The Yawkey Gallery on the Charles River
Design and Build of Two-Habitat Crawl-Through Space
“Working with Tenji was a great experience. The Tenji team took the initial idea of introducing visitors to the biodiversity of the Charles River, and transformed it into a beautiful and interactive space. The exhibit design engages visitors from all angles, including a crawl through with windows that give a fish eye view of each tank. Behind the scenes, the life support system is smartly laid out to utilize the space while keeping the needs of the aquarist at the forefront. We’re so glad we brought in the expertise of Tenji to execute our vision, and I hope to get the chance to work with them again in the future.”
—Christa Carceo, Aquarist, Museum of Science
As one of the world’s largest science centers and New England’s most attended cultural institution, the Museum of Science, Boston invites nearly 1.4 million visitors each year to explore science, technology, engineering, and math through hundreds of interactive exhibits and innovative programs. Yet while showcasing so many far-flung scientific wonders, the Museum realized it had overlooked one of its own most distinctive environmental features—the Charles River.
The cleanest urban river in the United States, the Charles River flows through 23 communities in eastern Massachusetts and a watershed of over 8,000 acres of protected woodlands. In Boston, it becomes one of the busiest recreational river segments in the world. Boat houses, jogging and walking trails, concert venues, sports fields, and more line its storied banks. As Science Park spans the river, the currents of the Charles flow continuously beneath the Museum.
Guests can see the river’s surface from many vantage points within the Museum. But the staff wanted to go deeper and find a way to encourage visitors to look down and engage with the marvelous natural and built environment right beneath their feet. They wanted visitors to understand the river’s history, its ecological journey from pollution to preservation, the way pipes and dams channel and utilize its kinetic energy, and see firsthand the rich variety of animal and plant life that call the river home.
In 2014, they called on the aquatic designers and engineers at Tenji to help.
- The new Charles River exhibit needed to have the same playful, powerful energy as the river itself, inviting guests of all ages to take the time to discover new aspects of a part of the landscape they thought they already knew.
- The exhibit needed to command attention immediately, holding its own in a high-profile, high traffic location right at the Museum entrance.
- The exhibit would need to be designed and built to wrap around an existing spiral staircase, both constraining and curving the available exhibit area while opening up many unusual viewing angles that would need to be accounted for and used to advantage.
- The exhibit’s proposed location lacked drainage options or even the possibility of installing drains close by. A cost-effective, custom drainage solution would be required.
- The exhibit faced competition from a surprising quarter: a panoramic view of the Charles River itself. The giant window presenting guests with stunning views of the riverfront also flooded the space with sunlight in the warmer months and would present problems managing light, reflections, and temperature for the exhibit’s plant and animal life.
- The Museum features such a wide range of technologically accomplished exhibits and programs—and receives such an extraordinary amount of traffic—that overextending skilled and dedicated personnel is of constant concern. Designing and building this exhibit to be easy to clean and maintain for minimal additional staffing requirements (and plant and animal safety) was another top priority.
- And like all high-profile projects for internationally recognized institutions, the exhibit needed to be completed to the highest quality both on time and on budget.
THE TENJI TOUCH
When you have a dedicated, in-house design and engineering team, you can gather everyone around a table and share innovative ideas for how to transform an underused corner into a culvert and side pond of the Charles River. And when you have skilled aquatic engineers, scientists, and builders on staff, you can make the best of those ideas a reality.
The tenji process turns complex information into relatable, understandable forms, and channeling the rich history and ecological variety of the Charles River into an indoor exhibit led our experienced team to some exciting artistic and practical innovations:
- a custom drainage system with elaborate (but easily maintained) pump-out stations able to carry, clean, and drain wastewater
- a more refined level of 3D construction to keep the exhibit convincing and compelling from all the many points of view made possible by the spiral staircase access
- While living walls are not commonly used in aquarium environments, the Tenji team felt the collection of ferns and grasses would create a “green, chlorophyll feeling” that more accurately conjures the profusion of plant life found along riverbanks and beds. The beautiful bands of colors formed by the plans also create an artistic and dramatic focal point at the Museum entrance. Tenji worked closely with the living wall creators to ensure all exhibits worked well together.
- Helped coordinate a 30-foot waterfall feature enhancing the exhibit experience with authentic sounds and sensations of fresh, moving water
- Two tank habitats housing species of fish and turtles, like yellow perch, bluegill sunfish, and Eastern painted turtles typically found in the Charles River environment. Each tank was designed for ease of maintenance and exceeds AZA standards.
- An inventive, engaging crawlspace creating the sensation of getting under the Museum to see the Charles River up close. Tenji designers knew the tunnel experience would empower children in particular, and we added many delightful touches—like a sewer rat diorama—with our youngest (and young at heart) visitors in mind. In fact, our artists made the rats so lifelike that the most common question children ask about the exhibit is whether or not they are real!
The Yawkey Gallery on the Charles River opened in March 2016 to rave reviews and continues to be one of the most frequently visited exhibits at one of the region’s most popular museums. Today, the power of tenji takes millions of visitors under a mighty urban river and into a current of constant discovery and delight.