While in the Netherlands recently, I took a day trip to Leiden to visit the Naturalis Biodiversity Center. I didn’t know a lot about it before I arrived, and it was much bigger than I expected – particularly since it looks pretty modest upon arrival. For some reason, the entrance is via a historic building that includes the shop, cafe and storage lockers, with entrance to the main centre (a large modern building spanning some 6 floors) via a long enclosed pedestrian bridge across a highway. This brings you to the second level of the main building, with the path upstairs looking the most inviting.
This upstairs gallery, Nature’s Theatre, is an impressively comprehensive overview of biodiversity, encompassing not just animals but also plants and fungi (and a few microbes here and there as well) – areas that often get overlooked in favour of more animal-centric displays.
There was a lot more to this exhibition’s layout than first met the eye. On the floor of the plants picture above, you may notice a couple of greenish yellow lights set within metal discs. At first these didn’t really mean a lot to me, with their seemingly haphazard positioning and labelling only in Dutch. Their significance only dawned on me after visiting the Primeval Parade, on the level below.
This exhibition follows a spiral path through the earliest stages of Earth’s history, the formation of life and the world’s earliest fossils through to the era of the dinosaurs and concluding with extinct species from the last Ice Age.
While in this exhibition, I’d noticed a rather dense array of tree-like structures set into the ceiling. They appeared to be linked to a central spiral structure that lit up periodically. I never did quite figure out how that worked (whether it was triggered by visitor use or followed a predetermined cycle), but it gradually dawned on me that the central spiral represented an evolutionary timeline, and the tree-like branches were different evolutionary lineages.
Some of the tree branches terminated in white discs with a genus(?) name on it, as you can see in the picture above. Others went through the ceiling and into the floor of the Nature’s Theatre exhibition above . . . becoming those greenish floor lights! Thus the layout of Nature’s Theatre was driven by the evolutionary history of each lineage, as outlined in the Primeval Parade exhibition below.
Once the penny dropped and I knew what was going on, this added a whole new meaning to the layout of each exhibition space. I spent a lot more time looking around and across the two floors than I would have otherwise. The arrangement of these two floors is one of the most complex and clever bits of 3D spatial communication I’ve seen. And I was impressed – as a scientist. But as a visitor researcher, I have some questions/caveats. How clever is too clever? Do visitors generally grasp what’s going on? (It might be more obvious to Dutch speakers, as Dutch labelling is more extensive than English, understandably enough.) How much does it matter if they don’t? What difference does it make if the main target audience is schools rather than general visitors, and the layout is used as a teaching tool?
Either way, I’m glad I had a chance to see it on an opportunistic day-trip to Leiden.