The life aquatic

The American Museum of Natural History dips into the wild world of water.

WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE Visitors enter "Water: H20=Life" through a veil of mist.

WATER, WATER, EVERYWHERE Visitors enter "Water: H20=Life" through a veil of mist. Photo: D. Finnin/AMNH

Just days before the opening of “Water: H2O=Life” at the American Museum of Natural History, curator Eleanor Sterling set sail across the Pacific in a small boat. The excursion was for an unrelated project, but her mind kept drifting back to the exhibition she left in New York. “The boat is such a small, closed system—I’m getting a very different appreciation for water here,” she texted via satellite uplink. “It’s made me think even more about how much water we use each day, and how much we take fresh water for granted.”

Sterling’s concerns are well-founded. A recent study revealed that only 4 percent of Americans realize that drinkable water constitutes less than 1 percent of Earth’s agua. The goal of the AMNH exhibit is to show that all water—from rainfall in the Andes to dewdrops in Central Park—is connected, and remind people how vulnerable our most vital natural resource actually is. “We’ve only got a finite water supply, but demands from human populations keep increasing,” Sterling warns. “This isn’t just about entertaining people and showing them water in a new light, but inspiring them to take action to protect and conserve it.”

To make their point, Sterling and her colleagues have pulled out the high-tech guns. Entering the main hall, museumgoers walk through a curtain of fog digitally emblazoned with the word for water in various languages (Don’t worry, you won’t get soaked: the vapor is too fine to condense on your skin.) Elsewhere in the show, you’ll find a dam that visitors can raise and lower (causing silt-filled water to gush forth), a walk-through diorama of the limestone towers in Mono Lake, California, and a large-scale re-creation of a slot canyon that speaks to water’s power as a terraformer.

Science on a Sphere, a holographic projection on a 68-inch globe, illustrates the current and historical distribution of water around the world using data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “You can watch cloud movements and ocean currents over thousands of years. It gives you a very privileged view of our planet,” says AMNH director of exhibitions David Harvey. “On the other hand, it’s a little scary because you can see how drastically things change.” Indeed, at various intervals, the projected image turns into Mars, hinting at the possibility that a once-wet planet could transform into a barren wasteland.

Live specimens, an increasingly common sight in AMNH exhibits, are also incorporated to illustrate H20’s role as a natural habitat. “Each of the animals in the show tells a specific story,” says Sterling. Frogs, like the northern leopard frogs on display, “are often the canaries in the coal mine. When an ecosystem is collapsing, they’re the first to go.” Other creatures—including tetra and Pearse’s mudskippers, who use their prodigious pectoral fins to flip around their terrarium—were chosen in part for their portability, as they’ll have to travel with “Water” as it moves on to other institutions. “Although, I don’t think we’ll have the same tetra by the end,” admits Sterling.

Of course, any discussion of the ecology invariably becomes political, but rather than ham-fistedly raising the specter of global warming, “Water” takes a more subtle approach. To better understand the social implications of water scarcity in the Third World, for example, visitors can hoist a heavy ceramic jug and imagine the burden endured by young girls carrying water back to their village. “In many developing countries, these women are so consumed with providing water for their communities,” says Harvey, “that they’re not able to go to school.” Think about that the next time you fill up your Brita pitcher.

“Water: H20=Life” is on display at the American Museum of Natural History through May 26.