DEEP DIVE for the Delaware

An immersive new media exhibition project that uses the arts to explore the science, history and social context of water in Philadelphia and the Delaware River Watershed is in the works, thanks to a grant from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage to the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

The nearly $300,000 grant announced Wednesday by the Center funds the development of an innovative approach to engaging people to care about their environment and to making science more visible, accessible and understandable. That exciting new approach uses the arts to explain the science, and the Academy is calling it DEEP DIVE.

DEEP DIVE merges the private experiences of mapping and listening with interactive storytelling in an accessible, hybrid physical and online experience. This new kind of experience animates the research of six Academy water scientists and is led by two world-class artists to harness the energy of live theater with active user experiences. The Academy’s partners are:

  • Whit MacLaughlin of Philadelphia, who has a rich history of developing hybrid performances in collaboration with large city institutions.
  • Janani Balasubramanian of New York, who has extensive experience collaborating with astrophysicists at the American Museum of Natural History and others.

Academy President and CEO Scott Cooper noted DEEP DIVE marks a new chapter in the natural history museum’s approach to reaching new audiences, especially young and middle-age adults and inspiring them to connect with nature in a more profound way. The interactive project also demonstrates a new entrepreneurial response to the social restrictions due to COVID-19 and consumers’ preference to be outside when they can.

“We are actively innovating the way we engage people of all ages through our integration of art and science to tell our stories and the stories about our long history of cutting-edge water research,” said Cooper. “It’s never been more important than now, when we are dealing with the effects of climate change.”

The Academy’s Patrick Center for Environmental Research has been devoted to understanding, protecting and restoring the health of watersheds since 1947. Here our scientists work together to collect samples for our ongoing water research initiatives. Work like this will form the core of DEEP DIVE.

DEEP DIVE will include audio stories of Academy scientists describing the passion, curiosity and background that undergirds their research, along with how race, class and place inform Philadelphia’s relationship to water. The public will be able to access the stories by dialing phone numbers made available through maps (accessible via paper or online) that are beautifully illustrated with overlaying features of the Delaware River Watershed, Philadelphia streets, drainage systems, and primordial waterways that lie deep underground. The audio experiences will include scientists’ voiceover along with original composed music and sound design.

Users will discover some of these phone numbers in multiple ways: through game-like hints embedded within the maps, audio experiences and graphic physical markers on Philadelphia streets. They will also leave messages for each other through both online and physical delivery.

Users will be able to experience the piece in any location: at home, outdoors and inside the museum. Translation and captioning in both English and Spanish will be available to welcome deaf and Spanish-speaking users. Work on developing the project will begin in 2021 and is expected to launch in mid-2022.

 The idea for DEEP DIVE originated with Academy Chief Learning and Engagement Officer Niki Stewart, an artist with 25 years of experience in the arts and culture sector before coming to the Academy in 2019. She said the project is motivated by the institution’s mission and the institution’s long track record of Delaware River research and leadership in the Delaware River Watershed Initiative.

“Academy scientists have been devoted to understanding, protecting and restoring the health of watersheds since 1947. Our mission involves building a movement of environmentally engaged communities for a healthy, sustainable and equitable planet by informing and convening critical conversations about the natural world,” Stewart said. “Through DEEP DIVE, we are now reimagining the relationship among scientist, artist and the public. We will make science more visible as a practice of collaboration and storytelling, highlight water as an ecological protagonist in Philadelphia, and engage the whole city and its watershed as the site of a rich, live and dynamic drama.”

By Carolyn Belardo

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