How to Fix Your Time Machine

October 7, 2013

As folks know, we opened the Fire, Ice and the Rise of Life exhibit this spring. We’re so excited to have the gallery open and with a fresh face! 

When we design new exhibits, we think about the story, the look and feel of the space, the flow of people, the life support for the animals, the lighting, the interpretive programming…and we think about how best to reach people with different learning styles, backgrounds, reading levels and attention spans. People are often shocked to know that our signage is written at a 6th-8th grade reading level. Your local paper is written at about the same level. We try to present information in text, with a graphic AND often as a tactile manipulative experience (people can move the parts and experiment). Live animals count as an interactive experience too. The next time you’re in one of our newer exhibits, see if you can identify these different parts.

In Fire and Ice, one of our central themes is the exploration of geologic time. Have you thought about space and time? It can be a pretty mind boggling. It’s important to the story we tell in the exhibit that people do think about this. We planned on engaging people with geologic time in four different ways: through snap-shot stories in text, an outstretched arm graphic timeline, a narrated video and the hands-on manual operation of the “Time Machine”.

“Wait.What Time Machine?”

The Aquarium has a time machine?! How have I not heard about this? Sorry to get you all worked up. It’s really a big graphic belt that shows you how all of time and the sequence of events for the past 4.6 billion years are connected. Still super cool. Just not quite Michael J. Fox cool. Right now this exhibit is lying dormant behind brown paper.

Time machine in limbo. 

 And here’s why it still looks like this.

One of our goals was to re-use or re-purpose components of the original Origins gallery whenever appropriate. Three cheers for re-using and recycling! The time machine exhibit was one of those selected to stay as a compliment to other exhibit content. Remember those four engagements with geologic time we talked about?

As the exhibit project rolled along, the re-installation of the time machine seemed like it would simply require relocation of the exhibit structure, fresh paint and a quick reprint of the graphic belt. We should have known. We’re old pros at curve balls in exhibit design and construction…”hmmm…this tank won’t fit in the elevator”… It turns out that this “simple” re-install is not so simple after all.

Let me take you inside the time machine. 

The belt we are talking about is made of 37 feet of paper that has been stitched into a continuous loop. Text and graphics are printed on the belt in such a way that visitors are able to view about 4 feet of the image at a time through a plexiglass window. As visitors crank a hand crank, the belt winds its way over and around a series of drums, much the way serpentine belts work in your car. All of that hardware is behind the wall.

The paper timeline belt all rolled up for transporting.
The paper timeline belt unfurled on our office floor. 
Four of the eight drums that move the belt for viewing.
Two other sets of two are above and below this cluster.

When the exhibit was first installed (circa 2000), the paper belt kept slipping. There wasn’t enough friction between the belt and the drums to move it smoothly and steadily. After some initial problem solving, folks mounted the paper onto a rubber belt (actually lightweight thermoplastic) that provided more friction. Now the belt moved smoothly! One downside is that the added thickness caused the surface of the belt to rub ever so slightly on itself as it wound around the drums. After 13 years of use, the images were hard to read. 

There are two parts to Mission: Replace That Belt. 

The pretty part and the grippy part. Let’s tackle the grippy part first. Where could we get a new plastic belt? We reached out to our exhibit design friends at Split Rock Studios. Many of their staff were involved in designing and building the original Aquarium exhibits. They remembered it being a complicated project but didn’t remember where we got the belt in the first place. One of the biggest challenges (as touched on above) is getting the belt friction just right. We reached out to a few different production companies about printing on belts but all thought this was going to be really challenging or perhaps impossible to pull off.

After a bit more head scratching, our director had an idea. He once worked for the paper mill and he recalled the belts used to turn huge drums to convey the new paper. After a well-placed call to W.P. & R.S. Mars Company right here in Duluth, we now own a new 37.9 foot piece of lightweight thermoplastic to use as the grippy part of the belt!

Ok, now for the pretty part. 

The original belt was printed in 1999. At that time, the graphic design process was significantly different than it is today. In fact, the file for the belt graphic was so large that the exhibit design company couldn’t store the complete file on their computer. It had to be broken into smaller pieces. While we have the original files, many of them are unreadable with our current graphic design software. Cue the sad trombone.

Sometimes stumbling blocks present you with opportunities. And that’s how we are looking at this project. We will be redesigning the complete belt, all 37 feet of it, to update the content and make it mesh with our new exhibit “look”.

We’re diving into that in a big way this week. Wish us luck. We’ll let you know when Time Machine 2.0 is open for business. 

Start thinking about how far back in time you’d like to go.