Blog

Amazonian Ideas on a Small Budget

By Renata Moretti and Ennio Candotti
From Dimensions
March/April 2019

The idea of setting up a museum in the greatest forest on Earth—the Amazon rainforest—brought along with it some questions: How could the visitors really engage in exploration, make the visit their own, and have a transformative experience they would take away with them? With an annual budget of $600,000, Museu da Amazônia (Museum of the Amazon or MUSA) welcomes approximately 40,000 visitors every year, a number that has steadily increased since MUSA opened in 2011.
 
How do we serve so many on such a small budget? Our museum is the rainforest itself. We spend relatively little for facilities, exhibit design, and maintenance. Our power is what the animals and plants demonstrate to visitors: the importance of the rainforest not only to the many species who live here, but also to the world’s climate and water cycle.
 
The natural environment of the rainforest is a mosaic, created over thousands of millions of years, that continues to be created, sometimes right in front of our eyes. In this spontaneous and improvised play, the actors—ants, frogs, palm trees, fungi, cicadas—show different spectacles, one after another. They are capable of capturing our attention and admiration without the slightest effort.
 
Listen to the forest
 
This is a different museum: visitors enter a lively, dynamic environment, where there is much to see and do, and visitors can decide what they’d like to focus on. MUSA puts the spotlight on the forest’s characters, and adjusts the microphone so that the audience can listen to the forest voice and understand what it wants to say. More than listening and observing, visitors can get involved in the stories and analyze the history of humanity itself.
 
This is a goal of MUSA: to present the show that manifests itself in the Amazonian rainforest. Located on one side of the Ducke Reserve, a 39-square-mile (100–square-kilometer) area of untouched forest in in Manaus, Amazonas, Brazil, MUSA occupies a 0.4-square-mile (one-square-kilometer) area of forest. MUSA’s facilities include several attractions: exhibitions, aquariums, a butterfly house, and an archaeology laboratory dedicated to revealing the secrets of the Amazonian cultures—both ancient and still living in the forest.
 
Learn about traditional communities
 
MUSA also tells the stories of how traditional communities live, including how they fish, grow their vegetables, and make a living, as well as their myths and other aspects of their cultures. The exhibitions Peixe e Gente (Fish and People) and Mandioca (Manioc), occupy big tents. Peixe e Gente invites visitors to understand the relationship between people in the Upper Negro River and their fishing habits, whereas Mandioca shows how traditional communities in the Negro River cultivate their food, especially those in the Santa Isabel region, where more than 200 varieties of manioc are found. This exhibit also includes the “flour house,” which features unique tools developed a long time ago and still used to work with the manioc and convert its byproducts to other useful items. The tools include fanners, sieves, and the “tipiti”—a specific tool used to extract the toxic broth from previously grated manioc. In addition, there are many examples of braids, made of different species and parts of the manioc plants, that are then woven into baskets.
 
Tower over the jungle
 
On the way to the 138-foot (42-meter) tower from where we can see Amazon jungle from above, visitors can find small, symmetrical clay towers made by cicadas during their last molts. When visiting the lake containing the magnificent Victoria amazonica, a floating plant whose leaves grow up to six feet (two meters) in diameter, it is possible to see riverine turtles taking a sunbath or, if you are lucky, to observe amphibian spawn appearing like a long gelatinous cord. These and many more new possibilities of exploration await visitors, who will leave with questions and an expanded interest that they can pursue through books, the Internet, and discussions with friends and teachers. We encourage them to draw parallels between what they’ve observed at MUSA and their home environments and to continue to make observations.
 
MUSA invites visitors to open their senses to nature and ask questions that lead to greater understanding:
  • What are the colors, the odors, the sounds, the textures of the rainforest?
  • What elements already exist in our memories that resemble this experience?
  • What is new, what are we encountering for the first time?
  • How can we learn to read the environment through the eyes of scientists, artists, and traditional communities?
  • What are our different understandings and how can we enjoy each one and, at the same time, have our own authentic experience?
Consider the guava
 
Consider the story of a guava tree, for example. In the soil under and surrounding a guava tree, many organisms live in relationship with one another as well as with the non-living elements. The interaction among all of them forms the ecosystem, providing resources for the guava tree, the creatures living on and around it, and for many other organisms. This is a very fine-tuned and dynamic interaction.
 
Visitors can watch this show in real time, as the guava tree hosts various different life throughout the year. Species of insects visit and pollinate its flowers, and later, birds and other animals consume the fruits growing on the tree. When the fruits mature and fall to the ground, invertebrates feed on the fruits as they decompose into the soil and mushrooms grow on the fruits, helping the decomposition process.
 
Increasing the scope of visitors’ research, they can investigate how it is possible for an organism to grow inside the guava fruit, or the physiologic mechanisms that allow the locomotion of a given animal. We can also analyze the angles of the tree branches or the root twigs using mathematics, write a poem about how the guava tree affects the senses, reflect on the colors of the guava tree in a song, or describe guava trees’ ecosystems using physics concepts.
 
This is the beauty of knowledge and the power of small: visitors have all kinds of options to explore in order to satisfy their curiosity using nothing more than the natural world around them. They just need creativity, curiosity, and freedom—freedom to feel, ask questions, and look for answers.
 

Renata Moretti is an associate researcher at the Museu da Amazônia and a postdoctoral researcher at the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. Ennio Candotti is a retired physicist and director of the Museu da Amazônia.

About the image: At the manioc exhibit, visitors can witness the complex transformation of the toxic manioc roots into food. Photo by Juan Gabriel Soler.