Engaging people in the stories of America's public lands for the National Conservation Legacy Center

Concept design for the National Conservation Legacy Center.

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How to manage America’s public lands has long been a political hot potato (to put it lightly). On a 30-acre site in a mountain valley in Missoula, Montana, the debate is about to be shaken up. By providing facts and figures, honest ups and downs, the National Conservation Legacy Center aims to offer perspectives on the past, and clarity for the future. 

“Political division is becoming more commonplace but we’re not here to take sides – quite the opposite,” reveals Tom Petersen, the center's Development Director. “We want to present history exactly as it happened. And it's complicated! It's not always a nice story. There's been a lot of controversy over these public lands.” 

Equally passionate is Executive Director Lisa Tate, who has been integral to its successful fundraising efforts. She adds: “When people know the history of something, they gain a much greater understanding of why we are where we are today. By sharing all sides of issues, we hope to create a better understanding of the complex decisions made in America’s conservation history.” 

It’s a big ask. How can you possibly distill down such a huge, multifaceted topic into an engaging, immersive experience for visitors? The organization creating the museum is the National Museum of Forest Service History. Independent of the U.S. Forest Service, this non-profit organization alone has collected 50,000 objects, artifacts, photographs, and documents. 

To add to this complexity, visitors are likely to be at either side of the spectrum when it comes to conservation knowledge. At one end, people who are relatively new to the topic, such as multigenerational families visiting between trips to Yellowstone and the Glacier National Park. At the other end, people with detailed and personal knowledge, such as U.S. Forest Service personnel. 

The answer is to create something amazing at every step – from the very moment you see the museum, and throughout trails inside and out. 

“When they fly into the airport or drive by on the interstate, we want visitors to see the building and utter, ‘Wow!’. And we want that feeling to continue throughout the entire experience,” says Lisa.

Lisa has been in the museum industry for her entire career and remembers being dragged around hundreds of museums by her mom in her formative years. “The moments you remember are those delivered in innovative ways. We want people to come into the building and be excited because that’s how you learn. That’s when it leaves with you,” explains Lisa. 

To achieve that, the architecture of the building and the technology fueling visitor experiences will be both cutting-edge and meaningful. This will be a state-of-the-art showcase museum shining a light on some of the nation's greatest challenges, and revealing the truth about our remarkable public forests and grasslands.  

Designing for wow moments 

Enter Nico Guillin, Art Processors Creative Director and the strategic lead on the project to deliver the museum’s exhibition design. He started his career at the Natural History Museum in Paris 30 years ago, then moved to New York, and has been working with museums across the world ever since. 

Nico’s work pays particular attention to bridging the gap between storytelling and architecture. “How does the architectural environment play a role in the storytelling as opposed to just being a vessel for the story?” he considers, concluding: “Architecture can have an interpretive role, depending on how you shape it and how you work with it, such as with lighting or how spaces flow from one area to the next.” 

He has been there from the start as the National Conservation Legacy Center takes shape – from advising the architect, Leers Weinzapfel Associates, on how best to move visitors through the space, right through to developing the creative exhibition design and technological options.

“My two definitions of success are firstly that we create a museum that is right for today’s visitors and secondly for the experience to reframe visitors’ perception of the environment. The ideal is for them to feel like they can be active participants in shaping the world around them,” Nico reveals. 

So how is he going about that? Step one was to bring the museum staff and a core group of stakeholders together to brainstorm and agree on a North Star. “We promote early conversations at Art Processors internally too, inviting in the tech point of view, content, graphic design... When you do that, typically, you come up with things you couldn't without that togetherness.” 

Strategy set, he turned his attention to the building and exhibit design. Long-lasting learning requires the layering of cognitive and emotional storytelling, and that will be key throughout this project. 

“We design exhibitions around this emotional arc and layer the information – the highs and lows, the comedic moments, emotions and so forth,” explains Nico. “The progression through the gallery is a combination of these components together. It's really the underpinnings of how we think about storytelling within space.”

Vision for the future

National Conservation Legacy Center mock-up design

The museum building is sympathetic to the nature around it, while also acting as an exhibit in and of itself – a living example of the use of innovative wood products. Credit: National Museum of Forest Service History.

Concept design for the National Conservation Legacy Center.

The building also uses traditional techniques, bringing the past and present together to create a feeling of timelessness. Look for instance at the tree-like columns supporting the roof, each telling a story. They will be constructed using historic timber framing joinery rather than modern bolts, screws, or nails.

Concept design for the National Conservation Legacy Center.

From the moment people approach the building, they will be drawn into learning with QR codes to kick off trails aimed at all different visitors.

Concept design for the National Conservation Legacy Center.

An immersive film and object-theater experience on a curved wall introduces visitors to the idea of conservation and the role of the Forest Service and its partners.

Concept design for the National Conservation Legacy Center.

In the center of the main exhibition area, three interactive “tree cookies” reveal the complex problems the service has confronted, inviting visitors into the decision-making process. As they explore stories of people, actions, and historical events, visitors can slide elements of their experience to others who are exploring a connected story.

First-person audio interviews and videos featuring people who are involved in conserving nature, such as the fire service and cattlemen, are key to ensuring that information is shared with heart, and resonates with diverse audiences. 

The technology is subtly embedded within the building and exhibits so that the experience feels natural and immersive. For instance, video projectors and computer vision cameras transform the tree cookies into interactive touch surfaces. Visitors surface stories and navigate deeper into the content with simple gestures.

Rather than relying on buttons that can break the spell of an experience, sounds, videos and lighting will be automatically triggered when visitors approach areas.

Concept design for the National Conservation Legacy Center.

At key moments, stories stand out by being told in relevant but playful sets.

Concept design for the National Conservation Legacy Center.

“We’re in a mountain valley where the views are spectacular,” says Tom. “This inside/outside aspect is something we’re very excited about.”  As well as viewing windows, there is a roof terrace, tower, and trail experiences will continue inside and out around the campus.

Just the start

For Art Processors, we recently completed the concept design. “The next phase is schematic design and design development,” explains Nico. “Then we'll engage with another round of creative partners, like a fabricator and AV integrator, so we can make these design documents a reality.“

For the team at the National Conservation Legacy Center, there is a whole master plan for the future, with the museum at its heart. “Fundraising is never really complete,” says Lisa. “It’s a never-ending cycle when you're in the nonprofit business.”

For more on the museum and getting involved in telling the story of American conservation, check out the National Conservation Legacy Center website.