Museum Highlights Human-Lake Relationship

  • The Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago focuses on the environment of the Midwest and the Great Lakes region:

A recently opened museum almost exclusively studies the environment ofthe Midwest and Great Lakes regions. It looks at how nature and humansinteract. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports:


A recently opened museum almost exclusively studies the environment of
the Midwest and Great Lakes Regions. It looks at how nature and humans
interact. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Lester Graham reports.

“Hi there! Welcome to the Lake Michigan environment. There’s a lot
to see here, so let me help you get started. Anytime you see something you’re interested in,
just go ahead and click on it.”

This computer program outlines the complexities of pollution and using
water from the lake. It’s part of one of the first exhibits a visitor will likely wander
into at the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum in Chicago.

“Many different things affect how healthy and clean our lake is.
From the cities that produce tremendous quantities of waste right here in our
backyards… to the clouds that bring particles from all over the globe.”

This is part of the water exhibit. It’s a good example of the approach the
museum takes. Lots of information… lots of hands on experiences. Those
visitors who aren’t clicking the mouse at the computer display are
splashing their hands in the water of the miniature Michigan lakefront.

(Sound of water trickle)

The Chicago skyline towers over the display… but the real attraction here
is cranking the locks open and closed allowing Lake Michigan water to
flow into the Chicago River, or to control rainstorms on the model. It’s a
lesson in hydraulics, and water resources.

Doug Taron is the museum’s curator of biology. He leads us a little further
down the wet workings of the miniature waterway.

“As we progress down the river model, the first few parts of it
explain some issues about Lake Michigan and the Chicago River so-” LG: Now,
you just pulled a lever. What did you do? “I just pulled a lever. We are
about to start a rainstorm here and it’s showing some of the things that
come off of different areas, different types of land use around the river.”

Like livestock runoff, runoff off of parking lots, construction sites.

“Right, runoff from a construction site. And then, at the end we’ve got a
more natural landscape that absorbs more of the water and doesn’t have
obnoxious things coming into the river.”

As the river model progresses it begins to teem with life… real water
beetles… lots of native vegetation… snails and other critters.

Nearby a sand and water exhibit shows how building canals and dikes
affect natural waterways. One of the nature museum’s smaller visitors, Mary
Clare Coleman was willing to tell us how she’s handling the material.

“I’m kind of putting the sand up here and making like a little
river. And then I’m making a lake right here.”

Mary Clare’s friend, Janine Wilke, took time to explain the exhibit’s

“It’s about water and how it works. And this part you can make your
own river and your own lake with just some neat tools.”

The young visitors we talked to say there’s lots of neat stuff at the
nature museum including a butterfly haven, a real laboratory, and the
natural surroundings, including a few acres of native plants in the heart of
downtown Chicago.

This museum is the public outreach of the Chicago academy of sciences. The
Academy has operated a museum in Chicago since the middle of the 19th
century. This latest incarnation is less than a year old.

The new structure sits between a huge feat of nature, Lake Michigan, and a
huge feat of man, downtown Chicago. Just outside the building, sitting on a
patio Paul Heltne is surveying the view. Heltne is president emeritus of the
Chicago Academy of Sciences. From where we’re sitting we can see shallow
pond behind the nature museum… and a slope that surrounds the building.

“This gentle rise is, in fact, the fore-dune of Lake Michigan. Now, the idea
of the beach, the foredune, and wetland, all of that just came together and
said ‘This is the place for this museum that wants to focus on the Midwest
and the Great Lakes and the human / nature interaction.”

This site is one of the last Lake Michigan dunes visible in the city, the
rest were leveled to make way for highways and skyscrapers. On the
dune the museum has planted native grasses, trees, and shrubs to give people an idea of
what Chicago’s natural beginnings looked like.

The Academy didn’t plan to build its museum here originally. But the
Chicago Park District suggested the site to the group when the academy was
looking at another place. At the time… the park district only had a maintenance
shed and equipment stored at the high profile site preventing development, which in the end was a blessing because it preserved the dune.

Like the change in sites the nature museum is adjusting its exhibits. The
museum is not complete. In fact, some exhibit space is empty, waiting for
funding. Paul Heltne says the academy was ambitious with the nature
museum and it will take a while to mature.

“The execution is still in its shakedown phase and I expect will be
in its shakedown phase. We tried to do some things that are pretty new and

But Heltne says the nature museum’s concentration on the Midwest and
Great Lakes gives it a chance to explore issues in much greater depth, something
he believes will allow the museum to constantly change and evolve with
the region. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Lester Graham.