Interactive Exhibits at the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge Visitor Center


Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge


South Valley, Albuquerque, NM

For the past two years, Ideum has been working closely with the Valle de Oro National Wildlife Refuge, Brycon Construction, and Formative Architecture to design, produce, and install a suite of engaging exhibits for the refuge’s brand-new visitor center. Scheduled to open to the public this spring, the center will include physical, mechanical, and digital exhibits that share important stories about wildlife, the refuge’s history, and community connections between the land, local animal species, and each other.

As the signage in the center’s entryway states, “The refuge is a special place.” Established in 2012, Valle de Oro NWR is the first Urban Wildlife Refuge in the Southwest Region. The 570-acre refuge is also unique in that it is the first urban wildlife refuge to be entirely developed under the USFWS Urban Wildlife Conservation Program. This means that not only is the refuge’s mission to protect critical wildlife habitat, it is also equally dedicated to developing a Connected Conservation Community.

At Valle de Oro NWR, that task is well underway, and actually began before the refuge existed. In fact, the refuge owes its existence to a connected community of activists, volunteers, and supporters who dedicated their time, energy, experience, and funding to the establishment of the refuge.

After years of dedication, the community will soon be seeing tangible results with the completion of the visitor center. This impressive and new multipurpose building incorporates green principles and technologies, both blends into and pays tribute to the landscape, houses partner organizations, and provides a welcoming exhibit space for visitors to connect. It was our pleasure to work with the refuge team, as well as the community, to create the exhibits for this space.

Upon entering the visitor center, guests can engage with content in two ways. If they’d like to speak with a person, the welcome desk offers that opportunity. If a visitor prefers to gather information independently, an interactive touch screen exhibit, or Digital Docent, allows the visitor to explore logistical information about the refuge on their own, at their own pace. Utilizing the Digital Docent, a visitor can find opening/closing times, learn about upcoming programming and special events, review recent wildlife sightings, review a map, and become familiar with some of the staff, volunteers, and partners who operate the refuge.

Moving beyond the welcome desk and into the main exhibit space, visitors have several options of exhibits to interact with. A large wall to the left displays an exhibit called Life Zones of the Rio Grande. Utilizing artistic but species-accurate wildlife illustrations, this colorful mural incorporates flippers, audio, and vitrine displays. A visitor can view a variety of wildlife species associated with each life zone, listen to the sounds of the landscape, and engage with physical flippers which offer smells, small displays, and touchable items.

Opposite the Life Zones, a visitor will encounter an exhibit “island” - a long and geometric piece of furniture housing several exhibits, located in the center of the space and dividing the room in two.

To one end of the island is the Refuge Story digital interactive. This application presents the artwork of local artist Vicente Telles in a digital format, touchable and interactive to the visitor. By tapping on a region of the artwork, a visitor will call up related information and photographs important to the topic. The artwork represents the story of the refuge, but it is through the visitor’s interaction that the meaning and story are revealed.

Moving along the island, a visitor next encounters an exhibit called River Story. A simple graphic panel explains a brief summary of the history of human impact on the Rio Grande. A dial embedded in the panel is available for visitors to turn, presenting a changing landscape on an LED display, hidden beneath natural-looking fabric. With a turn of the dial, a visitor can scrub through time and witness the changes in the river and the landscape with differing levels and types of human impact.

At the end of the island, visitors will encounter the Backyard Story exhibit. This simple physical interactive presents an illustrated South Valley yard. By spinning wheels and flippers, visitors can see the impact of their actions and choices on wildlife in our shared spaces.

Moving around the end of the island and into the other half of the room, a visitor will encounter the Community Gathering Space. This area is dedicated to the community, as a comfortable, flexible space for spending time with each other and with the refuge. Chairs, ottomans, and bench seating encourage visitors to stay awhile. A text panel presents a thought-provoking quote and question, and offers supplies such as notecards and pencils for people to contribute a response and clip it up onto whiteboards to be viewed by others. The digital interactive Voices of the Valley presents audio stories of community members’ connection to the outdoors in the Middle Rio Grande Valley, told in their own words and voices. A large, bright, and colorful mural contributed by local artist Haley Greenfeather English dominates the large wall here, lending a warm and welcoming atmosphere to the entire space.

Stepping outside onto the rear terrace, visitors may view informative graphic panel signage that covers a variety of topics, including species of wildlife that call the refuge home, details about the design of the building, and the effects of climate change.

The options for learning and interactivity even continue into the washrooms: a visit to the sink will reveal a display viewed through the mirror. Using the sink triggers a display of information related to water conservation in Albuquerque.

The full exhibition is layered with community involvement and consideration. Community consultants, friends and neighbors to the refuge, and the Friends of Valle de Oro reviewed exhibit concepts and content, provided critical feedback, and made invaluable contributions to shape the exhibition into its final form. Accessibility was a high priority for the team as well. The exhibition content is presented in both English and Spanish, and hand-held audio guides are available in both languages as well for blind and low-vision guests. Ambient audio was avoided in the space to accommodate sensory considerations and instead is presented through hand-held speakers which can be shared with another person.

Taken together, this exhibition is a cheerful, welcoming space that offers a mix of interactives shaped by the community and offered in ways that will reach as many people as possible.