Water: H2O = Life

Topic: Other Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibition

by Bette Schmit

Published on April 29, 2009, Modified on August 05, 2009

  • Description and goals

    Water: H2O = Life offers visitors the fascinating story of water’s influence on Earth and, simultaneously, a cautionary tale of growing demands on an essential and limited resource. Using a full palette of interpretive techniques—natural history and cultural objects, replicas, live animals, dioramas, physical interactives, media interactives, media presentations and interpretive graphics—Water: H2O = Life provides visitors with multiple approaches to the exploration of water. Water: H2O = Life was organized by the American Museum of Natural History, New York, and the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul.

    Take away messages:
    · Water is essential to all life.
    · Water plays a key role in shaping the landscape and governing climate.
    · All water on Earth is linked in a vast cycle, from oceans to wetlands, rainwater to groundwater.
    · Earth’s water is finite.
    · Water is abundant in some places but scarce in others.
    · Natural freshwater and marine systems are fragile—but resilient. Actions we take today can revitalize these most precious of all resources.

    The exhibition is organized into nine sections. A visual rhythm is attained in the exhibition by use and placement of prominent, iconic objects and/or experiences. A transparent wall of plastic drinking bottles, a large cistern, or the Science on a Sphere installation are examples. Sightlines to these elements draw visitors, section by section, through the exhibition. In making color and lighting choices, 3D and graphic designers were influenced by water (or lack of water) and a desire to evoke a variety of water-related environments. For instance, Water, Water, Everywhere is an area awash in different blues and shimmering, back-lit scrims that suggest a great abundance of water. In contrast, in the Nor A Drop to Drink section, an earth-tone or desert-like color palette was used. (A rather comical measure of the affective success of the exhibition’s design is that, during its venue at SMM, at about the halfway mark many visitors expressed a desire or need to use a rest room or water fountain!)

    The sections are listed below, accompanied by a brief outline of their content and some highlights.

    Visitors take in the exhibition title and introductory information as they enter the exhibition through a “fog wall”—a curtain of mist onto which is projected the word for water in many languages. This is followed by Single Drop, an installation that focuses visitor attention on the precious nature of every drop of water.

    Life in Water
    Since life on Earth began in water some 3.5 billion years ago, living organisms have evolved an amazing variety of techniques for surviving different water conditions. This section presents an array of interesting adaptations in plants, animals, and humans. Visitors can watch live tetras and mud skippers, examine mounts of emperor penguins, and they can step onto a “scale” to discover how much of their body is made up of water as expressed in liters and gallons.

    Blue Planet
    Water shapes our planet. The presence and abundance of water distinguishes Earth from all other known planets. In this section visitors consider how Earth came by its supply of water; how much water there is on Earth; where it is located, and how water drives geologic and geomorphic processes. The centerpiece of this section is Science on a Sphere, a global display technology. SOS is used here to show the quantity and distribution of water on Earth and to illustrate water’s central role in driving Earth’s dynamic systems. Transitioning to the next section of the exhibition, visitors experience water’s power in sculpting the Earth’s surface as they walk through a recreated slot canyon.

    Water Works
    To support our water use, humans have built a huge infrastructure—from massive dams that harness waterpower to vast networks of wells, canals and irrigation ditches. Our water works and water consumption are often necessary but can harm animals, plants, and other people. In this area visitors use interactives and displays that help convey the impacts of dams around the world; examine the up and downs of using water for agricultural purposes, and they can compete in a “quiz show” on the topic of “virtual water”—water used to produce food and manufactured goods.

    Water, Water, Everywhere
    Water is all around us. Humans and other species have adapted to life in all kinds of wet environments. This area explores some of the wettest and iciest places in the world, and how species (including humans) have adapted to these extremes. Anchoring this area are stories and objects from the Tonle Sap in Cambodia, where annual monsoon rains shape the landscape and patterns of life, and the Arctic, where climate change is pressuring animals and human ways of life.

    Nor Any Drop to Drink
    Half of the world’s freshwater can be found in only six countries. Over a billion people on Earth do not have access to safe drinking water. This area offers stories from some of the driest places in the world and examples of technologies that collect, carry and store water. A replica of a large Sri Lankan cistern anchors this area, suggestive of the ingenuity and industry required to store freshwater in areas where supplies are inadequate for the human population living there. Using the simple Lifting Water interactive enables visitors to empathize with people who must carry their daily supply of water, sometimes over great distance.

