changes that occurred as humans began shaping the local environment for the first time. 

Human hunting had a drastic impact on the balance of the existing ecosystem. Visitors can experience this first hand through a digital interactive where they step into the shoes of an Ice Age hunter and ‘hunt’ mastodons to feed their community. They must hunt responsibly or they will over- exploit the food supply and drive the mastodon toward extinction. 

Digging Local features in every section connect visitors, particularly locals, to natural history sites around Philadelphia.


As visitors leave the third section and pass the Tracing Change infographic, the black line they have been following around the exhibition begins to climb higher and higher up the wall at a rapid rate. This visual change highlights the increase in the rate of change that makes anthropogenic climate change so dangerous for humans and the environment.


The final section of the exhibition explores environmental change today. It consists primarily of infographics that explore anthropogenic vs. natural climate change and how climate change will affect the city of Philadelphia in the coming years.

A large scale interactive graph provides visitors a chance to share what issue(s) surrounding climate change concern them most. They chose an issue and turn a dispenser knob to receive a take-away card that contains ways in which they can address that issue personally, politically, economically and/or socially. 


As visitors take the cards over time, the dispensers will form a bar graph of the issues Philadelphians are most concerned about regarding climate change. This graph is also visible through the window to passerby outside the gallery.

As visitors head out into the city and return to their homes, jobs, or errands, a brief, inspiring conclusion panel encourages them to think about how their actions will shape Philadelphia’s environment for future residents.

explore the project more...

exhibition development

big idea

The Philadelphia region was shaped by millions of years of constant natural change that humans have dangerously disrupted.



Founding Fossils takes visitors on a journey through millions of years of Philadelphia’s natural history by exploring local fossils and geologic specimens, recreated environments, and connections between the deep past and modern experiences. This narrative illuminates stark differences between past natural change and the disruptive change caused by humans today, providing a local yet profoundly immense context through which to examine the climate crisis.



  • Informally informational

  • Challenging, upfront about climate change issues with wit​




  • Rationale: gallery is located in a University building and is attended largely by students

  • Visual and performance artists

  • Needs/Goals

    • Tailor scientific topic of the exhibition to an art background

    • Witty yet provocative tone is well suited to the older audience



  • Rationale: live in the area and dinosaur exhibitions are popular with kids 

  • Intergenerational groups

  • Needs/Goals

    • Kid-friendly & intergenerational experiences

    • Feature local dig sites for familiarity and further exploration

interpretive goals (visitors will...)

  • Understand that Philadelphia’s environment has been continuously changing for billions of years.

  • Understand that the current human-driven rapid rate of environmental change is dangerous.

  • Recognize that we can learn about our modern climate and resources by studying change in the deep past.

  • Have their eyes opened to the natural history all around them.


experiential goals (visitors will...)

  • Be immersed in representations of Philadelphia’s environment at different points in the past.

  • See and interact with geologic specimens and fossils.

  • Use scientific processes to study rock and fossil evidence to learn about the past.

  • Make connections between past conditions and modern conditions or resources through interactives and didactic displays.

  • See the rate of environmental change shift over time from steady to a staggering increasing.

bubble diagram

floor plan

interpretive matrix sample

object list sample


interpretive approach


  • Large, central images draw visitors into a scene

  • Colored bands indicate imaginative/investigative interpretations that are well-suited to the exhibition’s family audience

  • Narrative captions encourage imagination

  • Questions promote investigation and application of past lessons to today’s issues

  • Explain complex content with everyday, non-specialist language as much as possible



  • Does not shy away from realities of climate change, but discusses them with wit and approachable, colloquial language

  • Sketchy style of interpretive visuals (graphs, notations, imagery, etc.) makes complex information less intimidating


graphic schedule

casework schedule


digital interactive kiosk

inset wall case

scenic rock wall

This project involved responding to a RFP as the head of a fictitious design firm. The proposal shows how I responded to the RFP, as well as how the project evolved from initial idea to final exhibition.