Nature’s Place: A small museum where local climate issues are presented and new voices heard [Case Study]

Today’s Guest Post is by George Farrell, Nature’s Place, Minden Hills Cultural Centre, Minden, Ontario, Canada.

Minden Ontario, a little gem of a village in the Haliburton Highlands of Ontario, is where you can find  Nature’s Place, a building dedicated to nature and the environment. It’s part of the Minden Hills Cultural Centre, a complex which also houses a museum and heritage village, and art gallery.

From the outside Nature’s Place looks like an intriguing cross between an old church and a barn. The exterior is made from grey board and batten, and whitewashed mud daub, which is an ancient plaster-like building material, made from carefully mixed local soils, cow manure and straw.

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Nature’s Place is in fact, a straw bale construction, with 2 feet (60.96 cm) of straw between the walls. A straw bale building is designed to have the least amount of impact on the environment while working in harmony with its natural surroundings. The building was constructed in 2007, by students in Fleming College’s Sustainable Building Program. The combination of the straw and mud daub gives the building an air-tight seal and structural rigidity, and its excellent insulation properties keeps it cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

Nature’s Place philosophy is based on that of R.D. Lawrence (1921-2003), a well-recognized Canadian naturalist and wildlife author, who lived in the area during the latter part of his life. In his memory Nature’s Place has become a nature interpretive centre with a mandate to educate, inspire and expand our understanding of nature, and our place within it.

Nature’s Place is committed to enhancing the visitors experience by establishing programs, exhibitions and partnerships that reflect the different facets of nature. From current environmental topics to natural heritage, it’s a place where issues can be presented and voices created. Visitors are encouraged to experience interactive, digital displays and exhibits that reflect the unique Haliburton Highlands ecology.

As you enter the building you encounter a welcoming space where large wall panels explain the straw bale construction technique and Lawrence’s credo. There are also informative brochures on the area as well as a mini gift shop where such items as butterfly garden kits, root viewers and toad houses can be purchased.

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The main part of the building consists of one large room with a high-peaked, wood-covered ceiling. The relaxing sounds of recorded birdsong, and a floor- to-ceiling tree, gives the space a woodlands ambiance, which is helped by giant, suspended, artificial leaves, which effectively filter the overhead lights. The room is packed with displays, videos, and wall panels that inform the viewer of such hot ecological topics as Climate Change, Species at Risk, Invasive Species and Recycling.

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Though these are serious topics they are presented in an interactive way, which assists the viewer in understanding the issues. There are information play stations for kids too, where on computers, they can access a climate atlas, and learn about the importance of bees and gardens. At another play station youngsters can construct a model of a turtle underpass, which in the real life, sees turtles pass in safety  from one side of a road to another; without the risk of being squashed by vehicles. Kids also can play the Climate Change Information Quiz game, and on the Habitat Wall they can match magnetized cut-out images of wildlife to their specific habitat.

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Nature’s Place also features a glass case containing pottery shards and arrow heads, which were used by Indigenous Canadians before the arrival of European settlers. Indigenous peoples used the water routes of the Haliburton Highlands to access their summertime hunting grounds. Another case displays some of R.D. Lawrence’s many published books, as well as his old typewriter.

The back wall of Nature’s Place is dedicated to the geology of Haliburton County, and two brightly-lit glass cabinets display both the wide variety of minerals to be found in the county, and the semi-precious gemstones cut from some of the minerals.

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Another wall contains a large map of The Land Between, and there’s a TV monitor which shows a video that explores this ecotone in greater detail. Basically the Land Between is a large area that lies between the southern Ontario Lowlands and the Canadian Shield, and which contains the geology, flora and fauna of both of those areas.  Minden and the Highlands are part of The Land Between and that’s why the region is so rich in the diversity of minerals, plant and animal life.

 

There are new displays every year at Nature’s Place, and one of the newbies features up-to-date information on bats, including their problems with white-nose syndrome, a fungal disease which has decimated their numbers. Residing next to the glass-enclosed mineral cabinets there are tables covered with more minerals. These mineral tables, also new this year, are not behind glass, and visitors are welcome to pick them up the minerals and experience their different textures and properties.  Another new exhibit contains graphic and textual information on Plastic Pollution and its impact on the community. There are new panels on the state of our amphibians, and there’s also an exhibition of nature photography in the centre of the room.

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But of special interest, to people of all ages, is an installation called Shaping Watersheds. It’s an interactive, augmented-reality sand box, in which contour lines and water flows are projected on to special sand. You can build a mountain, lake, river, dam or a wetland with the sand. You can also make it rain and direct the flow of water from one area to another. The sand box has become so popular that kids have to compete with the adults for access to it.

The time spent in Nature’s Place is enlightening, informative and entertaining, and on leaving you can experience the rest of the Cultural Centre, or take a walk through the adjacent wetlands, along a boardwalk. Nature’s Place:  it’s a great place to visit and have fun.

What difference is this making?

Curator Laurie Carmount adds:

Yes, the impact has been significant. It has brought together like-minded groups in the community (E.H! Environment Haliburton, Land Trust, Land Between, OHTO etc) who have participated in putting forward collective environment concerns. The Climate Change Corner was assembled with effort from myself and E.H! There has been a number of local newspaper articles on this and now E.H! holds their Enviro Café with us to continue the connection. Our goal is track comment and stats on our questionnaires to see how much our visitors know. This we will post on our websites and use as a resource for further programming planning.

For me, it only makes sense to look to the established and very knowledgeable groups in the community and invite them to use the museum as their poster child.

 


George Farrell

George Farrell lives in Haliburton Highlands. He is a staff member of the Minden Hills Cultural Centre, author and writer for the local newspapers. Nature’s Place is open from Victoria Day weekend to Thanksgiving weekend, from Wednesday to Saturday, and the rest of the year for specific lectures and events only – located at 176 Bobcaygeon Road, Minden, Ontario, Canada. For more information call 705-286-3763.

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