Thursday, September 29, 2005

Museum gets ready for eruption

The silver volcano spews steam and smoke as colored lights imply hot, flowing lava. It's not the latest eruption of one of Hawai'i's volcanoes, but a stylized three-story-high facsimile inside the new Science Adventure Center at the Bishop Museum — the highlight of a 30-plus collection of exhibits that will open to the public Nov. 19.

With exhibit creators in the final two months of completing the $17 million center, they're tweaking the computer program that generates the erupting volcano as well as the sputtering lava that flows out of vents in the rift zone — and completing a spectrum of exhibits focusing on Hawai'i volcanoes, geology and biology.

"We were very worried about having something that was hokey," said museum senior exhibit designer Dave Kemble. "It's not a cheap Disney, but a teaching park where you learn about volcanoes. But it's a fine line between making it exciting and fun but not turning it into a theme park."

To that end, they nixed a working volcano made of fiberglass or artificial rock in favor of one with a skin created with foamed aluminum bubbled through a gas to give a porous, sponge-like look and leave tiny holes in the surface.

"It won't be a substitute to seeing the real thing, but if you see this, you'll understand the real thing much better," Kemble said.

"We're trying to create an immersive environment or interactive experience so the whole thing is engaging," Kemble said. "So you just don't look at things and read things. You do things or you're in things."

They consulted University of Hawai'i volcanologists for the science, and visited the real thing on the Big Island, walking on fresh lava and recent flows with designers from the Oakland, Calif., firm hired to create the exhibits, especially the erupting volcano.

That has been the most exciting part of the project, which will explain that Hawai'i does not have explosive volcanoes like Mount St. Helens, but shield volcanoes in which the eruptions are created by "hot spots" deep in the earth that bring magma up from the earth's molten mantle.

The volcano exhibit also will offer a cut-away section of the rift zone that shows how the magma flows underground, breaking through the surface in places of weakness.

Eruptions in the rift zone will be computer-controlled in a random pattern so visitors won't know exactly when they're going to happen — much like real life.

But there will be clues, such as seismographs that begin to show the kind of increased activity occurring before an eruption.

"I'm used to odd challenges to create effects," said Ron Davis, senior exhibit designer for the Oakland firm Gyroscope Ltd., which is designing and building the exhibit. "For me as a designer, the challenge is to make something suggestive of a volcano but not a literal representation of one."
Davis also wanted to make the large volcano seem light in the space where it sits.

"When visitors go inside, it gives you the sense you're a ghost walking through this rock to get a glimpse inside this volcano. There's a translucence that will let us do a lot of cool things with light."
The volcanic steam, meanwhile, actually is an ultrasonic nozzle of water shot against a surface at high pressure until it atomizes.

"It's like what's used in produce sections in grocery stores," Davis said.

Beyond the volcano, among the other exhibits will be a 16-foot tank with a robotic rover that explores the sea floor much like the actual robotic devices that discovered Lo'ihi, Hawai'i's newest underwater volcano. Visitors will be able to manipulate the robot from outside the tank.

"This is an underwater version of the rovers we send to other planets," said Bishop Museum education director Michael Shanahan. "Visitors can operate the robot to explore the ocean floor."

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