Interactive Penguin Exhibition Takes Visitors on a Sub-Antarctic Expedition

The new Penguin Chill habitat at the Albuquerque BioPark is a groundbreaking immersive exhibition that takes visitors on a scientific journey from the southern tip of South America to the Antarctic Peninsula. Ideum designed and built exhibitry that complements the experience of watching live penguins by adding a vivid narrative in which visitors assume the role of researchers bound for the Antarctic. Along the way, they learn about penguin habitats, sub-Antarctic ecology, climate change, and STEM concepts related to Antarctic field research. Narrative theming, innovative uses of interactive technology, and a rich variety of interpretive content combine to create a colorful visitor experience unique to the world of zoos and aquariums. The state-of-the-art indoor habitat is home to King, Gentoo, and Macaroni penguins.

Ideum completed the project in collaboration with HB Construction, S2 Associates, and VGHA Architects, and after two years of development, the experience opened to the public on July 23, 2019. Since the opening, Penguin Chill has been a tremendous success; in fact, a recent KRQE news report notes that attendance at the BioPark increased by 80% over the same period last year. The Albuquerque Journal recently reported that this exhibition has helped make the BioPark "the state’s No. 1 most popular attraction."

Upon entering the exhibition, visitors are introduced to the temperate tundra shorelines of southern South America, challenging the expectation that penguins only live in perpetually cold and icy environments. Rockwork, rustic architectural finishes, and a dynamic ceiling light sculpture that uses near real-time NOAA solar wind data to simulate the Southern Lights (aurora australis), all work together to create an immersive sense of place. (The image above shows the glowing aurora sculpture suspended above viewing area rockwork.) For this exhibition, Ideum created interpretive signage and a fully customizable presentation system for educators, and collaborated with building contractors to select colors and finishes to deepen the expedition narrative.

As guests continue their journey, they board the research vessel RV BioPark, a flexible exhibit space between viewing areas that Ideum transformed into the observation deck of an offshore research ship. Once aboard, visitors look out over a simulated vista of the ship's bow traveling through sub-Antarctic island passages. Interactive exhibitry lets visitors gather data from other research vessels, observe real research specimens and samples in a simulated lab, and make virtual video calls to real-life contributing scientists to learn more about their research.

Visitors then disembark and arrive at the underwater viewing area, where they "scan" a simulated ice core at an exhibit that presents easy-to-understand data on climate change. They can also play a game in which they move their bodies to steer a penguin through obstacles in the search for food. The sounds of calving ice and Weddell seal vocalizations connect visitors with the underwater world they are observing.

As a final takeaway, visitors can enter a selfie photo station to create an animated gif that they can email to themselves. The application asks visitors to complete a brief survey and provides an opportunity to take part in environmental mindfulness pledges.

In total, the project includes a half-dozen interactive exhibits, two themed penguin viewing areas, a dedicated themed exhibit space, a donor wall installation, interpretive signage, vitrine display cases, a presentation system, architectural finishes, and themed exhibit fabrication. Ideum developed all custom software for the exhibits and integrated AV solutions, and in addition to being deeply involved in the exhibit fabrication process, Ideum provided design and narrative direction, project supervision, and interpretive content consultation.

Ideum directed and assembled a team that included long-time collaborator S2 Associates to help develop this unique exhibition. Creating these experiences showcased the exceptional talents of our diverse team of designers, developers, and hardware specialists—including 3 UNM alumni who played key roles in bringing the project to life. Ideum thanks everyone who helped make this memorable project a reality!

(This article was updated with new information since it was originally published.)