Exhibiting Climate Change

A new climate change exhibit opens at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City before embarking on a worldwide tour. Nothing gets left out in the cold with this comprehensive, and engaging, look at the world's biggest problem.

When you enter the new climate change exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) in New York City, the writing is literally on the wall. A glowing red line tracks the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the year 1600 (274 ppm) to 2000 (369 ppm). Don’t know what ppm stands for? No worries, the exhibit quickly and simply explain what that key measurement refers to. 

I’d like to drop my father off at the entrance to the “Changing Atmosphere” gallery. Then he could finally learn the difference between weather and climate. The concept can be fuzzy, and most of the time, he just has his facts confused about the concepts around global warming. A few unseasonably chilly days, or even a single season, do not refute the long-term trends of climate shift. 

carbon red line
(By Justin Nobel)

Inside climate change exhibit
(By Justin Nobel)

"Climate Change: The Threat to Life and A New Energy Future," which opens on October 18, leaves no major issue untouched. For journalists at the preview, many of whom have covered this topic extensively, it didn’t seem trite. School children ran through the exhibit, but they stopped themselves in every gallery — for everything from a metric ton of coal to an arctic fox. 

Empowering people with the correct set of facts, not sugar-coated or toxic, but seasoned just right, is exactly what the creators of the show were aiming for. “We want to give our visitors an understanding so they can intelligently engage in the public debate,” says Edmond Mathez, curator of the exhibition. 

A verdant vertical garden welcomes visitors into the third gallery. The focus shifts from the question of why this is happening to how we all can mitigate our impact. Are you changing light bulbs in your house to compact fluorescents? Great. You can stop and see what sort of impact that makes if everyone in your small town or big city makes that change too. 

solutions gallery of exhibit
(By Justin Nobel)

If it seems like carpooling or using fewer plastic bags is too little too late, this exhibit may convince you otherwise. “It’s sobering, but there are solutions,” says Michael Novacek, senior vice president and curator of the division of paleontology at AMNH. 

There is plenty of interactivity, especially in the solutions section (note: the 2,204 pounds of coal is roped off). Even better, the text is quick and engaging, but never overwhelming. 

While there is an upbeat tone, there is also a plethora of cold, hard facts. Changes in polar ice and oceans, from a submerged lower Manhattan to coral bleaching, are laid out for visitors to observe. 

coral bleaching
(By Justin Nobel)

Keeping with the positive, “we can do it” focus, the end of the exhibit shifts back to big solutions – finding new energy sources. “Ingenuity got us into this, and it can get us out,” says Michael Oppenheimer, professor of geosciences and international affairs at Princeton University and co-curator of the exhibit. 

In the final gallery, nuclear power, hotly debated as an appropriate solution, is given equal footing next to wind, solar, carbon capture (also a bit of a solution red herring) and geothermal. The shortcomings of each energy source are briefly mentioned, once again empowering people to go back out in the world (after passing through the gift shop) knowing a little more about the options to slow climate change. 

Even the curators learned a little something while putting the exhibit together. David Harvey, vice president of exhibitions at AMNH, said they used non-toxic paint, recycled plexi-glass and installed energy efficient light tracks. The fabric used in the exhibit was made from recycled water bottles, and Harvey found it worked even better than what the museum had used in the past. “It shows you don’t have to give something up to go green,” he says. 

And what if you don’t want to increase your carbon footprint and fly to New York for the exhibit? Don't fret. It may be coming to you. The exhibit (or its traveling twin) leaves AMNH in August 2009 for stop overs in Castilla y León, Spain (January 31 to June 21, 2009), Copenhagen, Denmark (October 5, 2009 to February 28 2010), Mexico City, Mexico (October 2009 to March 2010), Chicago, Illinois (July 1 to November 28, 2010), Cleveland, Ohio (July 23, 2010 to January 1, 2012), Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates  (November 21 2010 - April 10, 2011) and Saint Louis, Missouri (January 8 to June 4, 2011).

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