NN History, June-September 2009: The Naturalist's Notebook Launches!
What Happened When We First Invited the Public to Visit "A Space for Everyone Who's Even a Little Curious About the Last 13.7 Billion Years* (give or take)"? A Lot.
(*NOTE: Astrophysicists hadn't yet discovered that the universe is closer to 13.8 billion years old; we changed our slogan to 13.8 billion a few years later when they did.)
So what did happen in that summer of 2009? People actually showed up. They weren't sure what they were walking into, but they had fun. They tried our insect, planet and geology quizzes, searched for our Mysterious Missing Naturalist, delved into the low tide with Pamelia's photography, traveled through a world of global biodiversity and took part in our first annual Sweet 16 Honey Tasting Tournament (Washington State fireweed honey won). They learned about nature, science, bees, birds, the Moon, organic agriculture and more. Then our surprise-filled opening season was cut short after only 57 days by a sad turn of events, the death of Pamelia's mom, the cheerful presence who had contributed so much to our lives and to the invention of the Notebook. This was no ordinary year.
AMONG THE THINGS THE TWO OF US HAD NEVER DONE before we opened The Naturalist's Notebook in June 2009 was to run—or even hold a job at—any space that sold merchandise, displayed museum-like content or required the public to react to and interact with creative installations. We were a magazine writer/editor and an artist. We were novices at even having a space that was open to the public. Our lone goal at the building in Seal Harbor was to explore and share the latest nature and science knowledge in a fun, original, creative way. By merging science, art and nature with the frontier of knowledge, we hoped to inspire curiosity, interaction/participation and scientific thinking. We hoped to spark in every visitor an eagerness to learn more about the natural world, how it works and how we humans are a part of it, not apart from it.
We weren't interested in selling things. But shopping and consuming drive much of modern life. We wondered if we could channel those 21st-century human obsessions—which have caused much of nature to be exploited, chopped down, paved over, polluted, exterminated, worn, accessorized, interior-designed or eaten—into something positive for both our little educational space and nature in general. We came up with an idea we called SHOP+THINK. We would weave commerce into our installations (a step that also would bring in income to support the Notebook project) and we would sell only intelligent and fun merchandise that linked to the themes were were presenting. Atop the list of merchandise would be great science and nature books (the source of the sort of knowledge we were conveying), brain-building puzzles and games, and local, natural, hand-made items, including art. Adding this element would make our unusual, science-y space seem more familiar to shopping-minded visitors. They could feel that they were in some variation of a "store," even though we've never looked at the Notebook as a store, except perhaps as a general store of knowledge. We've always approached our Notebook spaces as interactive educational art installations in which the visitors, the interactions, the commerce and the voices of great scientists and naturalists are all essential parts of the experience. In the end, it didn't matter in 2009 whether visitors called the Notebook a shop, a store, an exploratorium, a natural-history museum or something else. They all agreed it was unlike anything they had ever seen before. And they liked it.
So what lessons did we quickly learn when we opened the Notebook in 2009? That people loved being in a space that made them think and interact. That they cared a lot about the astounding nature of life (in many cases, more than they had realized) and felt uplifted by being immersed in it and learning about it. And that, in our quirky little science-and-nature walk-in-magazine interactive art installation, they wanted both more exploration and more shopping. We would work to provide plenty of both in the seasons that followed. Each year would be an adventure in itself.
THE 2009 FLOOR PLAN:
The Notebook spaces have always been like walk-in magazines. Each room has been a different section with a different theme, and each wall has offered stories and subjects related to the room's (or section's) theme. In 2009 we were not yet ready to use all three floors of our Seal Harbor building as extensively as we would in future seasons, but Pamelia's floor plan gives you an idea of how that first season's Notebook was sketched out.