Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth
Newest Permanent Exhibition Shows Scientists in Action
Opening November 4, 2011
Not since Indiana Jones has the scientist’s role as action hero come to life as vividly as in The Field Museum’s new exhibition that immerses visitors in adventures with Museum scientists as they promote conservation from Chicago to South America, to Pacific coral reefs and points in between.
Opening to the public November 4, 2011, Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth is The Field’s newest permanent exhibition. It uses large-scale photographs, videos, and fun, hands-on learning tools to focus on active science and those who make it happen.
“We want to change the perception of what a museum can be,” says Anna Huntley, the exhibition’s project manager. “Field Museum scientists work to preserve biodiversity all over the world. We want people to know that conservation can be discovery, beauty, adventure, and action.”
The new exhibition is made possible through the generous support of Abbott, the global health care company based in north suburban Chicago. “Abbott is proud to support The Field Museum’s efforts to advance conservation and sustainability,” said Miles D. White, chairman and chief executive officer, Abbott. “The Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth exhibition is a testament to our shared commitment to safeguarding the environment, and to strengthening the cultural and educational vitality of Chicago.”
Exhibition That Inspires
Restoring Earth is a testament to The Field Museum’s emphasis on conservation and sustainability, but the exhibition doesn’t lecture, telling visitors what’s right and wrong. Instead, visitors hear scientists’ own words – describing the work they do and the passion and urgency that drives them.
The exhibition is also a treat for the senses. Huge, breathtaking visuals produced in vivid color and high resolution show portions of beetles, fish scales, and butterfly wings that illustrate the stunning beauty in the natural world all around us. Throughout the exhibition, visitors have the opportunity to select and view digital video shorts that explore concepts and processes used by Field Museum scientists. Music, animation, and humor are used to engage both kids and adults as they learn about subjects ranging from why coral reefs matter to how ancient peoples practiced conservation.
“We provide an experience that goes beyond just information,” says Alvaro Amat, the Museum’s design director. “We want to effect an attitude change, to make people care about nature instead of just learning about it. We’re trying to inspire.”
The look and feel of the exhibition are unique and in keeping with its message of conservation. No harmful substances were employed in building the hall. Wall coverings are made from reclaimed sorghum, the floor is made up of recycled carpet and wood. Because conservation is timeless, visitors may start from either end of Restoring Earth, or go right to the center for an overview.
A “Library of Life” Now Makes Conservation a Priority
The Field Museum grew out of scientific collections that were part of Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition and is now a “library of life” with over 24 million specimens and artifacts in its collections. The Museum employs about 200 scientists, many of whom travel to the far corners of the world to study and help preserve the Earth’s rich animal and plant life. In recent years, forces such as human destruction of habitats and climate change have made conservation a priority.
“If, more than 100 years ago, the Museum’s founders had known that so many species would be in danger today, conservation would have been part of our original mission. Today we’ve expanded our mission from exploring only, to exploring, explaining, and sustaining,” says Debra Moskovits, senior vice president of the Museum’s Department of Environment, Culture and Conservation (ECCo).
Working with local people and governments, teams of ECCo and in-country scientists conduct rapid inventories, going into natural areas to create a quick but thorough picture of the animals and plants at the site, learning which species are unique to the area and the dangers they face. The teams also include social scientists who focus on the area’s cultural diversity and how local people interact with their environment. After the inventories, the scientists write integrated reports rich with data, color photos, and maps. They also discuss their findings immediately with local residents and policymakers to explore how to implement the main recommendations for conservations and quality of life.
Visitors to Restoring Earth can get a sense of what it’s like to participate in a rapid inventory. Giant video projections show Field Museum scientists canoeing down the Amazon and dropping from helicopters into dense jungle. Visitors have a feeling of being there, hearing jungle sounds in the background, as scientists describe the adventure and discovery of “on the ground” conservation work.
A rapid inventory is more like an adventure than a job. More than a dozen men and women with expertise in frogs and snakes, birds, fish, mammals, plants, geology, as well as social sciences, camp out in remote areas seldom seen by the outside world. They rise before dawn, fanning out to make inventories of different forms of life in the area. They wade into streams to see what’s swimming there. They turn over rocks to see what scampers out.
“Our goal is to spend about three weeks surveying,” says Corine Vriesendorp, ECCo’s rapid inventories and conservation tools director. “When we finish in the field, the biologists and social scientists spend a week feverishly writing up our preliminary results.”
The fieldwork inevitably yields new species to science and adds to the Museum’s vast collections, but the follow-up presentations and reports are what make these forays crucial to people and governments of the host countries. The inventory reports provide a way for policymakers and interested parties to focus on land management questions. “When we call a meeting of regional governments, road builders, conservation groups and indigenous federations, people who don’t often talk to each other come together,” Vriesendorp explains.
