BioQuest Woods

Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Roy Griffiths

Published on September 05, 2008, Modified on August 05, 2009

  • Description and goals

    BioQuest is a 10-acre track within the Museum of Life and Science’s 84-acre site, where lush wetland, woodland and field habitats have been transformed into an exquisite outdoor learning environment by two exhibitions.

    Explore the Wild is located within a six-acre quarry basin of woodland and wetland habitats, and includes captive black bears, red wolves, and lemurs. Boardwalk, causeway, and woodland paths immerse visitors in a naturalistic setting where interactive exhibits, including cameras and computers, enable one to explore the world of a wildlife biologist. The design goal was to maintain a sense of immersion and capitalize on the naturalistic features of the site in order to create an experience that blurs the lines between the natural environment, animal enclosures, and the visitor domain in support of an authentic learning experience.

    Catch the Wind is a four-acre knoll and woodland edge where one may explore the aerial environment within a blend of natural features, landscaping, and hands-on exhibits, including a 5,000 SF sailboat pond for remote control boats and a 30-foot high seed tower. It is a journey through a textured landscape with changing rhythm of sun and shade. This exhibition encourages interaction with the way air moves and how plants, animals and built objects interact with the aerial environment. The design goal was to merge the characteristics of an expressive outdoor environment with small- and large-scale interactive exhibits to create a
    one-of-a-kind setting for science learning.

    Other Goals
    - sit lightly on the site
    - provide authentic experience
    - take advantage of the natural characteristics of the site
    - pair live animals and plants in their natural setting with science center-style interactive exhibits to communicate key ideas in biology and physics, and solve the engineering issues associated with doing so

  • Development process and challenges

    All concepts were prototyped and evaluated outdoors by the museum over the course of several years, in the heat, rain, cold, and, yes, sometimes sunshine. The inherent challenges of this outdoor effort, often to remote areas of the site, can’t be understated. We used electrical generators where power was unavailable, dressed surfaces where ground treatments were undesirable and forged access to the untamed site to conceive of and test our ideas. In addition, strategies to keep water out, electricity in, as well as research into new materials became important considerations after early-proof-of-concept validation. It was exciting, and grueling.

    Eventually, water tables, seed towers, mist generators, fans, cameras and computers, and animal specimens all saw a hardened iteration that permitted unmediated evaluation with visitors, outdoors. At times we used a small area off one of our woodland paths as a prototype test hub. Sometimes evaluation took place off-site, aimed at gleaning information about the parts, where the whole could not be orchestrated. For instance, the RC sailboat user-interface was tested with the public at a local botanical garden pond, and the minimum size of the pond was determined at a community swimming pool. While none of this was perfect, these exercises revealed both user and mechanical attributes that informed final design, which was executed by Jeff Kennedy Associates.

    We focused on what could translate into compelling learning experiences within the overarching themes of the aerial environment and wildlife biology, through a pairing of interactive exhibits with plants and animals in these environments. For instance, we explored the activities that our wildlife biologist told us they did, and that we, in some way, could approximate. We explored the ideas that got our scientific advisors excited about air movement. There were to be no one-liners. The exhibits needed to be intrinsically interesting, and experiences were to be open-ended, stimulate conversation, accommodate inter-generational interaction, and be accessible. We looked for familiar connection to content.

    After a critical mass of concepts was validated and there was confidence that the engineering challenges for each outdoor installation were achievable, we began to conceive relationships between the exhibits, imagining their interplay within the environment. The attributes of the site, desirable pacing, and solar orientations, for example, informed a preliminary site plan for the 10-acres. We also considered site utilization studies that were the work product of an earlier master plan. In this way, the mist garden in Catch the Wind, an exploration of micro-currents, became targeted for a protected cove of trees that could be further planted in to still the ambient conditions. The location for the sailboat pond was selected based on a modest elevation of a particular area of the site, along with eighteen months of wind readings that eased concern that there would be reliable air movement once built. There is. We also fleshed out the storyline at this juncture. For example, in Explore the World the strong suite of wildlife biology experiences successfully executed for the black bear habitat, resulted in companion offerings for lemur and red wolf habitats. With regard to placement of the animal habitat interactives, we owe much to our zoo colleagues, who in an early NSF–funded planning meeting, recommended that we keep the animal experience primary and the interactive experience secondary, as visitors want the animal experience most. We did this. They were correct.

    This preliminary site plan was next in place well before the effort expanded to include our architectural, landscape, and zoo design team. The result was that the exhibit program became the primary driver for all site decisions, an understood condition for engagement. In that Jeff Kennedy Associates had threaded in and out of our work process throughout the project – not changing key personnel in over ten years, as was mostly true for the museum – the vision continued to unfold in a consistent and delightful way. Even throughout construction, many decisions were driven by the exhibit program as the sculpted site revealing sightlines and relationships that were not imagined earlier.

  • Lessons learned, mistakes we made (and what we did about them)

    - This was a complex project involving numerous consultants, engineers, and designers, over many years. Early on we decided that the exhibit program would drive all other decisions, i.e., site, landscape and architectural design would follow these needs. This was instrumental to the project’s success.
    - Beyond the engineers and designers, where you’d expect an immersion in the project vision, the on-site contractor’s commitment to project intent also proved critical. A tremendous amount happens in a day over a large site during construction. An informed GC to respond to owner concerns, call attention to and direct work in consideration of sensitive implementation issues is imperative.
    - As engineering complexities increase, the need for a redundant knowledge base does too. In the future, we would implement a leader/shadow-team strategy to execute critical aspects of the exhibit prototyping to reduce project vulnerability due to personnel changes.

  • Exhibition Opened: May 2007

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: No

  • Location: Durham, NC, United States

  • Estimated Cost: Over $3,000,000 (US)

  • Size: Over 10,000 sq ft.

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. ESI - 9627030

  • Other funding source(s): Durham County GlaxoSmithKline

  • Website(s):

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