Monday, July 5, 2010

off the wall: pirates!

I started writing for this new blog called Off the Wall, dedicated to critical reviews of contemporary history exhibits and displays. I'll be re-publishing my posts for Off the Wall here for your reading pleasure.

A week ago I put on my boots and my puffy white shirt and sailed up to the NorCal Pirate Festival, a pirate-themed event at the docks on Mare Island in Vallejo California. There were vendors selling piratey wares, musicians playing sea shanties, games of all kinds, and more pirates than I’d ever seen! Perhaps more pirates than the world has ever seen: the festival has unofficially broken the Guinness record for the largest pirate gathering in history.

Amidst all the revelry, I spied a tent with some well-dressed looking folks who didn’t look like pirates to me. Curious, I struck up a conversation with a man who introduced himself as William Fairfax - not a pirate! He explained that I was in the Bahamas and I’d stumbled upon the Governor’s House at Nassau harbor on the island of New Providence, a British colony. The year was 1781. He introduced me to the honorable Governor Woodes Rogers who told me the story behind their camp.

According to the Governor, in the 1780s Nassau looked not unlike our 2010 Festival: a haven for all manner of pirates. These were the real pirates of the Caribbean. Many of them had once been legal privateers, and some upheld a code to only plunder ships with foreign flags, but nevertheless they were thieves and British merchants were losing most of their ships’ cargos to pirates. Something had to be done.

And that was where Governor Rogers’ plan came in. An ex-privateer himself, Rogers won the favor of pirate governor Benjamin Hornigold and together the two led a pirate recovery program.

It was refreshing to see the other side of the law represented at the Pirate Festival and I told Governor Rogers this. He nodded and said that he’d wanted to “even things out a bit” and this was his way of adding an educational dimension to the festivities. He lamented the lack of historical accuracy in popular pirate movies featuring sea monsters and zombies. “History is more interesting and fantastical than fantasy,” he said. “It’s some pretty strange stuff.”

The Governor, far right, awaits his turn to sign my pardon.

At this point, Rogers asked me if I would like to renounce my piracy and sign a pardon. I figured that it sounded better than being hanged and he even said I could keep my booty, so it seemed like a pretty good deal. The governor signed and stamped my pardon and I was no longer pirate. A good thing too because Mr. Fairfax informed me that another lady pirate, Anne Bonny, was due to be “given a fair trial and hanged” that very day.

I'm a proud reformed pirate.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

case study: anteater cantina

I submitted this case study to ExhibitFiles a couple months ago, but I thought I'd re-publish it here in case you missed it.

The Anteater Cantina is a docent station at Roger Williams Park Zoo. It was developed in celebration of the arrival of the newest star of the Tropical America exhibition, a 7-foot long giant anteater named Johei.

Visitors entering Tropical America are welcomed by pink flamingos before stopping by the giant anteater habitat on their way into the rainforest building. After their trek through the rainforest, visitors can rest at the Anteater Cantina and learn from volunteer docents about the feeding adaptations of the animals they've just encountered.

The education team defined the goals of the station and architects designed the building accordingly. The building needed a storage closet, counter space to accommodate interactives and docents' props, and enough room for several docents to stand behind the counter comfortably.

Since the focus of the docent station was on the feeding adaptations of rainforest animals, it seemed appropriate to model the look after a Latin American diner. A red corrugated roof was chosen to give the impression of Spanish tile and the exterior of the building was covered in joint putty to look like stucco. Plastic vacuum-formed ceiling tiles were installed to give the look of a tin ceiling. Faux finishes were applied over interior and exterior walls to give the look of tile and stone. A menu and "posters"; painted directly on the wall make humorous reference to the feeding adaptations of the animals in the exhibit. To further the theme, faux chili ristras, a hanging basket with rubber fruit, an old-fashioned telephone, and other props were added. Rubber insects adorn the walls and details like a stack of Sloth Brand Decaf cans complete the look. Some of the props did double-duty: the diner-style clock and erasable specials board not only looked the part, they helped docents stay on schedule and give visitors a list of the day's demonstrations.

The anteater feeding game encourages visitors to "eat like an anteater"; and use a magnetic tongue to gobble up ball-bearing termites. The original intent for the interactives was to provide content when docents were off-duty. When docents were available they would remove the interactives for a clear counter space to show skulls or demonstrate feeding techniques. When their shifts were over, they could put the interactives on the counter and lock them back into place. Unfortunately the games proved too heavy and cumbersome to expect volunteers to lift and move them. Instead, it was decided that half the counter would be devoted to interactives and other half would be clear for docent use.

While the station is far more engaging when docents are present, visitor response to the Anteater Cantina has been very positive. Says visitor Janet Noke of her son, "He was thrilled at the Cantina to be able to hold the anteater skull, and manipulate the tongue in the interactive toy."

For more photos, please visit the case study on ExhibitFiles.