Thanks to the efforts of The Field Museum’s ECCo program and strong collaborations in South America, more than 30 million acres in the Amazon foothills and Amazon lowlands are now under protection or in the process of coming under protection. Museum scientists continue working with local people to assure that the protection is real on ongoing. No other museum or academic institution in the world has a department quite comparable to ECCo.
Exhibition videos also show “citizen scientists” interacting with nature. These local people from places such as Peru, the Philippines, and Chicago help show how all of us can make good decisions and undertake conservation efforts right in our own backyards.
“Conservation is about making decisions,” says Alaka Wali, ECCo’s applied cultural research director. “We’ve seen cases when local parks have been set up and fenced off and people cut the fences and poach the wildlife. That’s what we call ‘fortress conservation.’ We want to promote ‘sustainable conservation.’ We want to protect the birds, but also to sustain local livelihoods. They depend upon the forest too.”
Visitors to Restoring Earth will get a chance to make their own land management choices by using interactive games that invite players to make choices about where to protect forests or harvest timber. When rains come, the players learn whether their choices were wise ones or whether they contributed to flooding that damages the landscape and destroys villages.
Collections: The Heart of Field Museum’s Mission
Scientists are fond of saying,“You can’t save what you don’t know.” That’s one reason why collections are still at the heart of the Museum’s conservation mission. The Field’s huge, world-class collections of animal and plant specimens provide the necessary context for biodiversity studies and enable scientists to document environmental change.
Restoring Earth illustrates this point by featuring Field Museum specimens taken from Wolf Lake on the Illinois-Indiana border. The specimens date from 100 years ago, 50 years ago, and today. That history is essential in telling the full story of the region and helps answer the questions: “What’s intruding?” and “What’s missing?”
The Field Museum’s vast collections are regularly revisited by scientists who ask new questions and examine old specimens to get their answers. Recently Field Museum scientists took a closer look at what was thought to be a single species of fish that is widespread from the Philippines to Japan to Indonesia, but a closer look revealed that assumption to be wrong.
“Our research found that this was really three species of reef fish, not one,” said Joshua Drew, a postdoctoral research scientist at the Museum. “Each requires different management. When you take time to look at the Museum’s holdings, you find the story is more complex than you originally thought.”
On display in Restoring Earth will be work done by Field Museum scientists exploring coral reefs in Fiji and the island environments of Madagascar, the Florida Keys, and the Philippines.
Islands and reefs make excellent natural laboratories to study biodiversity because they are rich in different species and have defined boundaries. Exhibition visitors are invited to play the role of scientist and look closely at sea shell specimens to see if they can discover variations that might not be apparent at first glance. Visitors can examine minute specimens and project their magnified images onto a giant screen. What first appears as sand suddenly is revealed to be dozens of tiny shells, beautiful and complete.
Using this and other methods, Field Museum Curator Rüdiger Bieler and his colleagues discovered 1,700 molluscan species living in and near the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Fewer than 600 were thought to live there when the refuge was created in the 1990s. These data can now be used to monitor this unique fauna, alerting us to extinctions and to the arrival of invasive species.Restoring Earth features nearly 100 shell specimens that represent the stunning biodiversity of the region, different sizes, shapes, and colors all found in the Florida Keys!
Museum Curator Mark Westneat is also featured in Restoring Earth. He explains the importance of collections in helping to conserve coral reefs: “In Papua New Guinea we recently collected 350 species of fishes. We have these fish and their DNA, and now the work begins. Collections are here forever to be used by us and by researchers into the future. They are our contribution to science. We use information gathered from studying the collections to help us make wise decisions concerning preservation.”
Focus on Local Conservation Efforts
Restoring Earth also showcases conservation action closer to home. “The Chicago region has a rich history of setting aside natural land for the benefit of the millions of people who live here. Over 360,000 acres, in forest preserves and state and national parks in our region, harbor globally significant natural communities and species of conservation concern,” says Laurel Ross, The Field Museum’s urban conservation director. “We hope people will recognize that our region has globally rare species and natural communities with abundant biodiversity.” The Field Museum has worked with partners to unite more than 250 conservation organizations in a powerful conservation alliance to restore and connect these precious remnants of our natural heritage.
The exhibition uses large projections to convey the fascinating array of restoration activities used by Chicago Wilderness land managers. Visitors will be surrounded by dramatic footage of cleansing prairie fire, which is used to manage weedy plant invaders in Midwest preserves.
Exhibition visitors will learn about opportunities to participate in conservation as volunteers. Our region is exceptional in that unlike other urban areas we have thousands of “citizen scientists” of all ages who volunteer in local preserves learning about local natural history by becoming stewards of nature. They can also take this knowledge home and apply it in their own neighborhood.Even making simple choices like what plants to use in a backyard garden can be important.
Abbott Hall of Conservation Restoring Earth Project Manager Anna Huntley concludes, “We want people to come away from the exhibition realizing that conservation is much more than they may have previously thought. It's science that helps us understand our world, but it's also a lifestyle we can practice every day."