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For Ecosystems to Maintain Balance, Humans Have to Understand How They Fit into The System.

The ecosystems on Earth are incredibly complex structures of biological components, that include animals and plants, as well as non-biological components, such as water, light, and temperature – all of which work together to create a system in which energy and nutrients flow in a stabilized manner. For any component that starts to drift out of that balance, such as a plant that might start to grow too fast, there is a counter component, like an insect that lives off that plant, that has evolved to keep the system in check. 

 However, the hubris of humans, our sense of superiority, and the arrogant idea that we somehow stand apart from ecosystems have resulted in catastrophic damage to the planet – climate change, pollution, habitat destruction, and species extinction – to name just a few. We would look to the mountains, or a “deserted” island, or the depths of the oceans, and state that, as we don’t live there, it’s got nothing to do with us – we’re not connected. We failed for too long to understand that we are a major biological component of the biggest ecosystem of them all – the entire planet – of which these other ecosystems are just smaller parts. To this day we still struggle to acknowledge our role in all of this and how our activities have knocked so many ecosystems out of balance.

Consequently, educational programs that address this topic are vitally important.

One way to teach the impact of humans in ecosystems, and the importance of balance, is through immersive storytelling. The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund in Rwanda has built an entire museum to achieve this at The Ellen DeGeneres Campus, its multi-million-dollar conservation project. It is the Cindy Broder Conservation Gallery, a visitors’ center that is designed to educate students and tourists through a series of high-tech interactive and multimedia experiences, while the rest of the campus focuses on conservation and research projects that draw conservationists and scientists from all over the world.

A special shoutout to MASS Design Group and Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund for the vision and opportunity.

Immersive storytelling is a technique that other museums and conservation projects can also use to center visitors in an experience, which is a much more effective way of communicating a message. When one thinks of immersive storytelling, something like a VR experience viewed through a headset or a 360-degree wall projection comes to mind. Which would literally center someone in the middle of a story that is going on all around them. But the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund exhibit displays a more tactile, and arguably traditional, approach to creating an immersive experience, focusing on the impact on the group rather than on the individual.

An example is the reconstruction of Dian Fossey’s cabin that is within the visitors’ center, which includes a reconstruction of the projection system that she used to view photos and film footage. The cabin experience gives visitors a first-hand sense of what Dian Fossey experienced out in the field while she was doing her research, including how she lived and worked while trying to fit within the mountain ecosystem with as little disruption as possible, even as she fought against the poaching and habitat destruction that was going on all around her.

The cabin houses some of her original furniture and belongings (more items, such as her passport and wristwatch, are also found outside the cabin in a timeline exhibit that formula D_ built), which helps to connect visitors to her and the environment of the 1970s and 1980s, because there’s something very intimate and emotionally hard-hitting about seeing, first hand, a physical object that used to belong to someone else. It’s a technique that museums and memorials all over the world use to connect the current generations to the stories of the previous generations to make the past feel more real and to link it directly to the present.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund visitors’ center was a particularly special project for formula D_ to work on because its conservation message resonates so strongly with the team, and it is emphasized by the physical location of the campus in the mountains in the heart of the gorillas’ ecosystem. This location is intentional – it’s not just for practical research reasons but to offer visitors the perfect environment to contemplate their place in the world and to observe how intricately we are all connected.