Monday, June 16, 2014

Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum: A Museum with a Message

What do you think of when you see the word museum?  A stuffy, stale place where you can walk but not run, with old stuff behind the glass that you can look at but not touch?  Well, obviously… we hope not.  Clearly we are working to prove you wrong, and should have your mind changed very soon.  If you do still happen to share this unfortunate conception of museums, get thee to the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum and prepare to be surprised!

Museum has always had a positive connotation for me, I’ve frequent many of them in my day, and the Nature Museum was still able to surprise me.  First off, it looks different than the other major museums in Chicago, which are of the Neoclassical style of architecture.  The Nature Museum is that modern looking, angular and inviting white building you see peeking from the trees of Lincoln Park.  It’s a total sanctuary located in the middle of the park, offering beautiful views of the city, of the trees and plants around it, and even the lagoon!  I cannot speak highly enough of the Butterfly Haven there, which is easily one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. 

Hangin' around the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven

What surprised me more beyond the sheer visual delights the building has to offer, though, was the museum’s distinct style of presentation.  The exhibits are clearly fashioned to engage the visitor—at any age—with touch, understanding, and the ability to take that experience home with you.  The “Extreme Green House” exhibit, for instance, offers people a closer look at their own homes by touring a very familiar-looking house of the Green family.  Panels explain where the water in your kitchen sink comes from and where it goes, how much energy is used by your washing machine, even what kind of insects are typically found in a house and what they do!  To this point, the Nature Museum even has panels inside the stalls in their public restrooms, offering tips on how to conserve water in your toilet at home. Although offered in a beautiful setting, the Nature Museum does not soften their message: conservation.  While they make it purely accessible to the visitor by offering insight and tips, they also provide some not-so-nice images of what can happen when efforts to conserve and protect nature are not met. 

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the Passenger Pigeon—a species that at one point was abundant enough to reach the billions.  Human fault, specifically overhunting and deforestation, led to this demise—a point the Nature Museum does not make light of.  Passing through the “Birds of Chicago” and “Wilderness Walk” exhibits, you see many taxidermied animals in recreations of their natural habitats-be it forest, savannah, or desert.  This is fairly standard practice, to have taxidermists pose animals to look as they would as they were living, and then place them in real-looking natural settings to even further liven things up.  But the Passenger Pigeon is given no such display at the museum; no florid background surrounding it, no accompanying animals to distract you from it.  As you can see pictured here, the Passenger Pigeon is not gussied up whatsoever.  It was jarring to see in person, as a museum-goer is accustomed to the still life displays of taxidermy.  The Passenger Pigeon was not that experience.  The specimen is displayed in the most stark and sterile way possible: laid down on its back with its belly to the air, eyes white, tag on its toe.  And it is here that the Nature Museum makes the best use of reaching out to people from behind the glass.  This, the accompanying panel offers, is what “can happen when we don’t take care of our planet…share it with your friends”!  This creature is behind the glass because we put it here, it’s long gone and this is all we have left to show.

A Call to Action

As a visitor, you do not have a flat line experience here.  From the highs of beauty and the liveliness amid the butterflies and birds in the Butterfly Haven, to the useful tips for preservation and prevention at home, to the dangers of being trapped behind the glass, the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum has a distinct mission for the conservation of nature in all forms. Point taken. What a powerful message indeed.