At the Bell, we’re always trying to understand our connections to nature. This summer, the Bell teamed up with Jessie Merriam, an intern from the University of Minnesota’s Heritage Studies and Public History Program, to develop a new project that explores that question—where do you feel connected to nature?
The project began with conversations between Merriam, the Public Engagement and Science Learning Team, and the Statewide Engagement Team at the Bell. To explore the question, ‘where do you feel connected to nature?’, the group decided to develop an interactive art project. Merriam conducted research on other interactive art and nature projects throughout the Twin Cities and beyond to direct the development of this project. It was important to Merriam that the project centered on community engagement, rather than becoming part of the Bell’s regular programming. Community engagement differs from a typical educational exhibit or program programming in that, instead of participating in a predetermined game or activity, community engagement leaves room for a group or individual to be part of molding the activity with their own thoughts and ideas so that the activity best serves their community.
To develop Merriam’s ideas further, the project went through a series of iterations in a process called prototyping. Prototyping involves testing many different versions of a project with public audiences to gauge their engagement, find blind spots, or new ideas. If you stopped by the Bell this summer, you may have noticed one of the early iterations—a big map of Minnesota hanging out in the Learning Landscape or in the Bell’s Horizon Hall. During this iteration, visitors were invited to draw a picture on the map, indicating where they feel most connected to nature.
In another iteration, the project took the form of a ‘memory map’, where visitors were invited to draw their favorite memories with a specific location in nature. This iteration was tested at the North Central Research and Outreach Center’s Visitors Day Event in Grand Rapids. In future versions of the activity, community partners can keep these pieces to collage together or start conversations about natural history and STEM topics of interest to them. This activity centers on community engagement because each iteration will be developed by having conversations and planning meetings with groups or individuals who will co-create a central question that is relevant and interesting to their community.
The largest scale iteration was a mobile mural, which was built using a large piece of plywood and was staged in a community green space with drawing and painting supplies. Visitors were invited to add what they’d like to the mural as they reflect on connecting with nature in their neighborhood. The first version of this mural was developed at a land celebration party with Tamales y Bicicletas Urban Farm in the Phillips neighborhood of Minneapolis. The event, hosted by Cempazúchitl Collective—a group facilitating Indigenous skill shares & discussions on occupied Dakhóta/Aniishinaabe lands-creating space for cultural resilience, healing & ancestral wisdom—brought together artists, activists, foragers, families, and neighbors. Check out the photos below to see their work in progress. The mural will remain on site for future events to add even more layers.
Thanks to everyone who participated in these early prototypes! Because of your help, generosity, and participation, the team was able to learn more about how people connect with nature, start a collective nature-connection map of Minnesota, and hone in on three potential versions of the activity to take to communities in the Twin Cities and around the state.
Are you interested in hosting one of these activities at an upcoming event? Do you have new ideas for how we could improve? The project is still in development and we’d love to hear your thoughts! Reach out to us at Bell-Statewide@umn.edu. You can also find the next iteration of this project at the Bell during MEA weekend in October!