Inspiration on Display

Inspiration on Display

New Biology Building includes museum-style exhibits to promote learning

by Anne Manning | Photography by William A. Cotton

Wandering the first floor of Colorado State’s new Biology Building, a first-year student might pause before a case of vertebrate specimens, intrigued by the eerie and artful forms that result from a preservation process called clearing and staining.
“That’s cool,” the student might think. “Is that a real frog?”

Three years later, the same student might pause before the same exhibit and see in the beautifully stained skeletons and connective tissues some of the key anatomical differences between amphibians and mammals.

Walking other halls, the student might identify the communication dance of bees, or grasp the evolutionary wonder of tree branches that spread in a Fibonacci spiral to maximize growth.

“As a student, it’s so important to have inspiration,” said Austin Colter, a third-year zoology major who hopes to work as a museum curator.

“For some people, they might look at a jar with a cleared and stained snake and think, ‘I want to do snake research.’ Or they could look at the fish tank and say, ‘I want to be a marine biologist.’”

Designers of the Biology Building’s first floor – replete with glass-encased specimens, colorful photographs, quotes, and graphics – kept students like Colter front of mind, start to finish, as they created museum-style exhibits meant to inspire and engage future scientists. The exhibits are a highlight of the building that opened in August, yet the displays lack interpretive information that would lead a viewer through all the details.

That’s purposeful: The displays are designed to captivate viewers in different stages of learning and to spark curiosity that leads to more learning.

And there are a lot of viewers to reach: More than 1,400 undergraduates study biological science and zoology, and about 60 percent of all CSU undergraduates take at least one biology course.

“The undergraduate experience was our primary focus,” said Rachel Mueller, associate chair in the Department of Biology.

“What came out of that focus was a space that inspires students and visitors to appreciate the natural beauty of life around them and the living systems they study. We want students and others to look at something and say, ‘That’s beautiful,’ or ‘I wonder how that works,’ with no directive about what they should be experiencing.”

Two years ago, before crews broke ground, Mueller sat in a room with fellow biology leaders Mike Antolin and Joe von Fischer, as well as exhibit designers, project managers, architects, faculty, and staff.

They envisioned a museum-like space to occupy the first floor of the $70 million, 155,000-square-foot building, whose construction budget was derived largely from student facility fees. Throughout the rest of the building, glass-paneled labs and classrooms would let students and passers-by see science and learning in action – another major theme of the building’s overall design.

The first-floor space would celebrate the major tenets of biological sciences, without being too didactic. It would favor images and artifacts over blocks of explanatory text.

And it would be “drop-dead gorgeous,” Antolin said.

Then came the hard part: making it happen, down to the finest details – from the careful arrangement of preserved monarch butterflies, to the reconstruction of a monkey skull. The core group of Antolin, von Fischer, and Mueller worked with exhibit firm Studio Tectonic. “This team was just phenomenal in holding on to that vision throughout the process,” said Seth Frankel, a designer with the Boulder firm. “The quality that came about was through a really beautiful collaboration.”

Over months of planning and installation, the team applied the “little black dress” principle, Mueller said – simple and elegant in form and function, free of frills or gimmicks.

They built a template around circles, an homage to the basic unit of life – the cell.

They sought to represent the dizzying diversity of biological sciences, from the scale of a molecule up to the Earth’s biosphere. They highlighted the global nature of biological questions, while also keeping things close to home; the displays include a hawk moth and a taxidermied black-footed ferret, both native to the Rockies. Surrounding wood panels are made with beetle-kill pine, one of many tributes to the state of Colorado.

Overarching themes were guided by the core concepts for biological literacy promoted by the American Association for the Advancement of Science: evolution; structure and function; information flow, exchange, and storage; pathways and transformations of energy and matter; and systems.

“We didn’t want to just tell people, ‘This is how photosynthesis works,’ or ‘These are the units of a eukaryotic cell,’” von Fischer said. “Instead, we wanted to let people simply experience, and wonder – and be inspired to learn on their own.”

Of course, learning doesn’t have to be all serious. The designers inserted subtle humor and a few inside jokes to keep viewers on their toes. The taxidermied bear, for instance, is named Shayna – after Professor Shane Kanatous, who for years used the specimen for outreach and to teach mammalian anatomy.

There’s also a toy Volkswagen Beetle among other beetles in the arthropod display.

“There are some puns in there, too, and we tried to be playful,” Mueller said. “We didn’t want it all to feel too ponderous.”

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