Monday, October 22, 2007

Revealing the Earth at the Museum of Science and Industry

“Geography is destiny,” booms a voice in a dark room. Seated in a circle under television screens and video projectors, visitors watch a huge 6-foot diameter, carbon fiber globe light up in the middle of the exhibit room. And thus is ‘Earth Revealed’ in the Museum of Science and Industry’s new permanent exhibit exploring the planet from a variety of scientific and anthropological approaches.

Oftentimes when we look at a globe it is hard to glean much information beyond where one country ends and another begins. Earth Revealed illuminates how mapping can be useful in understanding anything from earthquakes to climate change. It also shows how our actions affect the dynamic and ever-changing face of our world.

The exhibit itself is about a ten-minute multimedia presentation utilizing data sets from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and NASA as well as video footage from around the world.

Working in tandem, the globe, television screens and voiceover fully communicate a point. The beginning narration explains which colors represent what topographical or seismological phenomenon as they are highlighted so viewers can get their bearings with the globe. As dark green mountain ranges light up all over the globe, the television screens show video footage of mountains.

The multimedia formats combine to elucidate more complicated phenomena overlaying the topography.

While the television screens show still frames of Richter scales and buildings crumbling during earthquakes, advanced digital imagery techniques highlight tectonic plates and fault lines on the globe so that viewers can ‘watch’ the earthquake happen on the globe. As viewers are watching, the voiceover also explains exactly how tectonic plates on the ocean floor move together to ultimately create the quakes we feel on the ground.

Earth Revealed’s biggest achievement is highlighting the effect human activity has on the earth. For example, as the voice discusses the ramifications of slash and burn agriculture in Africa, images of a forest burning flash across the television screen. Meanwhile, reddish dots pop up in various African nations, showing the viewer where these practices take place.

Following the brief discussion of slash and burn agriculture, through showing cloud patterns on the globe, and images of huge smoke clouds on the screens, viewers can see how these practices affect the climate.

The Museum of Science and Industry has always been lauded as a unique institution, especially as one of the few museums that engages visitors through interactive exhibits. While Earth Revealed is not interactive in the traditional sense, it truly engages viewers by creating a powerful connection between what they are watching and themselves.

We might think of cartography as limited to ink on paper. This exhibit shows how mapping can be used in new ways to understand what is happening on our planet.

By using a familiar format (the television screen) to present viewers with relatively common imagery (mountains and forests), the exhibit allows viewers to make a connection between what they already know and the more complex data supplied by NOAA and NASA.

A truly unique exhibit in the Festival of Maps, Earth Revealed offers a fascinating variation on traditional museum offerings.

Written by Sarah Arkin

Friday, October 5, 2007

Prairie State Landscapes

The busy State of Illinois building seems like an unlikely place for a museum, but “The Grammar of Landscape: 11 Photographic Visions in Illinois” offers a delightful respite from the bustling business district.

The exhibit, one of several shows preceding the Festival of Maps, presents images by 11 photographers with distinct perspectives. The exhibit brings together imagery of industrial landscapes, nature, and cityscapes in a cleanly executed presentation. The photographs offer, as the curator’s explanation says “the land around us in terms of building blocks.”

It is in fact the range of subject matter along with the stylistic variance of the photographs that make the exhibit a success. We see not only city, agriculture, prairie, forest and industry, but we see each of these elements from different visual perspectives.

Gary Kolb, famed nature photographer, offers black and white silver gelatin prints of Illinois forests. On the adjacent wall of this room of the exhibit are three
color photographs of Chicago industrial sites at nightfall by Michelle Keim.

Both Michael McGuire’s ink-jet panoramas and Bob Thall’s black and white digital prints expose the precise angles and structures that comprise Chicago’s urban environment. The surprising vivacity in McGuire’s parking garages is juxtaposed beautifully with the loneliness of Thall’s empty roads.

Jin Lee’s close-up, low depth of field, C-prints of prairie flowers augment the vastness of Art Sinsabaugh’s panoramas titled “Midwest Landscape.”

My favorite set of photographs in the exhibit are Bill Sosin’s inkjet prints. All of the pictures focus on raindrops on Sosin’s car windows. Different rain-related moments throughout the city comprise the blurry backgrounds. In addition to the images themselves, their particular room shows off the unique architecture of the Thompson Center. The room is striated with supporting beams, which generate dramatic lines of vision.

But the compelling photographs are just one element of the show. It is, after all, part of the Festival of Maps. Next to each set of photographs, the viewer will find a map showing exactly where in Illinois the photographs were taken.

“We’re so pleased to be part of the Festival of Maps,” said curator Judith Burson Lloyd Klauba. “[The maps] add another level to the pictures,” she continued. “They personalize the images.” Indeed, the maps allow the viewer to bring together the different elements of Illinois by linking a specific place with each image.

Both photographs and maps are methods of preservation and documentation. Photographs capture a moment in time, permanently recording history. Maps record the details and development of geography. Oftentimes we think of maps as a way of determining a route between point A and B, but this exhibit highlights how much more maps can be used for.

The Illinois State Museum aims to preserve Illinois history. What better way to do that than through the artistic documentation in the photographs and the technical documentation of cartography? The exhibit does a magnificent job of combining two important methods of preservation and documentation.

Written by Sarah Arkin