Saltville

Part of Exhibition: Uncovering Virginia

Drawer

Review

of an Exhibit

by Nancy Moncrief

Published on March 19, 2009

  • Museum: Virginia Museum of Natural History

  • Visit Date: Year 2009

  • Website(s):  http://www.vmnh.net

  • Description:

    The Uncovering Virginia gallery features re-creations of six VMNH research sites that represent time periods ranging from 300 million years ago to 300 years ago. For each site, displays of actual fossils excavated at that site are accompanied by interactive components that allow visitors to manipulate fossil replicas. In this way, each visitor can “become a scientist” by examining evidence and then comparing that evidence to previously identified material.

    Another important but little-known facet of research is the scientist’s imagination. Animals and plants that today are represented only by fossil evidence were, in the past, living organisms that interacted with one another in a variety of ways. As scientists excavate a research site, they use their vivid imaginations to re-create in their minds a menagerie of past animals and the environments they occupied.

    In its new permanent galleries, VMNH used innovative A-V media techniques to bring to life each of the six research sites. These A-V animations allow visitors to “see into the past” and to experience the scientists’ re-creation of animals and environments from that place and that time. Original sound-beds enhance the experience, by suggesting the cacophony of sounds that one might have heard during each of the eras.

    The Saltville exhibit is set during the last Ice Age, 14,000 years ago. The animation for this exhibit is located in a tall vertical slot adjacent to a wall display of fossil specimens excavated at Saltville. The vertical slot is subdivided into three screens, and the effect is as if the viewer is literally looking (back in time) through a set of large windows (approximately 12 feet high and four feet wide).

    The attract screen is time-lapse footage of the valley at present-day Saltville. A motion detector activates the animation, which shows life-size renderings of a series of relatively recognizable large animals (mastodons, mammoths, muskox, and caribou) moving about the Saltville valley. The final image is that of an unfamiliar animal (Jefferson’s ground sloth), which is featured in the interactive components of the Saltville display. The same artists (Karen Carr) drew renderings for the animations and the static graphics throughout the permanent galleries. This ensured a high level of visual continuity and seamless integration of all depictions of the animals and their environments. The animations are not hard-edged and photographic. Rather there is a hazy, dreamlike quality to the depictions, suggesting through their style that they are a representational recreation of what scientists think Saltville and its inhabitants looked like 14,000 years ago.

    With the Saltville animation, VMNH has achieved one of its major goals for this project, offering visitors an exceptional and unique experience. This sequence is truly exceptional because it “brings the past to life” in an educational, yet accessible and engaging manner. It is unique because VMNH is the only place on earth where visitors can watch mastodons and mammoths walk by, and then see a giant ground sloth eating leaves from a treetop.

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