Forging Art and Science: Nature’s Toolbox Exhibit Builds Conservation Awareness

Photos and Article By Talia Beechick

On May 22, Chicagoans experienced the opening of Nature’s Toolbox, a new exhibit at the local Field Museum which, according to the exhibit’s curator Randy Jayne Rosenberg, aims to “light a path between our everyday activities and the loss of species and biodiversity,” she said in a statement. “Its goal is to demonstrate the potential to harness nature’s amazing designs and blueprints to build a future in which human needs are met in harmony with nature.”

And believe me, this exhibit did just that.

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The Aim of Nature’s Toolbox

Nature’s Toolbox is produced by Art Works for Change which creates traveling contemporary art displays that address social and environmental issues. These displays attempt to encourage dialogue and inspire action in viewers all over. Art Works for Change includes artists from China, Italy, Norway and the U.S. to create the final product: an impressive, engaging, educational and visually pleasing exhibit. Art is featured throughout the exhibit, with stand-out pieces including Donna Keiko Ozawa’s “The Waribashi Project,” a masterpiece using over 90,000 disposable chopsticks to emphasize their role in deforestation, and Isabella Rosellini’s appearance in her short film “Green Porno” to demonstrate, quite humorously, the mating rituals of bees. The art used a wide variety of media in order to discuss our relationship, whether it be positive or negative, with our environment. Videos embedded in blown glass sculptures, architecture plans, miniature dioramas and walls of touchable, heat-sensitive tiles are just a few of the innovative techniques and formats used by the artists.

According to Rosenberg, “Art can help build awareness. While science measures the health of the planet, art helps us visualize our complex relationship to the natural world,” she said. “Science provides facts while art tells stories.” It is this unique combination of science and art which brings Nature’s Toolbox such great success in conveying its message and making an impact. Upon entering the exhibit, visitors immediately notice a huge silver plaque shining on the wall, inscribed with the words, “The Field Museum’s conservation efforts puts science into action,” as it inspires visitors the moment they arrive.

Discoveries Made by Scientists at the Chicago Field Museum

Dimly lit due to the use of a few dramatically colored spotlights as the main light source, Nature’s Toolbox begins by introducing the visitor to the ways in which the scientists of the Field Museum are protecting millions of acres of forests and how from 1999-2010 they discovered over 150 new species of plants and animals. Several plaques, posters and pictures on the walls depict how the scientists were divided into three teams to inventory a region’s diverse species of plants and animals. The natural resources used by the local inhabitants are pictured as well.

First, one of the teams of scientists, the Advance Team, arrived at the region in order to prepare campsites and trails, and become familiar with the area. The Biological Team then identified the species of plants and animals found in the selected region, with specialists determining how common, rare or new each species is. The final team, Social, interacted with the surrounding communities through interviews, observation and group activities in order to better understand how the locals use their environment and its resources. After visiting each region, the teams collaborated to create a report, which was published in Chicago a year later, which states the conservation priorities and ways in which locals can get involved in the management of the site. Within just 10 years, 23 reports had been written and published by the museum’s scientists, resulting in millions of protected acres.

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On display were several notebooks used by the scientists throughout their research in foreign regions. Some notebooks contained sketches of explored trails, while others listed species of birds that were discovered or records of visits to nearby villages. An MP3 player also made an appearance as a crucial element in these conservation quests. Scientists used the MP3 player to replicate and play different bird calls in order to attract species that are rare or hard to locate. This strategy, according to the exhibit, paid off when they attracted the Acre Antshrike and took what would be the first published photograph of this particular type of bird. Apparently, these birds had previously only been spotted in Brazil and Peru. The birds are believed to live only in the mountains between Brazil and Peru and nowhere else on earth, explaining their lack of pictures.

Conservation of Birds, Mammals, Fish and Coral Reefs

Displays focusing on the conservation of birds, mammals and fish used various methods to report the stories and results from different explorations and research trips. Pictures of the sites, explanations of the inventory process, in-depth videos of interviews with locals and equipment used while researching the regions all provided the viewer with an easy, accessible and aesthetically-pleasing educational experience. Interactive games also managed to teach the visitor, and perhaps his or her children, about the scientists’ work and ways in which we can continue their conservation efforts. For example, viewers had the ability to hear the calls of different birds that were researched by the scientists, and a fun game involving marbles is there to teach the player the positive and negative impacts that mining, logging and farming have on certain regions of forest.

Natures toolbox green environmentally friendly conservation art scientific exhibit

Another section of the exhibit focuses on coral reefs and the threats this habitat is up against. These threats, according to Nature’s Toolbox, are posed by land, air and sea forces. For example, the scientists explain that although we typically associate greenhouse gases with air, land and climate issues, these harmful gases actually bleach the coral white due to warmer water. The carbon dioxide in the air makes the water more acidic, weakening the coral skeleton and thus stunting its growth. This display continues to explain that sediment from mining, logging and farming sites often smother coastal reefs, with pesticides poisoning the water and fertilizers feeding the growth of harmful algae. The scientists did not stop there. The Field Museum provides the visitor with a large microscope to analyze hundreds of tiny pieces of mollusk shells from the Florida Keys, helping the viewer firmly grasp what the scientists are doing and how they work. Impressively, before the conservation efforts put forth by the Field Museum scientists, there were 582 known mollusk species. Currently there are 1,743 known species, with 99 of them on display at the exhibit for viewers to learn about.

Roles Indigenous People of Colombia, Ecuador and Peru Play in Conservation

While viewers can enjoy displays on different species of animals and the work being done to learn about and protect these animals, Nature’s Toolbox also presents the stories of the locals in order to gain a better understanding of their role in conservation. Displays focus on several different groups, including the Maijuna group in Peru, the Cofan people in Colombia and Ecuador and the Shipibo peoples of Peru, and the ways these groups interact with their environment. For example, the Maijuna people place great importance on aguaje, a native fruit to their region which is eaten by humans and animals. The fruit grows on palm trees whose palms are used for shelter by many species. Rather than cutting down these palms to harvest, eat and sell the fruit, the Maijuna tribe has created harnesses to climb the trees and pick the fruit without interrupting the daily life around them. The Field Museum also highlights the crucial role the Cofan people play in preserving an Ecuadorian forest equal to the size of Delaware. Because of their careful monitoring and protection of these forests, biodiversity is conserved and the effects of climate change are buffered by rain that is produced from the water evaporating on the leaves.

Cultivating a Better Relationship with the Planet

By examining the lifestyles of others who have learned to adapt to their environment and work with it, rather than against it, the Field Museum shows how everyone can strive toward a better relationship with our planet. The scientists offer direct, immediate solutions to both minor and major environmental issues, especially those which are directly impacting the greater Chicago area. For example, one plaque announced that as a result of turning off lights at night, 10,000 birds a year can be saved. This realization spurred the creation of the Lights Out Chicago program, which encourages Chicagoans to turn off their lights to avoid birds colliding with skyscrapers. Other quick and easy solutions include using clotheslines for laundry and working to improve public transportation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Nature’s Toolbox will remain at the Chicago Field Museum through December 2 and will reopen in January 2013 at The Leonardo in Salt Lake City, Utah, heading to Kansas in August 2013. This exhibit is simultaneously educational and entertaining, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the conservation of biodiversity and the overall health of our environment. It presents valuable information which is crucial in understanding how to work with our environment. After all, in the words of the Field Museum’s curator of invertebrates, Rüdiger Bieler, “We cannot protect what we do not know.”

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