When the folks at the California Museum of Science and Industry set out to create their new "Our Urban Environment" exhibit, they knew they had a lot of ground to cover.
Their goal was to show museum visitors how their daily decisions affect Southern California's water supply, air quality and landfills. But for that message to hit home, exhibit planners believed that they needed to remind visitors that talking about saving Earth is meaningless without action.
In short, they decided, they needed a family called the Globeheads.
When the new, interactive exhibit opened Friday, visitors had a chance to meet the Globeheads, whose heads--which are made of blue clay--resemble a spherical model of Earth. The stars of a series of "claymation" films featuring the voice of comedian Chevy Chase, the Globeheads seem like a nice enough family.
But when they leave the water running while brushing their teeth, let used motor oil drip into storm drains or fail to buy recycled products, a frightening transformation occurs: Their blue, round heads become square and yellow. By being careless, the Globeheads turn into their dreaded alter egos: Wasteheads.
"We want people to. . . see how small choices they make in day-to-day life impact the environment," Ann M. Muscat, museum deputy director for exhibits, said as she watched the reactions of the first visitors. "We're trying to give people a little more information to make informed decisions."
The exhibit was developed at a cost of $1.38 million in consultation with the Air Quality Management District, Heal the Bay and several other government, corporate, academic and environmental organizations. It is housed just south of the museum in a new, temporary structure that replaces space that was lost when museum buildings were closed for earthquake repairs. Admission is free.
On Friday, museum technicians--including some who had worked Thanksgiving to prepare the exhibit--were ironing out some kinks, putting extra caulk on the low-flow shower exhibit and double-checking electrical connections on the automated displays. Although a few exhibits had "Coming Soon" signs posted, there was plenty to see.
Step up to an 11-foot high trash can and consider: the 4,239 pounds of garbage it contains is what the average Los Angeles resident throws away in one year. Push a button and a much smaller trash can rises out of the larger one. It holds 741 pounds and represents the fraction of the year's garbage--just 17.5%--that is non-recyclable.
Shop in a mock grocery store where the electronic checkout machine does more than ring up the price--it evaluates the wisdom of the consumer. "Not a great choice," the computer says when someone buys something in a plastic bottle. Frozen vegetables get a similarly poor rating. "It takes a lot of energy to freeze food," the computer scolds.
If Friday was any measure, younger children seemed to gravitate toward displays that have buttons and levers. The Wall of Water asks visitors to match a certain task--flushing the toilet or taking a shower--with the amount of water it uses. If the visitor guesses correctly, the water bottles embedded in the wall gurgle in appreciation.
Nearby, 7-year-old Justin Gray sat at a computer and became a Hazards Detective.
"Watch this," he said, moving the computer's cursor across the floor plan of a house until it landed on the garage. He pushed a button.
"Now, it shows me the garage," he said, as the screen displayed the inside of a room that contained, among other things, old batteries and cleaning materials. As Justin moved the cursor around the room, the computer beeped to indicate when he had located a hazardous hot spot. By pushing the button again, he heard more specifics about toxic materials.
Younger children also flocked to a table near the entrance where museum staffers helped make holiday ornaments out of newspaper and other "trash." Carol Valenta, the museum's director of education, said that after the holidays, the ornament table will be replaced by Towers for Tomorrow, where children will learn how to make futuristic cities out of plastic beverage bottles.
"There's nothing like putting their hands in it to get the rest of them interested," she said.
Other displays are more demanding--such as the computerized display that welcomes visitors by announcing: "Congratulations on your new assignment as solid waste manager for Los Angeles County!"
As manager, the computer explains, you are responsible for diverting 25% of the county's solid waste from landfills by 1995. To do so, you can approve or reject policies that encourage recycling and composting or increase incineration. Try to expand a landfill and you risk getting a fax from the mayor's office: "Expansion permit denied," it says, "because the site sits atop a large ground water basin."
Displays like that one are not necessarily what a youngster would call fun. By design, the solid waste manager simulation was intended to show how difficult the job can be.
"That's what we wanted people to experience--that it's not a simple problem to solve," said David Bilbas, the exhibit's curator.
But overall, Robert Ghirelli, executive officer of the California Regional Water Quality Control Board and one of the exhibit's advisers, said he was glad that he had brought his children to the museum. For them, he said, it was a way to learn the environmental consequences of their actions.
Besides, he added, "it beats being in a mall."