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MUSEUMS : Bats' Bum Rap : To help repair the creatures' battered image, the Natural History Museum in Burbank will present an interactive exhibit on the mammals.

October 08, 1993|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES: R. Daniel Foster is a regular contributor to The Times.

BURBANK — Bats get no respect. Thought to be blind, evil bloodsuckers that have a penchant for mussing hair the likes of Peg Bundy's, the nocturnal creatures are, in fact, beneficial mammals that are endangered.

To help repair the creatures' battered image, the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County / Burbank presents "Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats," beginning Saturday and continuing through Jan. 16.

The interactive exhibit, geared toward children 4 through 12 and their families, helps participants discover what it's like to be a bat. Children can hang upside down, locate a replica of a bat pup by sound among hundreds of nesting bats, try on a pair of bat wings, shout down echolocation tubes and guide a bat model using sonar. It's the perfect hangout to launch the Halloween season.

"Kids love this exhibit because they get to be little explorers," said Stacy Bishkin, president of BBH Exhibits, which produces interactive displays for museums and also brought "Backyard Monsters: The World of Insects" to the museum's Burbank branch. The Burbank display is the only West Coast showing of the bat exhibit, which will tour 40 North American museums and others in Asia and Europe during the next six years.

The exhibit is the most comprehensive interactive presentation on bats to be found in a museum, said Merlin Tuttle, founder of Austin, Tex.-based Bat Conservation International and scientific consultant for "Masters of the Night." The Natural History Museum of New York, from which much of the material was gathered, had a keen interest in the exhibit's assembly--especially the creation of a giant bat skeleton and enlarged models of curious bat faces.

Upon entering the exhibit's moss-encrusted Gothic portal, visitors discover how bats' bum rap has been perpetuated through the centuries. Samples of art on bats and folklore are found here, accompanied by a Bach fugue played in the background. The first gallery turns the tables on those myths by allowing viewers to see the world as a bat sees it--upside down.

A 1700s manor is re-created--it's like walking into a B-rated horror movie--except that everything is upside down, including a knight in armor, coats of arms, furniture, a fireplace and chandelier. Bat trivia, which is found throughout the exhibit, is presented: Nearly 1,000 species of bats account for nearly one-quarter of all mammal species, one bat can catch as many as 1,000 insects in one hour, and tequila is produced from agave plants whose seed production drops to one three-thousandth of normal without bat pollinators.

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A portrait hall features spectacular bat photography presented in back-lit transparencies. And a 60-inch video screen shows various acrobatic feats performed by bats.

The heart of the exhibit is interactive caves with entrances that show daytime bat activities and exits that mirror the night world of bats. Listen for the sounds of rhythmic flapping of wings, trickling water and wind whistling through caves.

A replica of a bat nursery demonstrates how a mother bat can locate her pup among more than 500 that crowd cave walls. Participants push a button to start one baby bat wailing. Within seconds hundreds start to whine. Using a sound detection instrument, visitors attempt to locate the pup much the way a real bat would.

An interactive rain forest--shown during dawn and dusk conditions--allows children to crawl inside a giant silk-cotton tree, a favorite bat habitat. Models of snakes, bats and other animals are placed amid a leafy overlay of shadows; sounds of water, birds, rustling leaves and insects can be heard. Using special effects, a tornado-like emergence of millions of bats from the cave completes the picture.

"Adults tend to fear what they'll learn about bats, but kids think they're cool," said Bishkin, adding that 40% of American bat species are either threatened or endangered. "I've had mothers refuse to go, saying they would rather go to an exhibit on cockroaches. But that's what 'Masters of the Night' is about--dispelling the myths and misunderstandings surrounding bats."

Demonstrations of bat sonar steering techniques are a key part of the exhibit. Participants can use a joystick to maneuver a bat model through a twisting tunnel using echolocation--finding objects through emission of sound waves. Large obstacles produce high sounds and smaller roadblocks emit a lower pitch. Two cave shafts also demonstrate echolocation by returning shouts at different speeds. Children also can exercise their vocal chords by using a computer-enhanced oscilloscope, a tool that translates sound waves into pictures.

For the ultimate Batman outfit, youngsters can try on giant bat ears--20 times actual size--that can be pointed in various directions to pick up ambient noise. A mechanically jointed bat wing can be worn and flexed open and closed to compare human and bat arm structures.

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