Fall 2010

“We felt it was important to find ways for visitors to understand why issues impacting birds matter and to include information on how they can take action and get involved.”
–  Amanda Henderson, a member of the Carnegie Mellon team


Winging It

In a first-of-its-kind partnership, Carnegie Museum of Natural History scientists and Carnegie Mellon School of Design seniors team up to deliver an exhibition that brings out the bird lover in all of us.

By Julie Hannon

Each team of students had the opportunity to share their exhibition concepts with the museum's
science staff in a hands-on setting.

Museum-goers will soon be asking themselves: If I were a bird, what kind of bird would I be?

The avian personality test—which poses such questions as “How much time do you spend in the water?” and “Do you believe in soul mates?”—is part of a new Carnegie Museum of Natural History exhibition all about birds. Answering the questions will help visitors discover traits they share with a given bird, creating a kind of emotional connection. The coolest part: Visitors will then come face-to-face with a real feathered example of their bosom bird, drawn from the museum’s expansive collection of some 195,000 specimens of roughly 5,700 species.

“It’s clever because everyone reacts to where they end up—a pigeon or penguin—which means they’re learning and sharing information,” says Brad Livezey, curator of the museum’s section of birds and a self-identified hawk due to his solitary nature and high level of daytime productivity. “It’s also an example of where the freshness comes in.”

The freshness Livezey notes are the new eyes and novel perspectives brought to a slice of the museum’s avian research by 25 Carnegie Mellon School of Design students who developed the new interactive exhibition.

Dubbed Winging It: An Experimental Gallery About Birds, the new first-floor experience, soon to be nestled beside reptiles and amphibians, focuses mostly on the ongoing work of researchers at Powdermill Nature Reserve, the museum’s biological field station in the nearby Laurel Highlands, best known for its world-class bird-banding program.

With support from The Fine Foundation, Carnegie Museum of Natural History approached the university last year, and the semester-long collaboration became the product of the students’ senior studio as graduating industrial and communication design majors. What the museum was after, explains deputy director Ellen McCallie, was the students’   perspective on how the museum’s work relates to their lives and their unique ability to engage their peers, an audience often elusive for museums.

“We need to collaborate with our communities in order to push boundaries and serve the breadth of our communities,” says McCallie. “For scientists, asking another group of people to talk about their work is often uncomfortable. But looking at science in new and different ways broadens and strengthens us. We’re calling it The Experimental Gallery because some of the ideas may work well, some may not. Science is about experimenting and learning new things. We do this behind the scenes all the time; now we’re doing it in the public eye as well.”

It was an experiment on a tight budget—something all too familiar to a working scientist but something altogether foreign for a group of design students. The total budget for the pilot project totaled $60,000.

“The students are taught to be agents of change,” says Stacie Rohrbach, an associate professor of communication design who team-taught the seminar with colleague Mark Baskinger. “The best kind of relationships are when all participants are getting and giving  something meaningful out of a project, which seemed to be the case with this collaborative effort. But that’s not to   say it wasn’t challenging to help the museums push boundaries beyond   how they typically think without building a half-million-dollar exhibition. The biggest challenge for the students was how to scale back.”

After initial fact-gathering field trips to the museum and Powdermill, where students were granted unique behind-the-scenes access to museum researchers, educators, and collections, the commonalities between birds and people soon developed as a driving theme for the six student groups, each of which focused on a different topic. In the end, the museum picked the most compelling and boundary-pushing ideas—given the budget—to form  the finished product.

“We felt it was important to find ways for visitors to understand why issues impacting birds matter and to include information on how they can take action and get involved,” says Amanda Henderson, a member of the Carnegie Mellon team who graduated in May.

As students did their own research and worked one-on-one with museum scientists, they started making fascinating real-world connections. While museum visitors were looking up at the teeth of one of the towering T. rexes, wondering, “Would it eat me?,” the students were staring at its feet, thinking just how much they looked like those of a bird, dinosaurs’ closest living relatives. In grasping evolution in particular, they realized that the museum’s specimens are among the world’s best teaching tools.

“We’re hoping to reveal, even in a really small way, just how much is in the museum’s (bird) collections, because seeing the real thing is invaluable,” says recent graduate Natalia Olbinski, who notes that she and her former classmates learned so much that they now consider themselves “bird people.”

It translates to the exhibition. Included are two one-minute videos produced by the students and faculty that underscore two of Powdermill’s marquee programs: bird banding and bioacoustics, the cutting-edge of modern bird research. Visitors learn the difference between bird songs and flight calls, how researchers track them, and why.

They can even get banded. Visitors receive a silver ribbon to tie around their wrist and, just like the real thing used on birds to track their migratory patterns, the ribbons include a sequential number.

A subtle but important touch: Sustainable materials were used wherever possible, including low volatile organic compound (VOC) paints, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) lumber, and formaldehyde-free construction materials. The exhibition is also designed to be modular, so that after its initial run it can be moved to another section of the museum or to Powdermill, prolonging its life.

“By shining a spotlight on the birds that exist in the background of our everyday lives,” says Mark Baskinger, “we hope that visitors become more aware of birds and the science that allows us to understand them.”

Also in this issue:

Rock Stars  ·  Ordinary Madness  ·  A Nut on the Plane: Marilyn in Midflight  ·  Hubble Vision  ·  Director's Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Face Time: Mike Hennessy  ·  Artistic License: Opening the Book on André Kertész  ·  Field Trip: Warhol in Coffee Country  ·  The Big Picture