American Museum of Natural History Makes Connections With the Unseen

This article is part of the Fine Arts & Exhibits special section on the art world’s expanded view of what art is and who can make it.

Six years. Thousands of hours of data research. Dozens of interviews with scientists. Sixty-two audio speakers. Sixteen projectors.

The result: a 12-minute loop, 360-degree visual experience that takes place in a 23-foot-tall oval space with canted walls.

The goal of “Invisible Worlds,” a permanent part of the American Museum of Natural History’s Richard Gilder Center for Science, Education and Innovation, which opened in May, is to immerse visitors in the nature that is often hidden from the human eye.

Visitors find themselves under the sea, as jellyfish, krill and plankton rise balletically upward; surrounded by the swooping of migrating, tweeting birds; underground among tree roots and fungi exchanging water and nutrients; and submersed in colorful strands of nerve cells.

“Invisible Worlds,” like all the New York museum’s displays and exhibits, aims to inspire awe, answer and raise questions and draw connections. But in a different way.

Museums have to keep “pace with popular culture,” said Vivian Trakinski, the museum’s director of science visualization and the producer of “Invisible Worlds.” “People are gaming. People are becoming creators. They’re engaging with digital media across multiple platforms, and we want to meet these people where they live.”

A museum, she added, needs to be “constantly helping to communicate current scientific activity and interpret the science in new ways, and to do that we need to integrate those digital platforms into the visitor experience.” Otherwise, she said, “it just becomes a sort of a relic of what science communication was 20 years ago.”

All-encompassing digital experiences aren’t new. Perhaps the best known are the van Gogh immersive exhibitions; at one point there were five different such shows playing around the country. And the American Museum of Natural History itself has embraced data visualization with, among other things, its Hayden Big Bang Theater and its climate change wall, installed in 2018.

But “Invisible Worlds” is on a different scale. “This was really unlike any project I’ve worked on before, because we were making up every aspect as we went along,” said Ms. Trakinski, who has worked in science visualization at the museum since 1999.

The idea began back in 2016, as part of the planning for the Gilder Center. Museum administrators knew they wanted the center to include a theater to explore and communicate the unseen world of nature on earth, as it had done for the cosmos at the museum’s Hayden Planetarium. But the question was, how?

So, Ms. Trakinski and Benjy Bernhardt, the museum’s senior director of electronic media engineering and support, researched design firms that created venues and experiences for large public audiences.

The vision Ms. Trakinski had for the production: It would be both “microscope and spaceship to show us nothing is too large or too small or too fast or too slow or too long ago or far into the future for us to explore.”

The museum put out a request for proposals to nine companies and received six proposals from companies around the world. The last person to present was Marc Tamschick, founder and creative lead of the Berlin agency Tamschick Media and Space.

“He walked through the door with a vision of the visuals — not just the space — and an enormous amount of passion,” Ms. Trakinski said. And a six-year partnership began.

Everyone knew this vast undertaking would be complicated, but no one thought it would take until 2023 for “Invisible Worlds” to become visible to the public. A large part of the delay was because of the pandemic. But it was also a constant challenge “to be scientifically accurate and transform the data into something people could experience and be wowed by,” Mr. Tamschick said.

Developing the content for the show meant culling an enormous amount of information from other museums, universities, research institutes and resources such as Citi Bike, Open Street Maps and even the New York City Taxi and Limousine Commission, all to dynamically demonstrate life’s hidden systems and connectedness.

For example, as multicolored streams of digital networks cover the walls and floor of the space, a voice-over asks, “How many texts have you sent today?”

Getting the data was one part, but the next was using state-of-the-art software to visualize it in a scientifically accurate way. Take a dolphin hunting sardines: The production team had simulation data showing how the dolphin pod should move when organizing a hunt and how sardines tighten into a ball to protect themselves. Once that data is visualized within a naturalistic scene, the scientist has to review it and the visualization may have to be tweaked and reviewed again and again, until it is as accurate as possible.

The final product is the result of countless decisions and debates. Should the scenes in Central Park that show people playing music, exercising, talking and hugging be computer generated or live (in the end, it was live people shot in a studio in Berlin and magically transported to Central Park)? Should there be seats in the space (no, but chairs are available for those who need them)? Should there be a narration?

“I was always against a voice-over,” Mr. Tamschick said, but he lost that battle and he’s OK with it, he said — the narration is a nonintrusive woman’s voice that winds around the myriad sounds of nature.

There had to be a story line, but it is less a narrative arc than a choreography of sound and movement. And the technology and research behind it should all be invisible, Mr. Tamschick said.

Those entering the space are primed by a preshow interactive exhibition demonstrating how all life is connected. One sign notes that primates — including humans — share more than 96 percent of their DNA.

Once inside the darkened expanse, toddlers jump around, delighted by how the interactive floor makes the images — water, plankton, flying birds — move and scatter under their feet. Some adults immediately start taking photos, while others just stand, enveloped in the images and sounds.

Elise Bryan, visiting from the San Francisco area, walked out of the space enamored. “How they used light to show how much of life is connected — and the visualization — is really cool,” she said.

During a time of deep dissonance in the nation, the idea that far more connects people than divides them is a necessary message, Ms. Trakinski said. “Invisible Worlds” may not change anyone’s mind about anything, but “if it opens their minds a crack, I’ll be satisfied.”

After all, she said, “the more scientists study nature, the more discoveries we make, the more sophisticated the tools to probe the hidden dimensions of nature, the more connections we find.”

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