Cook Museum of Natural History Exhibit Illustrations
When the Cook Museum of Natural History contacted me to create museum exhibit illustrations, they already had a solid exhibit plan in place. They needed an artist to quickly jump in, work with their team, and create informative exhibit art. The museum was in the midst of re-inventing itself, expanding its footprint by 12x to an amazing 62,000 square foot of immersive exhibits. They needed an illustrator to create signage infographics to describe the science.
The museum opened its doors in June 2019, and it highlights Alabama’s incredible ecology, including its forests, streams, and caves.
One of the fun aspects of this project was learning about Alabama’s ecology. Did you know, that Alabama’s biodiversity is the 5th highest of all 50 United States? Or did you know, about their incredible cave system?
Cook museum also hosts a huge aquarium, space exhibits, and more. To help complete their grand plans, I worked with their exhibit team to create illustrations of complex natural processes unique to Alabama ecosystems. I drew skunks in tortoise tunnels, fly-catching pitcher plants, and different bees’ ways of regulating temperature. Read on to learn more…
Creating Exhibit Art, From Sketch to Final Illustration
A museum this size takes a lot of planning and work. To help with the homestretch, Creative Director Sloane Bibb and Director of Exhibits John Kelton invited me to create artwork for several exhibits, including:
- The Forest Exhibit–illustrations showcasing Alabama’s diverse natural history
- The Arctic/Desert exhibit–drawn diagrams highlighting animal’s adaptations to heat and cold
- The Caves exhibit–A cross-section showing the change from the filtered light of the entrance, to the deep dark within.
To fulfill Cook’s exhibit plan, I created key exhibit illustrations needed to explain complex natural processes. The museum team gave me a research brief describing the topics. Some had references to work from, but many required new solutions to adequately convey their ideas. Working to their exhibit design specifications, I created art that they could quickly drop into their planned space. Below are a few highlights.
Forest Food Web Ecology Exhibit Illustration
The Forest Food Web sign exhibit needed to showcase Alabama forest ecology. First conceived of as more of a circular graphic, I re-envisioned it closer to a true landscape so that visitors can imagine how organisms impact one another. After the team confirmed that they liked my interpretation, I created the artwork in a mix of 3d programs and drawing in Adobe Photoshop. The final art shows interactions between diverse animals, plants, and fungus in the forests of Alabama
Gopher Tortoise Tunnels
For the gopher tortoise tunnels, the museum needed an illustrated view underground. The gopher tortoise, Gopherus polyphemus, lives across the Southeastern United States. Averaging close to a foot long, the gopher tortoise certainly isn’t the largest turtle, but its ecosystem impact is huge. The tortoise burrows tunnels into the soft-sand of longleaf pine forests, making homes for over 350 other species.
I created this museum exhibit illustration to give museum visitors a glimpse into the tortoise’s tunnel and some of the other animals that call the burrow home. First, I sketched the tunnel and the animals to match their exhibit design. After collecting feedback from the exhibit team, I started creating the color art. To start, I digitally sculpted the tunnels with Zbrush. Then, I drew the animals using iPad’s Procreate. The final illustrated cross-section of the tortoise tunnels was composited in Photoshop. It shows a striped-skunk (Mephitis mephitis), an eastern indigo snake (Drymarchon couperi), a gopher frog (Rana capito), the florida mouse (Podomys floridanus), gopher tortoise ticks (Amblyomma tuberculatum), tortoise shell caterpillars (Ceratophaga vicinella), a gopher tortoise copris beetle (Copris gopher), and the gopher tortoise itself.
Virtually Visiting the Cook Museum to See Exhibit Illustrations
From time to time someone asks how I became a science illustrator, and I’m reminded how lucky I am. Day in and day out though, sometimes I feel a bit… jaded? Don’t get me wrong, I do honestly love an excuse to sculpt a tortoise tunnel, but once I hand-off the artwork it’s on to the next project. To be successful in this gig, you’ve gotta work quickly. There isn’t a lot of time to savor accomplishments. Occasionally from my wonderful magazine clients, like Science News and Sky and Telescope, I get a treat in the mail to see the published illustrations. More often than not, I don’t get to see the final art in use.
That’s one reason this work with Cook Museum was particularly gratifying. The project itself was exciting; to give museum visitors a glimpse into some of the hidden worlds that are so near. But to actually see the finished art in use? It feels amazing to see the exhibit artwork integrated into the overall design. Cook Museum was gracious enough to send photos of the exhibit so I could see my infographics amidst the sculpted trees and animals, and the beautifully painted background landscapes. I’m so proud to have contributed to the vision, so carefully imagined and planned by the larger exhibit team.
Sadly, I’m writing this during the Coronavirus pandemic. I can’t travel cross-country to visit, but once we’re able, I’m so excited to bring my kids to see the incredible Cook Museum in person. For now, I’m grateful to have participated in helping create parts of Cook Museum’s exhibits, and I hope Alabama’s locals are able to enjoy.