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Milwaukee Public Museum Rainforest Exhibit Inspires Milwaukee Poet

Milwaukee Public Museum rainforest exhibit
Audrey Nowakowski
A glimpse inside the rainforest exhibit at the Milwaukee Public Museum.

When visitors walk into the Rainforest Hall at the Milwaukee Public Museum (MPM), they’re greeted by the sounds of chattering monkeys, parrots and other wildlife. Huge transparent cubes are filled with scores of colorful butterflies, beetles, toucans, macaws, tree frogs, jaguars and an incredible variety of tropical plants.

This replica of a Costa Rican rainforest shows just a fraction of the biological diversity it holds, and it also represents how fragile this ecosystem is.

Richard Hedderman is MPM’s education programs coordinator and is also a poet. He says the multi-level exhibit shines in showing the fine details of the rainforest. “One of the great triumphs of that exhibit is the attention to detail, which is extraordinary on every level, and literally on every level, it’s a two-level exhibit,” he says.

The exhibit is not just used to transport Milwaukeeans into the heart of a Costa Rican rainforest, but also used by scientists to study the habitat as much is still unknown. Hedderman says that former research curator Christopher Tyrrell was able to discover a new bamboo genus while studying the rainforest exhibit.

Tyrrell noticed that bamboo specimen at the museum did not fit in the genus it had been previously assigned to and this new genus had been hiding in plain sight for over a century.

“[The discovery] illuminates the critical role that our collections, these objects, play in keeping our understanding of the world and environments current,” says Hedderman.

He says the more researchers are able to study and teach others about a certain subject, the more likely people are to care about it.

As a poet, Hedderman says often poetry and science are not thought of as similar pursuits, but he believes they are more similar than most people think. He says both are trying to make sense of the world around them, explore how different things work and answer the question — what is the truth?

“The use of the imagination, the powers of observation, attention to detail are critical to doing [scientist’s] work successfully and any poet would argue the same thing,” he says.

Hedderman was inspired by the rainforest exhibit and released this poem:

"FRAGILE" by Richard Hedderman

Do you see the rain forest? Good. Now
look again; closer. It’s there. Do you see its myriad

shadows of emerald, the jaguar gliding
through in his cloak of mist? The fer-de-lance

in the canopy speaking in tongues to the beetle
and the sloth? They follow the mute vines

like veins, take centuries to traverse the bright
mosses. They ask questions about us: who

are these predators, chewing through the forest
like bullet ants, taking everything with them

as they pass, pursued by fire, and bearing
their sharp helmets, their fragile chainsaws?

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
From 2020 to 2021, Jack was WUWM's digital intern and then digital producer.
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