    Healthy Water, Healthy Lives
    Good health goes hand in hand with a clean, safe supply of water. This area explores why clean water is so important, what’s involved in making our drinking water safe, and presents Earth’s own systems for moving and storing freshwater. Visitors can consider the costs and benefits of bottled water; explore the methods used for water purification and sewage treatment in locations around the globe; use a microscope to examine microbes—some safe, some harmful—that are often present in water; get a 3D view of the ups and downs of Tucson’s groundwater supply over four decades of growth, and use a variety of interactives to further their understanding of watersheds and aquifers.

    Aquatic ecosystems are very fragile. When we alter these systems—from wetlands to rivers to coral reefs—we often transform them so much that they no longer function at all. Although we cannot completely recreate destroyed ecosystems, we can often help such systems heal themselves. In this area visitors can take in stories of habitat destruction and recent hopes for recovery in the marshlands of Mesopotamia; immerse themselves in an arrangement of limestone tufas, modeled on those of Mono Lake, CA, and tread on a large floor map of the Mississippi River delta as they examine coastal erosion and learn about efforts to encourage formation of new land in the delta.

    Many water problems also have solutions. From households to huge cities, elected officials to entrepreneurs, everyone has a role to play in protecting Earth’s water. This section allows venues to present localized content. Graphic panels contain profiles of local people taking action on behalf of water resources; visitors can use an individualized water use calculator, or they can search for and view current and/or local news stories about water.

  • Development process and challenges

    During research and early development of our two separate traveling exhibitions about water, team members from both AMNH and SMM almost simultaneously discovered each other’s parallel efforts. In late 2006, exploratory discussions took place about whether the goals and content of the two projects overlapped and, if so, how AMNH and SMM might join forces. Once it was ascertained that a merged effort would result in a sum greater than its two parts, negotiations went forward to define roles, work processes, timelines, and budgets.

    AMNH’s Eleanor Sterling curated the exhibition. AMNH took the lead in exhibit and graphic design, script writing and editing, object procurement and handling, construction of mounts, dioramas and replicas, and overall project management. SMM’s Patrick Hamilton oversaw integration of Earth system science content into the exhibition. SMM developed and/or fabricated the show’s physical, computational and media interactives, produced structural elements, casework, and other elements in its St. Paul production facility. Graphics, video elements, and interactives produced in New York were incorporated during installation of the exhibition for its opening at AMNH. Staff from both AMNH and SMM staff worked on the first installation and continue to work together during installation of the exhibition at each of its tour venues.

    There were many challenges in pulling the exhibition together. We needed to bridge the work styles of two very different institutions, we were working across distance, and we also needed to incorporate key input from several other collaborating museums. The roles of each museum were negotiated up front so that each institution—indeed each individual—would understand what was and what wasn’t expected from them. Individuals at AMNH and SMM worked diligently to communicate well with each other. The cross-museum staff traded near constant e-mails, met weekly by phone, and frequently met face to face, twice in St. Paul but mostly in NYC.

    At SMM we had challenges not shared by AMNH. Our original project timeline was shortened by an entire year. Planning and fabricating complicated physical interactives (many with water!) on this accelerated timeline put pressure on our process and our people. We also needed make sure that the new exhibition construct would allow SMM to meet its obligations to NSF as defined in its original Water Planet grant proposal.

    Given the challenges and the pace at which everything came together, it is fortunate that camaraderie and trust developed between the individuals at AMNH and SMM who worked on Water: H2O = Life.

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

    See above.

  • Exhibition Opened: October 2007

  • Exhibition Still Open!

  • Traveling Exhibition: Yes

  • Estimated Cost: Over $3,000,000 (US)

  • Size: 5,000 to 10,000 sq ft.

  • NSF Funding: Yes, Grant No. ESI-0515599

  • Other funding source(s): Collaborating museums, National Center for Earth-surface Dynamics, National Ground Water Association, Freshwater Society

  • Website(s):  http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/water/

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