Global Ocean Systems

Part of Exhibition: Sant Ocean Hall



of an Exhibit

by Anna Simmons

Published on March 02, 2011

  • Description:

    Understanding the Global Ocean on a Sphere

    The Sant Ocean Hall is one of the most compelling spaces in the National Museum of Natural History (NMNH). The Smithsonian collaborated with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to create this permanent visually stimulating exhibition space. Content is guided by themes encompassing how the ocean is vast, varied, and vital. Throughout the hall technologies, such as touchscreen kiosks and high definition videos, are used to enhance the visitor’s understanding of ocean science. Among marine specimens and models is the “Global Ocean Systems” gallery which features a fascinating audience focused technology. This space teaches visitors how and why scientists study something as vast and complex as the ocean.

    The dominant feature in this room is a technology comprised of a six foot diameter sphere, analogous to a globe. When I first entered the gallery, the sphere displayed a sign stating “the show will begin in five minutes.” Interspersed projected signs encourage visitors to check out other small exhibits in the room that illustrate various instruments scientists use to study the ocean. I spent some time meandering around the four exhibits, then sat down on one of the benches in anticipation for the show to begin. The floor plan layout includes five benches that surround the globe so people can sit and feel more comfortable as they view the projections on the sphere. The information I gathered from the interpretive signs and photographs in the exhibits was extended on the sphere through digital visualization. With sounds of the ocean in the background, all the lights dim, and the show on the sphere begins.

    I was quickly captivated by a high definition image of the earth rotating in front of me. A narrator’s voice begins to tell the story of why the ocean is essential to all life on earth. The narration is complimented with closed captioning below the sphere, music, and sounds of the natural world – waves, wind, hurricanes, and tsunamis throughout the show. These various multi-sensory entry points allowed the audience to engage with the information on multiple levels. The first visualization in the narrative exemplifies how nearly seventy five percent of our planet’s surface is covered by ocean. The image of earth then changes to a fiery sun, showing the audience where all energy on this planet is derived. Digital projections show how the sun provides energy for phytoplankton (microscopic plants that live near the surface of the ocean), which through photosynthesis, produce one half of the oxygen we breath. Phytoplankton act as food for tiny animals called zooplankton, which are food for small fish, which feed larger fish, which are eventually consumed by humans. The unequivocal connection between the audience and the ocean was clear from the start.

    The narrative discusses the formation of the world’s oceans, the relationship of ocean and air, weather and climate, and the importance of ocean currents. These themes inherently provoke audience members to make connections to their own lives. I was continually intrigued by the quality of graphics projected on the sphere. The results of scientific research were projected in visually compelling, intuitive, and entertaining ways. Each animation made seemly complex ocean science easy to understand and was well received by the audience as a whole. I heard words and phrases like “wow,” and “look at that!” from visitors of all ages.

    After sitting through two showings, I observed the audience consisted of mostly families with children, students, and individual adults. While most people watched the entire show (which lasts no more than ten minutes), there are two entrance/exit areas, so visitors are able to come and go as they please. The five minute interval between each showing allows visitors to take their time and engage in conversation with their group about their experience. The physical sustainability of technology is secure considering the programs run electronically and the audience does not have direct contact with the sphere. Unlike a permanent installation of visual information, digital visual information can be updated as scientists make new discoveries and produce new data.

    NOAA is credited for the development of the “Science on a Sphere” technology. Computers and video projectors are used to display the animated planetary data seen on the sphere. “Science on a Sphere” is a wonderful educational tool that helps audiences of all ages and backgrounds better understand complex environmental processes. In addition to the global ocean system data employed at the Sant Ocean Hall, NOAA has developed a plethora of other datasets that can be used. Also, content related to “Science on a Sphere” is open for use on the NOAA website. School teachers and other educators can easily design curriculum components related to the information presented.

    My Sant Ocean Hall experience at the NMNH was greatly enriched by this multimedia technology. “Science on a Sphere” is an exemplary model of a collaborative project that enhances the informal learning experience and promotes scientific literacy. Each story told is important and the visual data made the scientific information engaging and relatable to broad audiences. The technology successfully reinforces how the world’s oceans have a direct effect on our daily lives and that we must pay attention to the issues and challenges facing them.

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