If you’ve done any traveling or watched a rerun of Planet Earth, you know that the world is full of wondrous places that look quite different than the view outside your home. The National Geographic Society has been documenting the Earth’s most exotic locales for the past 126 years, starting in the pages of those iconic yellow-bordered magazines and, more recently, its own cable channel. The organization’s latest traveling exhibition, “Earth Explorers,” seeks to document its adventures and inspire the next generation of intrepid wanderers. The exhibit opened this week at the Museum of Science and Industry and runs through September 1.
The “Earth Explorers” exhibit is divided into five areas, each representing a different eco-zone—rain forests, oceans, polar regions, mountains and the savannah. Kids can pick up a journal when they enter the exhibit and write down answers to questions after reading the information and watching videos presented in the various displays. Additionally, attendees with iPhones or Android smartphones can download an app that allows them to scan special tags placed throughout the exhibit. The app harnesses augmented reality technology to display interactive, computer-animated animals that correspond to the eco-zone in which the tag is placed—a fun trick, but kind of pointless.
As you travel through the area of the exhibit that corresponds to each eco-zone, you’ll learn more about the individual explorers that created the photos and videos that populate the displays. An 11-foot sculpture of a great white shark with a “crittercam” attached to its fin demonstrates how one oceanographer is obtaining firsthand views of undersea environments. Elsewhere, a gallery of photos taken by a rain forest explorer reveals a multitude of newly discovered insects.
While most of the exhibit relies on video footage to relay information, there are some interactive components that allow for participation. In the polar area, attendees can step in front of a thermal camera to reveal how heat loss occurs as well as how explorers prevent it with special clothing. The savannah displays offer a chance to identify and touch fake animal droppings or have a picture taken by a motion-sensing camera that is used to capture photos of lions.
Sadly, the exhibit’s “immersive” attractions don’t really impress. In the ocean area, you can duck into a replica of a deep sea submersible and watch a short video on three screens that surround you, but you’ll see the same underwater scene no matter which screen you look at like. Likewise, the hot air balloon simulator in the savannah area is nothing more than a raised platform placed in front of a large screen that displays aerial shots of animals while two tiny fans blow air in your face.
“Earth Explorers” does do a great job of explaining what drives us to explore the planet we live on. Unlike famous adventurers like Bear Grylls, the explorers portrayed in this exhibit aren’t just trekking across dangerous terrain for the thrill of it—they’re trying to learn more about the world around them in order to preserve it for future generations.
“We always want people to leave an exhibit feeling inspired,” the Museum of Science and Industry’s manager of temporary exhibits Jeff Buonomo told me, “Everyone is an explorer, whether you’re a kid digging in the mud or an adult stuck in traffic trying to get from point A to point B.” It may try a bit too hard to be inspiring, utilizing plenty of stirring fanfares and overwrought narration, but the exhibit succeeds in driving its point home: humankind has searched all over the Earth, but there are still undiscovered species and unexplained phenomena that are just waiting for someone brave enough to seek them out.