Art and Museum Review / Compte Rendu D'exposition

Article excerpt

Art and Museum Review / Compte rendu d'exposition

Evolving Planet: Constructing the Culture of Science at Chicago's Field Museum

The recent resurgence of the debate in the United States and northern Québec between evolutionists and creationists reminds us that there is still disagreement on who or what is the prime mover of life on Earth. I propose to explore a specific site of production for evolutionary discourse-that of the public museum. Long understood as instruments in the creation of nations and citizens, museums are sites for the creation of culture. With Evolving Planet, the Field Museum reinforces a particular culture of modern, Western science as the only epistemology for understanding life on Earth.

In early March 2006, the Field Museum in Chicago opened its newly renovated permanent exhibit on evolution entitled Evolving Planet Planning for the $17 million exhibit began in 2001 when in-house evaluations revealed that Life Over Time, the exhibit that Evolving Planet replaces, was failing to communicate the message that all life on Earth is connected through the cumulative processes of evolution (Tubutis 2005: 18). In preparing for the renovations, the Museum had several objectives, which included reporting recent advances in evolutionary theory, highlighting its fossil collections and providing a context for Sue, the recently acquired Tyrannosaurus rex that resides in the Stanley Field Hall on the ground floor. The Field Museum tells the story of evolution through the tried-and-true walk-through-time design, unlike some institutions that present evolution more thematically-for example, the recent Darwin exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (see also Rufolo, 1999). But not to be restricted by the geologic time-scale, Evolving Planet divides the journey into six colour-coded phases that cross-cut and combine some geologic divisions.

If, as L.E Hartley claims, the past is a foreign country, then the geologic past presented in Evolving Planet is a different world. Indeed, we might more readily identify the volcanic terrain and 50°C temperatures of the Precambrian eon with Mars than with the ancient history of Earth. When presenting the Earth's deep history, one challenge for museum professionals is to make its foreignness familiar to visitors. With Evolving Planet, the Field Museum takes this challenge one step further in attempting to allow visitors to experience the unexperienceable. Through a combination of fossil specimens, digital animations, artistic illustrations, three-dimensional models and video presentations, Evolving Planet creates spaces in which visitors are meant, not only to observe, but also to experience 4.5 billion years of life on planet Earth.

Walking into the first phase, which is devoted to the Precambrian, it becomes clear that Evolving Planet will be a multisensory experience. The Precambrian is cast in the orangered of Paleozoic lava. Visitors see an illustration of, what appears to be, a typical landscape for this eon-a sea of indeterminate liquid punctuated by steaming volcanoes. Sinusoidal light effects cast shimmering ripples on the exhibit walls. We hear the ambient sounds of harsh winds, presumably whipping down through the scattered landforms. The accompanying text panel warns visitors that the atmospheric cocktail of carbon dioxide, nitrogen and water vapour would have made the Precambrian air unbreathable. Yet the artistic interpretation of the landscape implies a human perspective. We, the visitors, could be standing atop a distant volcano taking in the literally breathtaking view of the Precambrian ooze.

The "you-are-here" provocations continue with other audio-visual features of Evolving Planet Each phase has its own particular colour scheme and soundscape, allowing visitors to sense sights, sounds and even some of the textures that have been extinct for millennia. Visitors entering the Cambrian period, for example, face three large screens that display the digital animation of a sea teeming with awe-inspiring life (photo 1). …