Story URL:
Story Retrieval Date: 4/17/2015 11:15:53 AM CST

Top Stories

Jade Kolker/MEDILL

Nilofur Cabatit and Vincent Phan take in one of the first features in the exhibit; a dome showcasing different shapes that have benefited creatures for years. Cabatit has not been to the museum since she was in middle school, but she wanted to come see Biomechanics on her birthday.

Look at things a little differently at the Biomechanics exhibit

by Jade Kolker
Apr 16, 2014


Jade Kolker/MEDILL

Ross Hyman watches  his son Aaron use a long wing to pick up speed and "fly." Long wings take more effort to get going, while short wings get flying easier. "There’s lots you can see," said Aaron, 5.


Jade Kolker/MEDILL

Ana Laura Garcia sees how much effort it takes for a giraffe's heart to pump blood up to its brain. Next to that replica of a giraffe is a real giraffe's heart, which shows visitors the heart models of a mammal, bird, reptile, amphibian, and fish.

How does a giraffe’s blood pressure compare to a human's? What makes swimming and flying so similar? Why is the cheetah the fastest land mammal?

Nature’s bioengineering explains it all at the Field Museum’s new exhibit "The Machine Inside: Biomechanics."

"Biomechanics looks at how all things are machines built by nature. We want to get people to look at things a little differently," said exhibition developer Marie Georg.

The exhibit isn't about cheetahs or giraffes, but about the mechanisms inside them that make them move, help them survive and allow them to discover the world around them.

Scientists that focus on biomechanics learn about the structure and function of biological systems, such as humans, animals, plants and cells. This exhibit took that notion and made the complex systems available to a wide audience.

"I learned so much about how to communicate science to the general public by working with the developers. The way you make it interesting to the public is not easy- they made it work," said Mark Westneat, a research associate and former zoology curator at the museum who worked with Georg and with exhibition co-developer Amy Schleser.

The exhibition team worked with scientists to bring together common mechanisms, and eventually the exhibit took shape with seven themes: Staying in One Piece, Going with the Flow, Surviving the Elements, Grabbing a Bite, Crossing the Landscape, Launching into the Blue and Gathering Intelligence.

Georg explained that the exhibit begins with a focus on defense and survival skills. As you move on,the story becomes more complex and ends up looking at how animals view the world.

Staying in One Piece features a clear, acrylic dome that encloses shells, skulls, and even a whole, unbroken Elephant Bird egg that is believed to be one of only 20 real specimens in museums worldwide. The exhibit uses both replicas and actual pieces to teach and encourage the audience to think about living things differently.

"It's amazing. You'd never imagine what a body would have to go through in millions of years," said Nilofur Cabatit, a museumgoer from Chicago.

The star, according to Georg, is a taxidermied cheetah that was brought out of the museum collection to highlight motion as the fastest land mammal. This same cheetah was the model used to create a 3D representation of the creature in mid-sprint. The 3D cheetah will be easier to transport when the biomechanics exhibit travels to other venues.

A video at the bottom of the case allows visitors to watch a cheetah run in slow motion, or to speed it up to see its muscles in action. They can control the speed of this video and others throughout the exhibit. According to Georg, the imbedded monitors show real footage from scientists' actual research. This gives the viewer the ability to explore frame-by-frame through the lens of the scientists.

The interactive nature of the exhibit also allows the audience to feel what the creatures experience. Georg explained that while the exhibition was being put together, they tested many of the interactive features with visitors using prototypes and used feedback to make adjustments.

Launching into the Blue shows similarities between swimming and flying. Navigating air or fluids involves comparable physics and winged aquatic creatures, like sea lions and seals, demonstrate the point. The interactive gives visitors the chance to "fly" by sitting in a rolling chair and flapping a long or short wing.

Westneat was involved in many of the interactive features at some level. Some of his lecture ideas from the University of Chicago were developed into interactives, and many of the videos seen throughout the exhibit are his.

Westneat was the curator of Zoology at the Field for 22 years and initially had an interest biomechanics because of his own research experiences.

Georg said she gets most excited when she sees people get excited over the new things they are learning. "It's wonderful to show people that science is fun," Georg said. People of all ages can enjoy the exhibit, and it opened right at the beginning of a big museum season for the family vacation crowd: spring into summer. Everyone in a family can enjoy different aspects of the exhibit and talk about them collectively.

The exhibit was built for travel by making it lightweight. It also features dual languages (English and Spanish) to serve both the local audience and to take it internationally. There are two versions that will travel: the one you can see at the Museum and one that is about two-thirds of the size meant for international venues. The exhibit will remain open at The Field Museum until January 4.