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Bird display opens at Museum of Natural History

October 1, 2010
The Herald-Star

PITTSBURGH - In a new collaboration between Carnegie Museum of Natural History and Carnegie Mellon University School of Design, a group of senior design students worked with the museum's scientific staff to create "Winging It: An Experimental Gallery About Birds," on display in the museum's first floor through March 19.

For this first experimental gallery collaboration, CMU School of Design students were given an ambitious task: Introduce visitors to the scientific work about birds conducted at the museum and the museum's research station at Powdermill Nature Reserve. In the resulting exhibition, visitors discover the depth and variety of the museum's avian research and collections.

Museum and university officials plan to continue the collaboration and have a goal of a project each year developed by students working closely with museum scientists and public programs staff.

The students who worked on the experimental gallery began by considering the museum's collection, which holds nearly 200,000 bird specimens collected over the past 100 years. Researchers at Powdermill banded more than 500,000 birds in five decades of tracking migratory birds, making it the longest continuously operating bird banding program in the country. Powdermill also is one of the nation's centers for bio-acoustic research, the recording and study of bird calls and what they communicate.

To encourage visitors to understand and appreciate birds and the museum's avian studies, the CMU School of Design students designed a gallery with an eye to motivate visitors to consider their relationship to birds and the natural world.

Birds form an important part of the ecosystem, as predators and prey in the food web, and as drivers of biodiversity through their distribution of plant seeds. Birds also are a telling indicator of an ecosystem's condition. For example, changes in bird migration patterns, noted at Powdermill, have been an important clue to global climate change. But despite being one of the most diverse types of animals, and such a vital part of the planet's life, relatively little is known about bird migration.

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

Through new videos created for the exhibition, "Winging It" illustrates how bird migrations are tracked through banding and bird-call research at Powdermill Nature Reserve. In a participatory component, visitors take the "Bird Personality Test" to determine what species of bird they are most like, based on behavior traits. Visitors also can listen to recordings of migratory bird calls collected by Powdermill scientists. And in the run-up to 2011's celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Powdermill Avian Research Center, another component helps visitors think about the process of tracking migratory birds by getting "banded" themselves with a temporary silver bracelet that resembles the bands researchers permanently attach to birds captured and then released at Powdermill.

The CMU School of Design students taking part in the experimental gallery project come from a senior design studio course co-taught by Mark Baskinger and Stacie Rohrbach, both associate professors at the school. Their 25 students were split into four groups, with each creating a gallery exhibition concept and design to interpret for museum visitors different aspects of the avian research at Carnegie Museum of Natural History. In May, proposals were presented to museum staff, who then chose elements from several of the proposals to create "Winging It."

"Mark Baskinger and I believed drawing attention to the museum's research would serve as an excellent basis for the semester-long project," says School of Design co-instructor Stacie Rohrbach. "We wanted to help the museum engage the public in interactive experiences focused on scientific research, and do it in a way that teaches the students to gather, analyze and synthesize information into an exhibition prototype."

"It's only natural for these two institutions to collaborate," says Carnegie Museum of Natural History Deputy Director Ellen McCallie, who helped manage the program. "The museum's scientists conduct important and often complex research, while just up the road Carnegie Mellon is teaching students how to process complex ideas into accessible visual designs. With the success of 'Winging It,' I'm sure we'll see this collaboration continue and become an annual experience for the students, museum staff and our visitors."

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