A sea change at Independence Seaport Museum with new science of water exhibit

The first thing you see when you walk into the “River Alive!” exhibition at Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum is a 35-foot-long video wall, with five joystick stations in front of it.

A visitor can tap, spin, or roll an object on the joystick that progressively makes one section of the Delaware River cleaner, in the highlands, wilderness, farmland, urban, or coastal areas. If all five stations are engaged – if you are joined by four friends or strangers – you win.

The exhibit teaches something about the variations of river ecology, but it also feels a little like Rock Band, the video game.

“These are the technologies we have. How can we best tell these stories?” said Victoria Prizzia, who designed the exhibition. “It was less about gaming and more about the whimsical nature of the natural world.”

Prizzia, who runs the exhibition design company Habithèque, was hired by the museum to make a sea change: turn the institute known for a half-century for a boating and maritime history into a science museum.

The permanent exhibition “River Alive!” launches this weekend. It has no historic artifacts or boats, but rather hands-on, interactive digital displays and games that teach different aspects of water science, from microbes to stormwater runoff.

It represents a shift in the museum’s ideology.

“What I heard from a lot of constituents is that we were a boat museum, or about a nautical collection,” said John Brady, who moved from director of the boatbuilding workshop to president and CEO seven years ago. “It occurred to me that those are tools to access the water. Why not take a look at the water itself?”

As a river rat for more than 50 years and a wooden boat builder, Brady would still love to get people out on the water. The exhibition is a way to help them understand it first.

“River Alive!” was years in development, funded in large part by the William Penn Foundation and its watershed initiative. For the construction of the exhibition, large windows were punched into the side of the Seaport Museum to visitors inside could see the river about 30 feet away.

The new exhibition shows young children the shapes of microscopic plankton and lets them dress as fish and maneuver through a re-creation of riverbed plants. Older kids can work through puzzles that show the impact of rural, suburban, and urban environments on the Delaware River.

A more contemplative view of the river can be seen in a small screening room, with a video of river imagery overlaid with a poem by James Ijames, read by the city playwright and actor.

The cleanliness of a river is a long game. Changes in how the water is used sometimes cannot be seen for years — or decades. The health of the Delaware depends on a web of issues from the environment, wildlife, human intervention, and time. The exhibition tries to tell a story that cannot be seen directly.

“It’s a challenge and that’s the beauty of it. It’s all-encompassing. It’s a really complex thing,” said Brady. “But what an opportunity for exploration, for playing, for solving puzzles. It has its challenges, but the challenges are good ones.”

“River Alive!” will act as the core of a rotation of other exhibitions. Brady is planning to base the museum on five themes – the science of water, the history for the U.S. Navy, the Delaware River as a major commercial port, its recreational use, and what the river was like before the arrival of Europeans.

Disclosure: The William Penn Foundation supports WHYY.

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