Take in a concert at the Pritzker Pavilion, crane your neck up at the Willis Tower, or amble along the Riverwalk, and there's no escaping it: Chicago is an architecture town. We pioneered the skyscraper, built the largest indoor structure in the world (Merchandise Mart) and our trains run above ground.
But the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum's newest exhibit celebrates a different type of architect: animals.
"Nature's Architects," which opens April 1 at the Lincoln Park museum, focuses on natural works of construction, from beaver dams to spider webs to one massive termite mound. There are 11 live species, seamlessly integrated with animals from the museum's more traditional (taxidermied) collection, and the result is a solid exhibit that kids will adore and parents will appreciate.
Visitors will pick up some new trivia - spider's silk is really strong and aardvarks can move a lot of dirt really quickly - but the exhibit's real achievement is the way it bridges the gap between the animal world and our own.
"Nature's Architects" is full of small touches that remind you that you're not just in a world-class nature museum; you're in a world-class nature museum smack dab in the middle of a world-class city.
One corner shows how Marina City, the pair of "honeycomb" buildings along the Chicago River, are like the structures built by paper wasps. The parakeet exhibit includes information about the birds' quirky history in Hyde Park. And a partnership with the Frank Lloyd Wright Preservation Trust draw parallels between Chicago's most famous architect and the shapes he borrowed from nature.
"Nature's Architects" is also a real step forward for Notebaert. It's not a traveling exhibit making a pit stop in Chicago, like "Exploring Trees Inside and Out," which occupied this space until last December. "Nature's Architects" was built entirely at Notebaert, in a massive toolshop on the lower level, and makes good use of the extensive collection of specimens, many of which date back to the early 20th century, without feeling dusty or academic.
Alvaro Ramos, vice president of museum experience, says the new exhibit is something of a debutante moment for Notebaert.
"It's a chance for us to get back to our roots in a new way, to mix our core collections with our core audience, which is young families," Ramos says.
And there's plenty of attention paid to knee-high visitors. Kids can crawl through a prairie dog tunnel, peek in on the queen ant, and crouch to examine a cutaway from the 15-foot-tall replica of a massive termite mound (complete with unnervingly realistic bug noises). The exhibit is open and well-lit, perfect for letting little ones roam while still keeping them in sight.
The last museum exhibit developed entirely by museum staff was Lawn Nation, back in 2008. Museum CEO Deborah Lahey says she hopes "Nature's Architects" will travel to other museums when its run at Notebaert ends in September.
"We're really proud of this one, and we'd love to see it be shared," she says.
"Nature's Architects" runs April 1 - Sept. 11 at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. For admission, hours and more information, visit naturemuseum.org
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