The Crystal PalAss - New models of palaeontological outreach

(This article originally appeared in the Newsletter of the Palaeontological Association)

It's not difficult to engage people with palaeontology. Fossils are fascinating to young and old. The real challenge is to engage with people meaningfully, to develop more than just a superficial interest, to make them actually think about palaeontology as a science, rather than simply a bit of object-collecting fun.

Palaeontological outreach. One small wave for a man, one giant leap for fossilkind.

As I discussed in the last Palaeontological Association newsletter, this is particularly important for school pupils. Fossils should be fun, wherever possible, but they should be educational too. If we want to attract the best young scientists to our field, we have to capture their imagination early and keep it captured.

To this effect, the Association council has been giving this topic some careful thought over the last year or two. It might be an academic organization aiming to publish the highest-quality palaeontological research, but it's also a charity charged with promoting palaeontology. Our strategy is still a work in progress (and we're always keen for input from the membership), but the main idea is to encourage a greater deal of outreach and education activities, and to use our reserves to support such things.

There are plenty of people out there with great ideas, so deciding which to support won't be easy. My feeling at the moment, though, is that we should be encouraging novelty. There's nothing wrong with giving talks in lecture theatres or showing off trays of fossils to school groups in marquees, but we should also be a bit more ambitious. At the moment, in many cases, we're simply preaching to the converted, which is a pity. For true outreach we must truly reach out: outwith the usual media, beyond the usual demographic, out of the fossil box.

The fossil box.

As our painter-in-residence, James McKay, demonstrated so elegantly at this year's Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, art and science can unite to startling effect. Bewitch a child by bringing their fossil creation to life right in front of them and not only do you give them something unforgettable, but you can also sneak a fair amount of real science into the time they're with you. They might not even realize the indoctrination that's taking place. It's a pleasure for all involved.

Inspired by such success, the Association has taken part in two recent events that have taken something of a similar line. The first was a new format at a familiar event, whilst the second was – to steal a line from those Flying Circus chaps – time for something completely different. Both involved models, but perhaps not the models you might be thinking of.

The Association has organized thematic sessions at the British Science Festival for a good many years. This year's festival was in Newcastle, and we chose 'Bodies of Evidence' as the topic. The idea was to explore new palaeontological evidence on the early evolution of animals. However, rather than just have a line-up of talks, we decided to go a bit more interactive.

Fossils in close-up

In a day-long event at the Great North (Hancock) Museum, we were able to bring together the key fossils, the techniques used to analyse them, and the reconstructions. Durham University looked at the Cambrian Explosion of animal life through the lens of Greenland and its Sirius Passet fauna. The University of Leicester showed off its 'Rotten Fish and Fossils', revealing the challenges of unravelling the origins of vertebrates, and Leiden University and the University of Bristol delved into the evolution of teeth and jaws.

In themselves, the displays were fascinating, but we wanted to go a step further. It was fantastic, therefore, to be able to get scientific model-maker Esben Horn of 10Tons in Copenhagen to come along too. For many years, Esben has been working with universities and museums across the world, collaborating with scientists to turn lithified, monochromatic fossils into gloriously colourful three-dimensional specimens.

Esben had a series of Cambrian models to go with the Sirius Passet fossils, from the familiar trilobites to the rather more enigmatic halkieriids and wiwaxiids (or is it halwaxiids now?). Sculptures at various stages of size, detail and completeness showed off his process of reconstruction, which he happily explained in more detail to visitors.

For the origins of jaws and teeth, Martin RΓΌcklin (Leiden/Bristol) used posters, computers and iPads to explain how to Synchrotron a placoderm. He also had a table-top Dunkleosteus that he and Esben had collaborated to build off the back of that research. It wasn't quite life-sized but it still grabbed the attention of countless customers. For good measure, Esben brought some of his 'Heavy Metal and Punk Fossils' from a recent exhibition at the Geomuseum in Faxe, Denmark, including a Silurian polychaete worm named after Lemmy from the rock band Motorhead.

The Leicester team, meanwhile, not only had models of early vertebrates to inspect, some time-lapse taphonomy videos and a magnetic phylogenetic tree, but also a series of sensory interactive activities. Being able to handle vacuum-packed specimens of partially rotted chordates was one thing, but giving the pungent aromas a sniff quite another. Not many were brave enough to try!

