Hunters of the Sky

Topic: Life Sciences Subtopic: Other

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Adele Binning

Published on February 06, 2009, Modified on November 06, 2014

  • Description and goals

    Hunters of the Sky was a 5,000-7,000 sq. ft. exhibit. It consisted of about 100 exhibit components including a combination of interactives that helped visitors explore flight, anatomy, diet and other aspects of raptor biology, display cases with mounted specimens of many species of North American raptors, four large dioramas presenting case studies of species with conservation stories of particular public note and interest, a Hooting Booth where visitors listened to the sounds of all North American owls and then recorded their best attempts at recreating the sounds, some “What do you think?” stations that asked visitors to consider open-ended questions on a variety of controversial issues. Throughout the exhibit there were stanchions that offered biological information and “bumperstickers” applied to vitrines that posed questions meant to spur critical thinking.

    Components were grouped into ten thematic sections: raptor diversity, nesting, flight, food and adaptations for getting it, significance in human cultures, rehabilitation efforts, and four case studies about species of particular note: the bald eagle, the peregrine falcon, the Northern spotted owl, and the California condor.

    If the goals of the exhibit could be boiled down to two major themes they would be:
    To provide an opportunity for visitors to learn about the fundamental aspects of raptor biology, giving them an understanding of their diversity and the prospects for their survival as a group and as individual species.

    Secondly, the exhibit challenged visitors to explore their own beliefs about the relationship between humans and the natural world. The exhibit took on controversial issues by presenting multiple perspectives without proclaiming which was “correct.” The exhibit also had a goal of getting visitors to critically examine questions of economics, public policy and environmental ethics related to the survival of raptors and their habitats.

  • Development process and challenges

    An NEH planning grant provided funding for initial exhibit development and a humanities seminar. Environmental ethicists, biologists, writers, and others met to discuss the idea of an exhibit about birds of prey and the relationship between humans and the natural world. Much of the framework of the exhibit came from those efforts. Implementation funds from NSF and NEH set things in motion.

    A core team including about 6-9 SMM and University of MN Raptor Center staff met twice weekly. We had an extensive network of biologists, cultural advisors, and others with whom we worked throughout the project. We visited sites at the heart of the stories—the California condor recovery effort in California, numerous powwows, the old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, and other locations tied to raptor study and preservation.

    We wanted to get widely divergent viewpoints out into the open where people could discuss and consider them. This proved to be successful and challenging. Because birds of prey hold such emotional power over humans, we are passionate in our ideas and opinions surrounding them. We sought out those people with passionate opinions and they freely expressed them. At times they were dismayed when opposing viewpoints got equal ground in the exhibit. One area that took on controversy particularly well was the Spotted Owl Cafe, a re-created cafe from the Pacific northwestern United States. The issues surrounding the Northern spotted owl and logging were presented in a setting where community members gather to sit and talk—a cafe. A challenge in this part of the exhibit was that some visitors were confused that there wasn’t a “museum voice” telling them what to think. There were opinions quite different from each other presented side-by-side. On the other hand, a “guestbook” on the cafe counter invited people to express what they thought about the spotted owl controversy. Many people considered the ideas presented in the cafe and then put them together, expressing their own take on the issue.

    The exhibit contained many mounted specimens but we did not want it to be “another dead animal show.” As a result, we sought excellent taxidermists who were able to capture behavior as well as the form of each species. Biologists helped with details that made each mount a frozen moment. The sharp-shinned hawk was not just sitting on a perch but was on top of a backyard birdfeeder, a feather pinned beneath the talons of its foot, perhaps an escaped bird, potential dinner. This is how you’d see a sharpie. Another scene shows vultures on tarmac (complete with yellow line) picking away at an opossum, entrails graphically laid out before you. A “bumpersticker” on the vitrine asks “Was your dinner alive or dead when you ate it?” Each mounted bird caught the living bird at a single moment in its life, giving visitors a chance to understand these birds, what (or who) they are and how they live.

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

    We had a hunch about a couple of things that proved true: Natural history exhibits can serve as informative but more importantly as tools for promoting critical thinking around subjects such as environmental policy and ethics. Humanities are a natural partner in exploring our relationship to the natural world and for helping visitors find entry points into science exploration.

    Remedial steps to draw people further into considering their role in the natural environment included a technique new to us—bumperstickers placed on vitrines, asking a question to provoke reflection and humor.

    This exhibit traveled for 14 years and is still deeply loved by those who worked on it. At the time, however, the production of this show nearly killed us. In an effort to tell every story as well as we could, we called on production staff to put in many hours more than they could sustain. This exhibit was a wakeup call for our division to work with deadlines that had to be met and with realistic expectations of how much people could devote to an effort.

    Another mistake that we made was to not recognize when marketing professionals and content specialists could not agree. No amount of discussion could solve some disagreements. We could have saved some time and frustration by recognizing earlier the ultimate tool: the coin toss.

    This exhibit is now installed in permanent home at the Don Harrington Discovery Center. In the final weeks before transfer, many of the personnel who worked on this exhibition reminisced about it—its importance to our institution, its impact on the communities it reached, and our personal pride and love for this exhibition. For some of us, it remains the finest project and the best team with which we’ve had the good fortune to work.

  • Exhibition Opened: November 1994

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Location: Saint Paul, MN, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $1,000,000 to $3,000,000 (US)

  • Size: 5,000 to 10,000 sq ft.

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. ISE-9253398

  • Other funding source(s): NEH

Latest Comments (2)

Saw it in Amarillo

by Jim Spadaccini - February 07, 2009

Thanks for posting this case study, it was nice to learn a bit more about the exhibit. I just saw Hunters of the Sky two weeks ago the Don Harrington Discovery Center in Amarillo. Visitors were very engaged with it. It looks like it found a good home.



by Mukesh Acharya - January 21, 2010

I have seen from your pics. and feeling very happy to see your exhibit

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