I’ve always been a fan of strange combinations. I guess it is a part of my personality. Growing up in Memphis, Tennessee, being highly influenced by southern ingenuity and Elvis, it is not uncommon for me to display some of my odd combinations seen in style, design, music, and food. There is nothing like a donut cheeseburger, waffles and chicken, peanut butter, bananas and marshmallow fluff, shrimp and grits, and hot sauce and/or Cool Whip on anything.
Upon a visit to the new Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center I was reminded of how strange combinations can complement each other. The first strange combination found in this nature center is the fact that it is a nature center in the River Market District of Downtown Little Rock, Arkansas. When visiting Little Rock it is easy to get caught up in attractions such as the Clinton Library, Central High National Historic Site, Vino’s Pizza (my personal favorite), and everything else the city has to offer and forget the city is situated on the Arkansas River. I love the fact that, much like many other urban nature centers, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has taken the opportunity to share the message of their work, highlight the natural history of the Natural State, and preserve a small slice of nature in downtown. Nature centers are needed in urban centers.
Once inside the nature center you begin to see the strange combinations continue. In the majority of nature centers that I have visited in the past I can usually predict the typefaces that are expected to be found in exhibit text and in displays. It is a knack that I have that is almost as useful as speaking Huttese. (In the event that I am ever in Tatooine or meet Jabba the Hutt face to face, it will be worth the study.)
I was pleasantly surprised by the interaction of image and type within the nature center. As you enter the center you find a large lobby with massive glass windows overlooking the Arkansas River that is framed with larger than life images of the 6 natural divisions of Arkansas. The images in and of themselves speak volumes but the elegant type applied to images struck me as beautifully strange. A descriptor also used by my wife in referring to me, along with Lyle Lovett.
In a situation where you might expect a designer to try to find a typeface that represents the region, the culture, or something significant that happened in that natural division, an ultra-clean, modern, sans serif appears as a simple clean approach. Well, at least that sounds like something that I would do but here the approach was different. The letterforms almost seem to disappear in the image after being read. The type is used consistently in titles through the nature center. Despite my best efforts no Papyrus was found.
Within that strange combination of a nature center in a downtown metropolitan area there is also the combination of a nature center that focuses specifically on recreational opportunities provided by the fish and wildlife or nature of Arkansas Little Rock. My initial pre-visit question was how can you build a nature center to interpret and highlight the nature or wildlife that you are harvesting? Building it around and highlighting their mission is one way to do it.
The center’s website states that “exhibits highlight the role of fish and wildlife management and many of the projects conducted throughout the history of the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission” which is found in various interpretive efforts through the center. The creative approach of interpreting the natural divisions, featured in the entry, through the fish, plants, and topography of each region in a linear aquarium is a novel approach.
The strange combinations continued. Who says fishing lures aren’t beautiful? Prior to this visit, I would have. The collection is amazing and beautiful.
What about combining exhibit text on unusual surfaces? In the trapper’s theater cabin, a thematic approach to a high definition audiovisual presentation, you find interpretation in unusual places and on unusual surfaces. In a Disneyesque approach to waiting, the cabin serves as a staging area prior to entering and exiting the theater. The cabin gives you something to explore while waiting for the show to start or a place to meet up with your group after the presentation. In this cabin it was interesting to see text printed on something besides a panel.
The next time you are in the Little Rock area take a stroll in the River Market District and check out the Central Arkansas Nature Center. After your visit you may have a hankering for fish. I’ll be glad to take you to my favorite place for catfish and spaghetti.