What do you mean you don't want to sniff my hagfish?

Across the day, something like 750 visitors came in to see us, and many of them did so accidentally. This could be seen as a failure of publicity on our part, but last year's BSF event was held in a university lecture theatre and got an audience of about 50. Plenty of this year's crowd weren't at the museum for palaeontological reasons, just for general interest, and they suddenly found themselves coming face to face with fossils. A fifteen-fold increase in visitors sounds like an outreach success to me, especially given how many of those who were lured in were under 16.

If we'd had a PalaeoPop-star in attendance, though, it might have been considerably greater. Lucky then that, together with her 9 year-old niece Taylor, performance artist Bryony Kimmings has decided this is exactly what the world needs.

Aimed at convincing children, particularly girls, that a career in science is both worthwhile and achievable, Bryony and Taylor have launched the Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model project, led by a character called Catherine Bennett. Catherine is a bicycle-riding, tuna pasta-eating palaeontologist, played by Bryony, and the aim is for her to become famous for the right (rather than Rihanna-esque) reasons.

Videos for three songs – Apathy, Animal Kingdom, and The Future – have been produced already, and if you like short, catchy pop, check out the project website, as they're really rather good. A live stage show of the project began in London recently and that august periodical Metro has described it as ‘bold, unflinching, wryly funny...[and] full of warmth’. Taylor's plan is for Catherine to get 1 million YouTube video hits, build a Facebook and Twitter army, and appear on the Ellen Degeneres show. No pressure then!

Importantly, since Catherine is supposed to be an expert on fossils but Bryony is not, the association (along with ScienceGrrl and TrowelBlazers, two projects also working to promote women in science) was asked to help out with the filming of a new video called 'Palaeontology Rocks!'

As a consequence, eight palaeontologists (six female, two male) from across the UK convened in Crystal Palace, south London, on a (fairly) sunny autumn day. With special permission, we were allowed on to the hallowed dinosaur island in the middle of the park, where Catherine and her film crew were waiting for us.

Catherine Bennett (right), the palaeontologists and an erroneous Iguanodon.

I think everyone – even those of us of a generally invertebrate persuasion – was excited to get up close and personal with Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins' and Richard Owen's amazing monsters. I have admired them from beyond the other side of the railings, but to be able to inspect them in minute detail was fantastic.

Most of us were a bit more sceptical about the filming, but it was actually pretty painless. The only difficulty came when we were asked to tell fossiliferous jokes. The format was for each of us to be interviewed by Catherine Bennett, explaining what we did as palaeontologists and answering questions put forward by schoolchildren. Susannah Maidment explained her lifelong love of dinosaurs, Anjali Goswami how she'd wanted to be a tiger biologist, Lucy McCobb her museum work on trilobites, and David Legg his spider harassment activities.

As to what sorts of things you'd best be interested in if you want to follow our career paths, Xiaoya Ma said animals, Victoria Herridge suggested discovering the answers to mysteries, I proposed digging around on beaches, and Fiona Gill served up the best line of the entire shoot: “If you like poo, then you'll like my job.”. If that doesn't attract a new generation of coprologists, I don't know what will (sorry Fiona!).

The Lloyd's Bank coprolite, York.

The finished video can be found here and will be shown off by Catherine as she goes off to tour schools and attend other events. I'm hopeful we might be able to persuade her to come along to some of next year's festivals – Lyme Regis is running again, the British Science Festival will be in Birmingham, and plans are afoot for something new in the north of England. No-one could claim that the project is flawless, but the idea is a great one and its ambitions are laudible.

So if a PalaeoPop-star can be made, whatever next? How are you going to communicate palaeontology in a new way to a new audience? Subway graffiti artists imagining the fossils of the Yorkshire Coast? A virtual museum you can actually visit? A marine palaeoenvironmental reconstruction you're able to swim through? Everyone driving round on Electrobites?

Get your thinking hats on! The funding system isn't quite in place yet, but it won't be long. And though I can't promise that the association will fund every proposal we receive, we'd love to hear your ideas. In 1851, ingenuity, science and imagination built the dinosaurs of Crystal Palace. 160 years on, perhaps the same principles can build the Crystal PalAss.