Travelers content to skim the dark-green surface of New York's Adirondack Park can cruise the region's well-kept valley roads. Vistas open up every few miles to offer mountains and glacial lakes, along with rustic eateries and chain-saw carvings of bears. Small parking areas mark trail heads for serious hikers.
But until recently, the deepest secrets of these 6-million-acre woods – the flora and fauna first sighted from dugout canoes and spruce-ribbed guide boats – had been closely held.
Now, a parting of the conifer curtain: The $30 million Wild Center, the Natural History Museum of the Adirondacks, opened this summer, rising from an old gravel pit. The institution's multimedia presentation puts it in the vanguard of a long-rising shift away from the dusty, musty, glass-eyed specimens that were once staples of museums.
"This is the first institution of its type in the Adirondacks," says Betsy Lowe, managing director and a driving force at the center, which she conceived of in 1998. "Our collections are all digital and live. We have the aquarium. We have a lot of hands-on activities. And our story is about the science and nature of the region." Further south in Blue Mountain Lake, the 50-year-old Adirondack Museum celebrates the region's human history.
Here in Tupper Lake, nature pours into the center, designed by HOK, the St. Louis firm also behind the Smithsonian's Air & Space Museum in Washington. Living birch trees ring its light-flooded Great Hall, and windows put the visitor at eye level with the pond outside, beyond which are 31 acres of trails.
A circular exhibit hall lets visitors immerse: hold the tiny skull of a northern cardinal, hear the call of a red-eyed vireo, stand on pads that simulate the feeling of sphagnum underfoot, sniff wintergreen and – less pleasingly – mink.
There's a replicated glacier wall and a glass case in which a user can redirect a howling mountain wind. Live fish and reptiles populate tanks, though the stars are indisputably the otters, which perform back flips – bubbles streaming from their noses – in water that is unnaturally clear. (Signs note that the natural state of water in these parts is more tealike because of seeping vegetation.)
"There's so much [in the Adirondacks]," says Bill Kissam, a visitor from nearby Westport, N.Y., who has come back for a second visit with wife, Hannah, and out-of-town friends. "Besides wildlife there are forests, soils. I've learned a lot here."
Today, for example, a 45-minute lecture – with video and audio – by wildlife biologist Nina Schoch leaves a museumgoer with a grasp of what various loon calls mean, why the birds have "laterally flattened" legs (underwater propulsion), how polluting mercury affects reproduction (negatively), and what its wing-flapping "penguin dance" means (that it's agitated).
"Visitors leave with a heightened awareness of the park's biological diversity – and its vulnerability," says Connie Prickett, a spokeswoman for The Nature Conservancy, one of dozens of organizations that collaborate with the center. "[It's also] getting kids excited about things like boreal bogs ... and ancient forests."
"It's an opportunity for people to explore the woods in an intimate way," says Jen Kretser, education director of the nonprofit Adirondack Mountain Club. "They have an exhibit on the summits. Many people won't ever get to those; you have to hike 4,000 feet. At the museum they can get a sense of what that's like."
Ms. Lowe, the managing director, says that visitation has remained steady at 800 to 1,000 per day, after an opening that drew 5,000 in July. Lowe attributes some of the numbers to return visits by area residents. They're also a testimony to the center's inform-and-entertain approach, say experts in museum design who have seen the tactic evolve.
"In the past decade it has really accelerated," says Reed Kroloff, a principal at Jones Kroloff Design Services in New Orleans and dean of the School of Architecture at Tulane University in New Orleans. "Particularly because of innovations in computer technology that have allowed us to re-create and immerse people into simulated environments in a way we never could do before." He cites the Natural History Museum in New York and its addition of a planetarium, "the big ball in the box," as it is known, as an example.
Bill Liskamm, an architect and environmental planner in San Rafael, Calif., points to the Coyote Point Museum in nearby San Mateo, where visitors can run models simulating changes in population density. "It immediately shows you what the county would look like," he says. "That's exciting for big kids like me."
In Tupper Lake, discovery is about human interaction, too. "I've noticed some people come back and just enjoy being in the space," says Lowe. "They run into people they know or meet new people. I say it's about community. Really it's something bigger than that; it's for humanity."
• For more information go to wildcenter.org