Hall of Planet Earth (HoPE)

2002 Excellence in Earth and Space Science Education Award Winner

The American Museum of Natural History – Hall of Planet Earth (HoPE) was awarded the Excellence in Geophysical Education Award at the AGU Spring Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on 29 May 2002, in Washington, D.C. The award acknowledges a sustained commitment to excellence in geophysical education by a team, individual, or group.


“A little over a year ago, I decided to nominate the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Planet Earth (HoPE) for the AGU Excellence in Geophysical Education Award.”

“I took this step with some trepidation, knowing that I had some conflict of interest, having just started to work there on leave from LLNL. However, I had taken the job because of the opportunity to communicate my science to the general public, and I was inordinately pleased with the many opportunities that abounded, thanks to the hard work and foresight of the people who had built HoPE. So when Deane Rink suggested we nominate HoPE for this award, I decided to go for it, nominating the four people most responsible for putting it all together: Ed Mathez, Heather Sloan, Jim Webster, and Ro Kinzler.

“Each year, about 4.5 million visitors pass through the American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, many of whom encounter the Hall of Planet Earth and learn how the Earth works. It certainly has educated me, and I think it could do the same for you, and even some of your students, family, and colleagues!

“On June 12, 1999, HoPE burst onto the New York scene with a coast-to-coast morning TV show highlighting some of the spectacular specimens on display: 38 tons of rock, with an average weight of 250 kg. One of the collecting expeditions was to the Juan de Fuca Ridge, 2.2 km beneath the Pacific. More than 10 tons were collected from four black smokers. Some smokers were still steaming and squirming with life when they hit the deck, to the delight of the biologists, geochemists, and school teachers who participated. NOVA’s story on this expedition, ‘Volcanoes of the Deep,’ is a must-see!

“Large, spectacular, mostly touchable rock samples, some surfaces polished, some natural, and casts of outcrops dominate the landscape of the Hall of Planet Earth and help to focus the visitor’s attention on the five major questions addressed: (1) How has the Earth evolved? (2) How do we read the rocks? (3) Why are there ocean basins, continents, and mountains? (4) What causes climate and climate change? (5) Why is the Earth habitable?

“My favorite of the rock-told stories in HoPE is the oxygenation of the ocean/atmosphere, illustrated with a 3075-kg boulder of banded-iron formation. The life-form that provided this oxygen is represented by a 760-kg stromatolite boulder from the Atar formation, Mauritania. It is displayed, cut open like a book, to reveal its internal structure. These samples illustrate the importance of time-integrated activity in the evolution of Earth systems. It is no great stretch of the imagination to realize the profound effect that human activity is having on such systems today. One adult visitor, from the World Trade Organization, after listening to Ro and me expound on the role played by the single-celled stromatolites in oxidizing the atmosphere, asked a question that I am still pondering: Is the oxidation of the atmosphere completed?

“The center of HoPE is occupied by a globe, but instead of being a sphere, it is an internally-projected hemisphere, about 2.6 m across, mounted on the ceiling. The hemisphere serves as the screen, and, sitting in the granite amphitheater below, one might imagine viewing it from a lunar crater. The image is a simulation based on NOAA and USAF weather-satellite data. As the Earth slowly rotates, first the clouds are removed, then the vegetation and ice are stripped away, and finally, the oceans are drained, revealing a rocky planet without water, atmosphere, or life. The image without vegetation is based on soil maps; the bathymetric data necessary to drain and fill the oceans are based on satellite gravity data, augmented by those from shipborne and airborne surveys at high latitudes. As you watch the water drain from the sphere above you, you can marvel that the last place to empty in the ocean basins is next to the continents, at the trenches where oceans dive beneath lighter continental lithosphere. The highest points in the oceans, and the first to drain, are the volcanic-ridge systems, usually near the centers of ocean basins, where new oceanic lithosphere is forming. What a way to drive home to family and friends the message of how our active sphere works to recycle its garbage!

“I love the ‘Scientists at Work’ videos, which show field research as well as computer modeling. My favorite of these is one by Los Alamos scientists, demonstrating a magnetic field reversal. I could go on, but I’ve overrun my word allotment.

“Friends and colleagues, the Earth sciences community has an exciting educational tool in the heart of Manhattan. I invite you to come and continue your education! Let’s organize a field trip!”

—AL DUBA, American Museum of Natural History, New York, N.Y.


“When we set out to build a new hall of the Earth, there were a few things we instinctively knew we wanted. One was an exhibit about the modern science, which led to the first quandary: What is the modern science? It’s easy enough to say that the Earth works as a set of interacting systems, but this is not a meaningful notion to anyone but academics, and even then the statement hardly incites inspiration. We would come to realize, through discussions with colleagues, that we could embody the idea in a few questions that the modern science has emboldened us to seek to answer: How has the Earth evolved, for example, and why is it habitable? Such questions serve as the entry way into the science, invite intellectual exploration, and would become the organizational basis of the Gottesman Hall of Planet Earth (HoPE).

“We wanted HoPE to be educational. How does one educate? By example, by providing inspiration, by touching the imagination-just the ways good teachers taught us. The medium of exhibition lends itself to these. Objects-the stuff of most museums-are inherently interesting precisely because they speak to the inner self and provide means of seeing our relationship to the world.

“We also wanted to transmit the personality of our field. Who are we, how do we think, what inspires us? In this, we were fortunate to work with Ralph Appelbuam, one of the great museum designers. We took Ralph and his group to active lava flows on Hawaii, to big computers at Los Alamos, and to informal dinners for conversations with colleagues. They saw that however varied and arcane our research may be, our inspiration comes from what we see around us in nature, and we invariably come back to the stuff of the Earth. The result was a brilliant design feature-huge samples. The rocks, as Ralph put it, are the evidence, so that’s what our hall would be built around. Big (and mostly touchable) samples also enabled us to meet one of the most difficult challenges, namely touching the wide audience from children to adults.

“More goes into a great exhibit than great design. Teamwork at all levels is necessary. At AMNH, we have the good fortune to have highly able and professional colleagues and a long tradition of rooting exhibits in academic science. Generous donors are also needed, and for HoPE the Gottesman family came forward. One more element was important. More than 125 colleagues from the Earth science community contributed to the exhibit, and they played a major role in making it what it is.

“HoPE illustrates the important role that exhibits can play in education at all levels. This is worth pondering especially because university museums have a potentially important, albeit seldom realized, role to play here.

“It is a real delight to receive this award, and we are gratified that you judge that we have served our community well. Thank you.”

American Museum of Natural History’s HoPE Team, New York, N.Y.