On our most recent visit to the Harvard Museum of Natural History, my brother, Kenrick, and I stumbled upon an immersive exhibit on New England Forests. Multi-sensory media was used to recreate the experience of walking through an old growth forest. Few New Englanders have ever had the opportunity to walk through an old growth forest. Through a video in the exhibit we learned something that shocked even my zoologist brother. Today, old growth forests make up only 0.2% of forested land in New England.
Walking into the gallery we were transported into the past. An old growth forest would have been a common scene for the English colonists that first settled in Massachusetts in the 1600s, but is hard to imagine for someone who has never experienced one. Visiting a museum with a knowledgeable companion is always more enjoyable, which is why I decided to bring my brother along for this visit. He was able to tell me about the species of plants and animals, once common in New England, which we seldom see today. One of these is the American chestnut tree, which once blanketed the landscape. The tactile exhibit invited visitors to feel what the bark of these trees would feel like. There were also rocks, plants, and some stuffed animals that could be touched. Glass ponds with fish looked so life like I had to touch them to determine if there was really water there. My favorite detail was the soundtrack they played over the loudspeakers to mimic the sounds of an old growth forest. Kenrick was able to identify some of the bird calls for me, and we later found examples of them in the collection.
The exhibit did a good job of both creating a personal connection to the resource, and informing visitors how they could help preserve old growth forests. If the information on how to help were given without first creating an engaging and immersive forest atmosphere, I doubt I would have felt as strong of an urge to learn about and protect old growth forests.
I can think of few ways to improve this exhibit. The only thing I might suggest is to find ways of engaging the senses which were not already. Smell and taste are the only senses that weren’t a part of this immersive environment. The museum staff may want to avoid using taste for safety reasons, but smell is becoming more commonly used in sensory exhibits. If they could find a way to recreate the smells of old growth forests, it would be one step closer to experiencing the real thing.