Out on a Limb

Part of Exhibition: Tree Adventure



of an Exhibit

by Jeff Crewe

Published on July 30, 2009 , Modified on August 23, 2012

  • Museum: Morris Arboretum

  • Visit Date: Summer, 2009

  • Description:

    Morris Arboretum – Out on a Limb
    Reviewed by Jeff Crewe

    A Multi-Generation Adventure
    I visited the Morris Arboretum in July 2009, soon after the Out on a Limb exhibit opened. I saw a concept rendering of this exhibit via email and was inspired to visit. My group consisted of two mothers, 3 kids (ages 11, 12, 13) and me: a middle aged dad. One of the moms (my wife) has a disability and uses a mobility scooter.

    A short walk from the arboretum entrance brought us to a tube like portal that suggested tree rings and an organic growth pattern. This is both entrance and exit to Out on a Limb. Only one way in and out is a comfort for parents with young kids.

    Out on a Limb is a walkway and platform in a forest at tree canopy level — that is, just underneath the branching and foliage area of trees. How does the arboretum bring us up to the tree canopy without stairs, ramps or an elevator? By using the natural drop in elevation. We enter the exhibit even with the main pathway. Within a few feet the land dramatically drops away underneath the walkway so that we are enjoying an elevated perspective on the forest. A glance downward brings “ooos” from the crowd as they realize just how far up we are. One visitor says, “We better hold hands,” although parents soon became comfortable with the structure.

    Looking Down and Looking Around
    Along the walkway there is a clever change in side wall materials to convey the illusion of a clear opening to the forest floor below. Children are curious about these openings. Observant visitors look down and notice the steel columns and diagonal bracing that supports be exhibit. The structure below is rock-solid but the platform gives the illusion of movement with slopes, curves and suspended areas. The result is a bit of safe danger for some of the younger visitors. I saw a few nervous youngsters, but most were delighted with the opportunity to see the forest in a different way. Overall, the crowd was quiet, smiling, and captivated by the forest.

    The entry walkway leads to a telescope station for close-range viewing. The next area encircles a tree trunk (which everyone seems to want to touch) and has simple and engaging interpretive panels. It was here that I noticed my own growing empathy for the plants and animals of the forest. Next, a central covered area serves as the hub connecting other platform branches. A mother nursed her child in a quiet corner of this covered area. This space is ideal for natural science instruction. A branch to the right takes a suspension bridge to an oversized bird nest with blue eggs to sit on. Another branch leads to the tree hammocks. Movement through the exhibit is accomplished without orientation signs, thanks to a simple layout and clear sight-lines

    An Unexpected Social Setting
    The tree hammock zone is the social center of the exhibit. Two large triangular nets suspend from the deck and surround tree trunks without touching the trees. The message is: “come on in, lay back and breathe in the forest. “ Visitors linger in this space. Children tentatively walk or climb on the webbing. Adults sit on the edge of the webbing as if dangling their feet in a pool. Most everyone removes their shoes (even though I saw no sign asking us to). Strangers talk to each other. This space is so comfortable, a robin built her nest on a tree about 5 ft from the railing edge. We watched her feed her 3 chicks. It was magical and authentic. The designers that created this space should be commended for forming a wonderful social space — even if its success was not anticipated.

    It’s a Tree Fort, Outdoor Classroom and Interactive Exhibit
    I know there were many development and design challenges for this program. The design team successfully negotiated sensitivity to the site, visitor safety and excellent accessibility for all. The integration of materials: structural steel on concrete footings, bolted and welded wire railing, nets, mesh, grill, lattice and actual logs is impressive. The construction details and finishes are appropriate for long term exposure to the elements and visitor wear and tear. Even so, the supporting structure seems to intrude on the forest floor (will vines be permitted to obscure the structural steel?) and I found myself longing for more natural wood and organic form, particularly in the roof structure. To my eyes, the silver galvanized rail finish is too prominent and conflicts with the green leaf canopy.

    All in all, my criticisms are small and the exhibit is very successful. The spaces allow for individual and social groups interaction. The exhibit inspires silent observation, quiet conversation and reverence for the forest. This is a tremendous combination of the right site and very well designed and implemented exhibit. Every arboretum is going to want one of these, though it will be difficult for others to remake this unique experience.

Latest Comments (1)

Viewing tower/climbing wall

by Javier Pes - August 11, 2009

for a variation on a similar theme, only much more active, check out this woodland viewing tower/climbing wall in the Netherlands.


There’s a multi-million pound version of a tree walk at Kew Botanical Gardens, London

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