'Earth Explorers' exhibit overwhelms with sights, sounds, facts

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A look at the new Earth Explorers exhibit at the Museum of Science and Industry. (Bill Hogan/Chicago Tribune)

The new "National Geographic Presents: Earth Explorers" exhibition at the Museum of Science and Industry is a bit like its title or a good Chicago pizza: overstuffed, but with a lot of quality ingredients.

Exploring Earth is good. National Geographic, in most things, is good. But together that's a lot of verbiage, reminiscent of those movies that cram an author's or director's name into the title. 

Similarly, the museum show, opening Thursday, is a cup that runneth over. There is screen after screen of video — glorious, high-definition nature footage from extreme places such as caves and ice floes and African savannas. There are vehicles, or simulations of vehicles, to climb into and out of, including a Toyota Land Cruiser, a hot-air balloon and a deep-sea submersible. 

And there are signs. Lots and lots — and lots — of signs. Like editors of a magazine who try to win readers over by plastering their pages with small-print tidbits, the designers of this traveling exhibit, making a 51/2-month stop here after a debut run at the Science Center of Iowa, seem determined to leave no square foot of wall unwritten upon. 

The signs, in the show crafted by National Geographic with the California firm Global Experience Specialists, tell you about various modern-day explorers, about their gear, about the animals and minerals they find, and what people do with them across Earth's varied "eco-zones."

The information, make no mistake, comes across as solid and almost always interesting. And visitors should have a good time here, especially younger, distractible visitors, as they step into a polar explorer's cabin or stick their hand in a hole in a rain forest tree, and then zip over to the life-size great white shark model. 

But viewing the show as a whole, you can struggle to find the hierarchy of information, the knack a first-rate museum exhibit has for providing a must-know layer, then a supplement, then more layers for people who really want to dig deep (or whose kids are waiting to sit on the dog sled).

Going through it this week, I was reminded more of the busy, frantic tone of National Geographic Kids magazine rather than the stately, authoritative quality that the main National Geographic magazine projects. 

But, again, the quality of information is way better than what I saw in Nat Geo Kids, which disappointed me by talking down to children about candy and pop figures as much as about the science and the planet. The kids magazine, to my mind, lets down that powerful brand marked by the distinctive yellow border rectangle.

"National Geographic Presents: Earth Explorers" is worthy of the brand, and its designers have incorporated a few of the yellow rectangles, just to remind you. Another reminder: Several of the human explorers highlighted throughout, including oceanographer Sylvia Earle and conservationist Michael Fay, bear the title National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence. 

It's interesting to note that "Earth Explorers" has a couple of parts in common with "The Machine Inside: Biomechanics," the new, mostly homemade show the Field Museum premiered last week. Both use infrared imaging to let you look at your own body's heat loss. Both talk about the bite strength of humans versus sharks. 

But the exhibition at the natural history museum is much more the science show, while the one at the science museum is doing a kind of pop-science and personality hybrid. 

The MSI show is organized by eco-zones: polar regions, rain forests, mountains and caves, savannas and the ocean. In each region, scientists (or photographers), terrain, technique and animals are highlighted. 

And for all the signage clamoring for attention, there is, it must be said, no shortage of artifacts either.  A camera trap of the kind used to photograph reclusive animals, like the snow leopard, will also snap visitors' photos. A full suit of polar gear shows what it takes to stay warm at the ends of the earth. A polar bear model, easily 10 feet tall, hangs around outside the explorer's cabin. 

The show even loads up on its sound design. You hear the rattly engine of that Land Cruiser, the mechanized breathing of the deep-sea diver, the ominous-sounding polar winds. 

There is plenty to hear in "Earth Explorers." There is plenty to see, read and touch, and plenty to discover. If just learning about explorers is this relentlessly stimulating, then imagine what it must be like to actually explore the Earth. 

'National Geographic Presents: Earth Explorers'

When: Through Sept. 1

Where: Museum of Science and Industry Chicago, 57th St. and Lake Shore Drive

Tickets: $18-$27 with Museum Explorer Package; 773-684-1414 or msichicago.org

sajohnson@tribune.com

Twitter @StevenKJohnson


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