New Permanent Hall Addresses Major Environmental Crisis

On May 30, 1998, -- the American Museum of Natural History opens a ground-breaking permanent exhibition devoted to what many scientists believe to be the most pressing environmental issue of our time: the need to protect the variety and interdependence of Earth's living things, or biodiversity. The new Hall of Biodiversity combines innovative exhibition techniques with new technologies to launch a massive educational effort to alert the public to the biodiversity crisis and its vast implications. The 11,000-square-foot Hall marks an important step forward in the Museum's efforts to expand public understanding of Earth's diverse and often endangered life forms, and of the critical role this diversity plays in sustaining life as we know it. In addition to informing the public about the biodiversity crisis, the Hall offers a vivid and inspiring vision of the spectacular beauty and abundance of life on Earth. The Hall includes such spectacular features as:

  • The Rainforest: A Diorama for the Twenty-First Century, a new form of diorama that immerses the visitor in the complex and ever-changing environment of one of the richest ecosystems on Earth;
  • The Spectrum of Life, which dramatically depicts the incredible diversity of life on Earth;
  • A BioBulletin, which offers regular updates on the changing state of biodiversity.
"Biodiversity and its alarmingly rapid loss is both an urgent current issue and a long-term one," states Museum President Ellen V. Futter. "With the opening of this dramatic new hall, the American Museum of Natural History assumes a leadership role in educating the public about one of the most critical scientific issues of our time. Biodiversity is directly relevant to each and every one of us, and to the future of Earth itself. This hall combines vanguard exhibition techniques and innovative uses of technology with the richness of the Museum's vast collections to give visitors, on-site and electronically, an unparalleled experience that actively immerses them in the splendor and interdependence of life on the planet, while demonstrating the vital need to protect it, and the means for doing so."

The Biodiversity Crisis
Every species is interconnected with others in natural systems that shape Earth's atmosphere, climate, and physical features; human beings could not exist without this wide range and variety of life. A recent survey conducted by the American Museum of Natural History and Louis Harris and Associates confirmed that a majority of biologists believe that we are in the midst of a mass extinction of living things Ñ and that expanding human populations and overexploitation of natural resources are causing an ever-accelerating degradation of environmental quality, and an irreparable loss of species diversity. The survey reveals the scientific consensus that this loss of species will pose a major threat to biodiversity and to human existence in the next century; some scientists say that within the next thirty years as many as half the species on the Earth will die in one of the fastest mass extinctions in the planet's 4.5-billion-year history, referred to as the "Sixth Extinction."

Michael J. Novacek, Museum senior vice-president and provost, states, "This hall is a powerful statement about the beauty and diversity of life, as well as about the current threats to this diversity. The Hall also reflects the organization and evolution of the Earth's biota. In a major innovation, one that will characterize many of the Museum's initiatives in the twenty-first century, the Hall of Biodiversity brings to visitors vivid and current insight into the work of our scientists and the ongoing efforts to stem the tide of species extinction and habitat destruction." The current rate of extinction can only be slowed if the public understands the importance of biodiversity, and takes action to sustain it. The Hall of Biodiversity contributes importantly to this understanding, and demonstrates the ways in which our everyday decisions effect it.

The Hall
"The Hall of Biodiversity represents a fundamental departure from traditional Museum exhibitions," states Niles Eldredge, chief curator for the Hall of Biodiversity and curator in the Museum's Department of Invertebrates. "Rather than depicting nature solely in its pristine state, this exhibition tells the story of humanity's transformation of the globe, and the consequences of that transformation." Using a variety of media, ranging from traditional specimens, artifacts, and text, to innovative video productions, audio recordings, and interactive computer stations, the Hall defines biodiversity, demonstrates its importance to life as we know it, examines the major issues involved in sustaining it, and showcases the magnificent variety and breathtaking beauty of life. An eight-minute video introduction to the Hall, narrated by Tom Brokaw, provides visitors with an illuminating overview of biodiversity and the role it plays in the continued balance of the biota.

By its very nature, biodiversity is continuously changing, and cannot be sufficiently addressed by traditional, retrospective museum techniques. In the Hall of Biodiversity, an electronic BioBulletin reflects the dynamic nature of the connections of species to their environments, by offering a frequently updated look at the effects on biodiversity of events such as fires, deforestation, global warming, habitat fragmentation, and El Nino. Explanatory commentary accompanies all reported events. Indeed, this hall serves as a resource where the public, on an ongoing basis, on-site and off, can learn about current scientific research and discovery, and about current threats to biodiversity.

