Fish in Lobby 13: Terrascope Exhibits Bring Global Fisheries to MIT

By Ari Epstein, Lecturer, Earth Systems Initiative

A visitor walking from Lobby 10 to Lobby 13 in late May would have come across an unusual sight: The bow of a large fishing vessel, surprisingly close and pointed directly at the staircase leading down into the lobby. The vessel was a replica, of course, not the real thing, and it was just one of an array of exhibits built by freshmen in the Terrascope program that filled Lobby 13 with color, light, sound and even a few smells.

This year’s Terrascopers studied global fisheries, and the exhibits they built as part of their work in Subject 1.016 (Communicating Complex Environmental Issues, taught by Professor Rafael Bras, Dr. Ari Epstein and Mr. Stephen Rudolph) highlighted a wide variety of topics and perspectives. For example, there was a simulated supermarket, in which visitors could hunt through the shelves to see which items contained hidden fish products (Wine? Non-dairy butter substitute? Yes to both!). Elsewhere in the supermarket were displays on fish species that are rapidly being over-consumed, and scales on which to “weigh” fish and learn how they compare with beef or chicken in such areas as calorie content, cholesterol and fat. At the checkout, visitors could scan fish products to learn the environmental consequences of consuming each of them, and to explore alternatives.

Across the lobby was a restaurant, in which visitors could select seafood varieties from a menu and learn which of them are currently being fished sustainably. Next to the menu was a table with four places set to show off seafood dishes native to four countries: Chile, Iceland, Japan and South Africa. Shake jars at each place enabled visitors to smell spices characteristic of that country’s cuisine. The restaurant also included a counter set with plates, forks and a wall-sized map of the world. Touching a fork to any plate illuminated a chain of chasing lights, showing the journey taken by the item on that plate from being caught in the ocean to being delivered in Boston. Another table had a spinning top with a hinged flap; visitors spun the top to choose a fish dish, and opened the flap to learn what it is really made of. (What is really in Long John Silver’s Buttered Lobster Bites?)

Surrounding a nearby pillar was a “Coral Reef Adventure,” in which visitors could walk down an ocean-floor pathway where stepping on certain “rocks” illuminated signs containing information about corals. But be careful not to step on the corals themselves! Visitors who did saw a red light and heard a loud buzzer. A bead-and-wire toy, like the ones in so many pediatricians’ offices, helped visitors see the link between their actions (at one end of each wire) and the consequences (at the other end). And a climbing wall with hidden informational displays gave even the most energetic kids something to clamber around on.

An open display just at the lobby’s main entrance enabled visitors to play “Trophic Level Plinko!” Balls of “solar energy” sent down a pegboard bounced around, occasionally being caught in tubes representing various kinds of organism. Only a very few balls emerged from the bottom, illustrating the efficiency with which the ocean’s food webs make use of all available energy. Other elements in that display gave information on ways to extract energy from the oceans (waves, tides, temperature differences, etc.) and showed how hot underground water forms the basis for Iceland’s extensive use of geothermal energy. Nearby, a maze-like structure in the center of the lobby gave visitors the chance to learn about a variety of issues, from climate change to pollution to regulations designed to protect species as they emerge from crisis-level dips in population.

Off to the side was a self-contained dock area, backed by a remarkable hand-painted mural of the Icelandic fishing port at Heimaey. Nearby was a fish-sorting station, at which visitors could sort through a simulated “catch” of various species and sizes in order to see what fraction of the catch they might be able to keep and sell, given today’s regulatory environment. Sitting on a wooden dock were two very realistic mannequins (made partly out of plaster casts of brave Terrascopers who had sat for hours with goop on their faces).

Through a unique collaboration, visitors to this area were able to hear the voices of actual fishermen. MIT’s Edgerton Center and the Gloucester Public Schools have been working together to develop hands-on science curricula, and so Jessica Garrett of the Edgerton Center was able to put Terrascopers in touch with Joseph Sullivan, the principal of Gloucester High School. He in turn arranged for a number of active fishermen, including two of his students, to meet with and be interviewed by Terrascopers. Their voices could be heard through headphones located next to the mannequins; visitors sat on the dock with the “fishermen” and listened to stories of peril at sea, success and failure, and struggling to survive in an era of tight regulations and expensive fuel.

And finally, back to that fishing boat. It was two levels high, with a fish hold for kids to hide in and an elevated pilot house reachable via ladder. It included a computer game, developed by a Terrascoper, in which the player navigates a vessel among virtual fish, trying to catch just enough to stay in business but not over-deplete fish stocks. Also at the boat were displays on fishing gear, including newer gear designed to reduce the catch of unwanted species or sizes, and exhibits showing how local fish populations have changed over time.

The exhibits were evaluated by two key audiences: local museum professionals, and high-school teachers and students (the Terrascopers’ target audience). Some of the high-schoolers had earlier helped Terrascopers to evaluate and improve exhibit prototypes, in a process that was useful and fun for both groups. The schools included the Buckingham Browne & Nichols School, the Open Bible Academy and the Prospect Hill Academy, a local charter school. Museum professionals on the evaluation panel were Denise LeBlanc, Education Director of the Science Discovery Museum in Acton; Billy Spitzer, Vice President for Programs, Exhibits and Planning at the New England Aquarium; and Linda Ziemba, an independent exhibit designer.

It is always sad to see the Terrascope exhibits come down, and so it is nice to be able to report that some of them will live on. The Gloucester Maritime Heritage Center will be exhibiting some of the displays. Others have been adopted by the Needham Science Center, the Prospect Hill Academy, and the Children’s Museum of Somerset County, NJ, which is currently preparing the displays to be exhibited to an audience of roughly 4,000 visitors at this summer’s local 4H fair.