Mysteries of The Marsh



of an Exhibit

by Bianca Leigh

Published on March 12, 2013

  • Museum: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum

  • Visit Date: January, 2013

  • Description:

    I visited the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago, Illinois on January 25th, 2013. The museum had caught my eye on several occasions as I passed through Lincoln Park and this visit was the perfect opportunity to explore my curiosity.

    The building itself is captivating. Large glass windows overlook the North Pond Nature Conservancy and the waterfront of Lake Michigan along Lakeshore Dr. Large boulders, plants, trees and native prairie grass were used to carefully integrate the museum’s modern design into the natural geography. It almost made me forget that I was only a couple minutes drive for downtown.

    Friday afternoon was a quiet time at the museum with only a handful of families roaming the exhibits. I set out to learn about the Mysteries Of The Marsh.

    The exhibit was located just off of the main lobby and its vibrant entryway immediately caught my eye. As I entered the exhibit the recorded sounds of birds and crickets, paired perhaps unintentionally with the flowing water in several surrounding reptile and amphibian tanks, made the environment feel particularly immersive.

    Centered on the entryway, I stood facing a large curved panel that described the importance of marshes and helped to frame the content of the exhibit to come. With the foundation laid, the next step was to navigate deeper into the exhibit but I felt unclear in which direction to proceed. My natural inclination was to move right but the wall panel curved leftwards, which seemed counter intuitive.

    Going against the pull of the wall, I proceeded to my right and entered the main area of the exhibit. The larger area had been divided into several smaller installations with ample room to freely navigate between elements and explore.

    The installation on Blanding turtles was prominently located. An engaging combination of images, tactile sculptures and a display containing live numbered Blanding turtles helped to illustrate the Museum’s role in the Blanding Turtle Restoration Project and its connection marshes and more specifically to Illinois.

    In addition to the Blanding Turtles Project, throughout the exhibit several installations combined living creatures such as reptiles, snakes and amphibians
    with archival models, replicas and embalmed scientific specimens. I learned that frogs are bioindicators and the specimens in jars demonstrated physical signs of contamination in the water. Since the exhibit took a scientific approach to the information presented this seemed appropriate although perhaps a little frightening or unfamiliar to younger audiences.

    Fortunately, throughout the exhibit there were signs that provided further information and called on patrons to get involved. It provided the information necessary for visitors to extend their experience at the museum and offering concrete and specific information to further explore the topic. Visitors were encouraged to making donations to a project, volunteering their time with local wildlife preserves and at home, learning to garden with native plant species.

    Although the animals were an interesting and engaging part of the exhibit, I felt like there was a missed opportunity to reinforce the connection between animals and their habitat within marshlands. Information associated with the living creatures focused on identification and dispelling myths, but that knowledge seemed isolated to the containment displays instead of integrated throughout to support a broader understanding of their role in marshlands and the impact of their environment.

    In other ways, however, I felt like the exhibit was quite successful. As a designer, I was particularly interested in how exhibitors combined different types and levels of information so that adult learners and children could explore the same topic in different ways. This universal approach to designing the exhibits seemed successful and made the content accessible not only to both children and adults, but also by persons with disabilities. I noted several areas in particular, the Blanding Turtles Restoration Project and the Fish and Amphibians Segment where care was taken to place displays at different physical levels or creating multiple interactive elements which could be accessed within a single installation. Another aspect, which was surprising and engaging, was the consideration of multiple senses in learning about marshlands. In addition to the visual information presented I was able to hear audio recordings of birds, smell different types of marshes and touch different objects, from nests to skeletons to snake skin.

    Overall, the exhibit was able to provide a variety of interesting information on the importance of marshlands. Many aspects of the exhibit successfully made efforts to make information presented interesting and accessible to different types, ages and abilities of the learners. However, a more cohesive story to create and reinforce a stronger connection between the elements, particularly animals and their relationship to the habitat within the marshlands could have set the stage for a deeper learning experience.

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