Natural Wonders

April 1, 2003
Diane Wintroub Calmenson

The American National Fish and Wildlife Museum, designed by Cambridge Seven Associates, pays tribute to the beauty of the Ozarks and to the people who know nature best.

Inside every hunter and fisher beats the heart of a conservationist, a lover of nature and wildlife. This case is succinctly proven at the American National Fish and Wildlife Museum, in Springfield, MO, in the Ozark Mountains. The museum, also known as the Wonders of Wildlife®, is located on land donated by John L. Morris, owner of Bass Pro Shops Inc. and himself an avid hunter and fisher. Morris' intent in providing the land adjacent to his store in Springfield was to introduce visitors to conservation strategies and highlight the important role that hunters and fishers play in preserving the environment.The architectural firm of Cambridge Seven Associates (C7A), Cambridge, MA, designed the 92,000-square-foot hybrid aquarium and museum, as well as provided architectural, habitat and exhibit design services for the new natural history attraction. The firm strived to support the museum's mission—"to educate, inform and entertain visitors concerning the value of fish and wildlife"—by exhibiting wildlife of the region and stressing the importance of conserving natural resources.As a museum meant to educate, its architecture had to facilitate the many exhibits and experiences inside. Outside, the architecture had to announce that this place is an oasis in the midst of an otherwise urban setting. Built on a base of rugged stone blended into natural rock forms, the building appears to grow out of the natural habitat. Reflecting the museum's strong commitment to environmental sustainability, the design incorporates responsible choices of natural materials, such as locally quarried fieldstone, and renewable resources such as wood siding. Water that flows out of the building cascades to the man-made lake or stream in front of the museum. Nestled in a landscape of deciduous and evergreen trees, the roof forms of this timber post and beam structure step down similar to the neighboring Ozark Hills. In fact, like the rest of the building, the standing seam metal roof was sculpted to match the experience inside, with the center portions raised for the major habitats, while the peripheral areas are lower for gallery and interactive learning spaces that offer additional information about the nearby habitat. In addition, the step-down formation of the roof provides multiple opportunities for clerestory windows that let natural light into the exhibits."We tried to stay contemporary in our design, but make the building a close relative of the mills that were built in the Ozark woods," says Peter Kuttner, FAIA, president and principal-in-charge, C7A. "A dominant concern was controlling the amount of daylight in order not to throw off the museum's ambient temperature or the algae growth in the ponds. Beyond that, the building is sculpted to match the experience inside. In truth, though, visitors aren't meant to feel like they are in a building at all, but actually walking through the woods."The main feature of Wonders of Wildlife is, in fact, called "Walk through the Woods." This 300-foot-long slice of a Missouri habitat is experienced on a suspended walkway, which includes a lengthy rope bridge and begins at treetop level where birds fly above a meandering river. Along the walkway, people can stop at perches to observe the wildlife around them, such as ducks, geese and turkeys. All of the trees along the way are artificial; some have small doors that can be opened to reveal the tree's rings or even a termite colony. Aside from introducing visitors to life in the woods, the exhibits demonstrate the vital role of hunters and fishers in the support of conservation efforts.Audible from the walkway is the sound of the museum's 20-foot waterfall in the Ozark Hills habitat. Here, limestone bluffs and caves surround a deep 140,000-gallon freshwater tank that depicts a typical mountain pond filled with bass, beavers, river otter and other fish. To one side, a bobcat lives in a rocky cliff. The Otter Pool gives an up-close look of play below the surface through special viewing windows. Side galleries explain the role hunters and fisherman play in conservation of natural habitats, describe the predator/prey relationship and contain dioramas of large North American mammals."Cave-like openings draw people into the side galleries," says Kuttner. "So, they move from the main habitat where the animals and fish are alive, to spaces where animatronics and taxidermy help to explain the relationships that exist in nature. Most of the taxidermy was a donation to the museum from Mr. Morris."Beyond the Ozark Hills habitat, an escalator takes visitors down to see the pond's life from below the surface. A curved acrylic window creates the sensation of being almost completely surrounded by water. Side galleries on this lower level include a reptile room, an old tackle shop that houses the museum's collection of antique fishing gear, river and deep sea fishing simulators and other interactive exhibits. While the next exhibit also displays a marine world, it's one that would have existed when the state of Missouri was part of America's prehistoric Inland Sea. A 220,000-gallon saltwater tank contains coral reef fishes, stingrays and sharks. Smaller saltwater focus tanks let people compare the freshwater world with that of the open ocean. Adjacent to the ocean is a small catering kitchen that can accommodate an event for some 200 people. "Museums today need to serve multiple purposes including site events," explains Kuttner. "So, a catering kitchen is nothing unusual anymore. Last year, as a matter of fact, Missouri's AIA chapter held a meeting at Wonders of Wildlife. I happened to be in town the night of the meeting and it was wonderful to be among colleagues gathering in a museum C7A had designed."From the ocean, visitors walk into the mouth of a 20-foot-long bass to discover how a fish lives, from its gills and float bladder, to scales and slime. After walking out through the tail of the fish, visitors are greeted by the final exhibit, the Tumbling Creek Cave, a 90-foot-long recreation of an Ozarks cave containing displays of blind cavefish, crawfish, salamanders and a colony of live bats. Exiting the cave under a cascade of water, visitors find themselves along the river they initially observed from the suspended walkway. The journey through the Wonders of Wildlife concludes with exhibits that highlight the conservation of wildlife through the management and restoration of natural resources. Along with displays emphasizing the role of hunters and fishers in conservation, the part that all individuals play is explained, too. After the long hike, visitors can relax in a comfortable, wood-lined library where they can listen to stories about the contributions of famous conservationists and outdoorsmen.

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