Creatures of Light: Nature's Bioluminescence

Review

of an Exhibition

by Sofia Estrella

Published on April 20, 2012, Modified on May 01, 2012

  • Description:

    “Creatures of Light” uses a variety of unique components to introduce visitors to the processes of bioluminescence, fluorescence, and phosphorescence. Minimal lighting draws the viewer to the glow of the impressive dioramas and beguiles them to focus on the displays rather than retreating to fill out the traditional worksheet. These dioramas transport visitors to New Zealand, Puerto Rico, and the North American forest. The enforced rule of absolutely no photography prevents distractions and promotes a collaborative atmosphere, encouraging visitor discussions and collective use of interactives. This exhibition is a modern take on an emerging field that offers the opportunity to go beyond wall panel reading and embark on the exploration of fascinating environments.

    Upon entering the exhibition, I immediately noticed the change in atmosphere from the outside intense brightness and echoing voices, to dim lighting accompanied by classical-style music. While I would not think to associate the latter with bioluminescence, I believe this curatorial decision was an attempt to soothe visitors and children who might have otherwise been overwhelmed by the darkness and oversized reproductions of insects and mushrooms. This music extends throughout the exhibition, making both a massive firefly replica and a darkness rarely seen in New York less intimidating.

    Towards the middle of the exhibition, I encountered the “Mysterious Cave,” a section that offers a view into a glowworm habitat in New Zealand. This reminded me of an interactive prairie dog exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, where visitors can “burrow” through and find themselves among prairie dogs in a fiberglass enclosure. In “Creatures of Light” I was able to duck under and stand in a glowworm cave replica. My innate desire to understand my surroundings motivated me to read the text panels accompanying this exhibit.

    An interactive exhibit featuring the Bloody Bay Wall in Little Cayman displays an incredible mural that was largely photographed by John Sparks, the curator, and David Gruber. Two different stations with small screens allow visitors to simultaneously hone in on specific sections of the larger mural, and view the corals and various species either with or without their bioluminescence. The opportunity to observe a section of this wall, which drops thousands of feet, is amazing. In a blog on the AMNH website leading up to the opening of the exhibition, Sparks comments that sharks occasionally appeared in frames. Thinking about this in conjunction with the idea that these scientists hovered incredibly still to achieve the sharpness of the photographs, makes this mural truly impressive. For those who do not have the opportunity or fearlessness to visit the Bloody Bay Wall, this interactive is another example of the exhibition’s potential to make visitors feel as though they are a part of a habitat.

    The same component that makes this exhibition so enticing, however, also introduces an internal conflict. Sections such as the mysterious cave and the bioluminescent bay do successfully create the sense of actually being in these environments. Other realistic and colorful dioramas, including the mushroom and firefly tree, create a slightly confusing atmosphere, because while they imitate the interactive nature of a children’s museum, the visitor is not actually permitted to touch these displays. “Please Do Not Touch” signs underline dioramas throughout portions of the exhibition. Expecting these signs did not make restrictions placed on these displays any less disappointing for me, because of the excitement created by the interactive approach of the glowworm cave and bioluminescent bay.

    In a hectic city that can quickly transform from serendipitous to overwhelming, it is all too easy to become consumed by the happenings within our metropolitan confines. “Creatures of Light” allows visitors to go beyond New York and examine stunning habitats in their current state. Researching bioluminescence over the past semester introduced me to the knowledge provided in the exhibition. I was not, however, prepared for the ecosystem displays, live species, and artwork, which are a clear representation of why scientists and curators are fascinated by this topic.

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