Interesting to Know That:
The Rolling Rainforest may look like just another 53-foot tractor-trailer. But once inside you’re in another world.
Exotic sights, sounds and smells transport visitors to a neo-tropical rainforest with replicas of species from Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Central America.
The Rolling Rainforest is a one-of-a-kind mobile immersion exhibit that its creators at the Discovery Creek Children’s Museum of Washington, D.C., hope will provide a new and innovative way to enliven science, social studies and arts – and engage students in an adventure they won’t soon forget.
In a space only 48 feet long, 8 feet wide and 13 feet high, students and other visitors can see strangler fig trees, smell vanilla orchids, spy parrots in the treetops and experience the climate of the rainforest. The exhibit also features live animals, a Mayan dig site and lush tropical foliage. In all, there are more than 80 different types of animals and plants that live in the rainforest. This diversity is about the same as what would be found in an area of similar size in an actual tropical rainforest.
The exhibit was first envisioned in 1998 as a way to bring part of the Discovery Creek Museum to students whose schools couldn’t afford to transport them to the museum itself.
“They don’t have to come to a museum. We go where the children are,” says Gloria Rasmussen, manager of the exhibit.
Cramming so many species of animals and plants into this 380-square-foot exhibition space was no easy task. The museum purchased a custom-designed display trailer – complete with a handicap lift, skylights and automatic stairs – from Featherlite Trailers of Cresco, Iowa. Then it contracted Chase Studio of Cedar Creek, Mo., to design the project. Chase had designed natural history exhibitions for the National Museum of Natural History, the American Museum of Natural History, Field Museum and others. Although Chase Studio did not have experience with designing a mobile project, they had conducted a feasibility study for such a project for another museum.
The designers at Chase Studio handcrafted each animal and plant in the exhibit, including these toucans perched in a tree.
The artisans at Chase Studio handcrafted each leaf, tree, animal and insect. Museum staff conducted extensive research into which plant and animal species should be represented in a neo-tropical rainforest and how the physical layout of the exhibition would support the learning objectives of the programs. The artwork on the sides of the truck is a screen of an original painting by Sara Schneidman that was made into several giant panels by 3M technology; the panels were mounted as a triptych on each side of the truck to create a panoramic scene.
The exhibit makes an interesting sight rolling down the road. “We’ve had people call us because they’ve seen us on the road, and they’ve been so taken with us and want to know about it,” Rasmussen says.
But the point of all that detail is to help visitors to the Rolling Rainforest appreciate the importance of rainforests to the health and well being of the planet, Rasmussen says.
“Our mission is to help children become stewards of the environment, to develop an appreciation,” Rassmussen says.
When the exhibit pulls up to a school, it becomes a classroom for a week. During the exhibit’s stay, the students become environmental scientists – entomologists, soil scientists, water quality scientists and icthyologists. The students get to conduct experiments inside the exhibit to learn about the effects of human activity on soil, water, insects and fish.
Three-toed sloths like the model visitors see as they cross the rope bridge descend from the trees about once a week, and then only to relieve themselves.
“We put the experiment in the context that something has changed,” Rasmussen says. “The entomologists are literally looking at insects that were collected and comparing them to the numbers and kinds that were collected before the change.”
In its pilot year, the Rolling Rainforest has tested its curriculum among Washington, D.C., public elementary schools and has participated in community and corporate special events. Since it was launched last October, the exhibit has reached an estimated 17,000 people – about 5,000 of them school children.
The museum hopes to expand the Rolling Rainforest’s reach nationally and took its first step toward that goal when it appeared at the California Academy of Sciences’ 150th birthday celebration in San Francisco in September. While in San Francisco, the exhibit visited three elementary schools.
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