The Rainforest: A Diorama for the Twenty-First Century
The exhibits in the Hall reflect the two "faces" of biodiversity: ecological and evolutionary biodiversity. Ecological biodiversity is illustrated by a 2,500-square-foot diorama that re-creates a portion of the rainforest of the Central African Republic. The diorama includes more than 160 species of flora and fauna and more than 500,000 leaves, each of which was painstakingly detailed by hand. A new form of museum dioramameasuring 90-feet long, 26-feet wide, and 18-feet high, this exhibit joins new technologies, including true-motion video, with a meticulous re-creation of place to depict the interactions of animals and humans with the environment. Through high-resolution imagery, video, sound, and even smell, visitors are immersed in a habitat in which animals appear to move through the forest, and lighting effects simulate the forest ambiance at different times of day. Moreover, the rainforest is shown in three different states: pristine, altered by natural forces, and degraded by human intervention. In a major departure from tradition, visitors are invited behind the glass wall that usually forms a barrier between viewers and the scene depicted, and thus become a part of this ever-changing and severely threatened ecosystem. Video and text panels alongside the diorama explain many of the details represented within.

The Spectrum of Life
The evolutionary aspect of biodiversity is illustrated by a grand assemblage of more than 1,500 specimens and models, mounted in a 100-foot-long installation along one wall and extending out overhead, vividly conveying the awe-inspiring diversity of life on Earth. Encompassing 28 living groups, resulting from 3.5 billion years of evolution, the creatures in the "Spectrum of Life" range from microorganisms to terrestrial and aquatic giants, and include bacteria, plants, fish, mammals, and insects. A series of ten interactive computer stations adjacent to the installation identify the specimens featured in the Spectrum, and explain their distribution on Earth. Touch models help visitors better understand such important ecosystem services as erosion, photosynthesis, decomposition, pollination, and other processes.

Video Tour of Earth's Ecosystems
A multi-screen video installation, sixty feet in length, provides a global tour of nine distinct ecosystems, illustrating the breadth and beauty of Earth's habitats while exploring their relative status of peril and preservation. The ecosystems examined in this installation are tundra; islands; temperate and boreal forests; tropical forests; open oceans; coral reefs and coastal wetlands; grasslands and savannas; deserts; and freshwater wetlands, rivers, and lakes. Each video moves from pristine to degraded habitat; the ecosystems are further explored with texts and maps of their distribution.

The Crisis Zone Embedded in a case in the floor in the center of the Hall, a timeline of the five previous extinctions includes examples of species lost, while a nearby display case contains examples of endangered and extinct creatures, with information on the causes of their endangerment or extinction. An explanation of biodiversity, clarification of its importance, and a general overview of the causes of the Sixth Extinction are sited on two columns flanking the timeline.

Other Exhibits

  • The Resource Center presents regularly updated information about how people's everyday decisions effect biodiversity. Featured here is a bank of ten computer stations that offer interactive activities, access to relevant Web sites, a bibliography of information on biodiversity, a database of individual solutions and involved organizations, and a searchable archive of the BioBulletins.
  • The Transformation Wall consists of text, graphics, and video examining transformations of the biosphere, including those caused by agriculture and urbanization, overexploitation of resources, introduced species, and global environmental change.
  • The Solutions Wall, designed to be periodically updated, discusses such solutions to the biodiversity crisis as protection and restoration, research and outreach, management of natural resources, and reducing the demand for resources.

Biodiversity Studies at the Museum
Scientists at the American Museum of Natural History are in the forefront of research on the world's species, working to illuminate biodiversity through knowledge of the organization, geographic distribution, and history of Earth's species. Such knowledge is essential in order to stem the tide of extinction and ensure the welfare of the biosphere, as governments, scientists, industry, and policymakers throughout the world must take complex collective actions to address species loss, and these actions must be informed by accurate scientific information about species diversity. In their work on biodiversity, Museum scientists draw on one of the world's unique collections of biological specimens. Numbering in the millions, these provide an invaluable record of biological communities and ecosystems over time, and thus document alterations in and responses to environmental stresses. They also contain the primary scientific evidence for the existence and identification of different species, and provide the most reliable documentation of species extinction.

In 1993, in response to heightened international awareness of the importance of biodiversity, the Museum established the interdisciplinary Center for Biodiversity and Conservation. The Center is dedicated to enhancing the use of rigorous scientific data to mitigate critical threats to global biodiversity. In order to help make the complex political and economic decisions necessary for the survival and protection of global biological resources, the Center provides the essential scientific tools to identify and understand the mechanisms behind the losses, and to equip the world community to use them effectively.

Sponsorship of the Hall
Leadership support for the Hall of Biodiversity has been provided by the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, The City of New York, Metropolitan Life Foundation, Monsanto Company, and Museum Trustees Emily H. Fisher and Karen Lauder, and Ms. Lauder's husband, William Lauder.

Dr. Eldredge is chief curator of the Hall of Biodiversity; co-curators are Joel Cracraft, curator, Department of Ornithology, and Francesca Grifo, director, Center for Biodiversity and Conservation, both at the Museum. The exhibition design and production was a collaborative effort among the Museum's Department of Exhibition: David Harvey, director, and J. Willard Whitson and Melissa Posen, associate directors; Ralph Appelbaum Associates, interpretive designer; and Polshek and Partners Architects, conceptual design consultant and architect.

For more information contact the Museum's Department of Communications, 212-769-5800.

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