How do we lead museums into the future? About dinosaurs, AI and the longing for fascination

Commissioned by the Nevada Museum of Art, Graft Brandlab is designing an exhibition that brings prehistoric sea creatures closer

Opinion by Prof. Nikolaus Hafermaas, Graft Brandlab

Nevada Museum Graft Brandlab
The planned multimedia exhibition DEEP TIME: SEA DRAGONS OF NEVADA combines digital and analogue to appeal to all senses. ©Graft Brandlab

Author: House of Eden

Our world is moving faster than ever. Our fascination with things fizzles out as quickly as it arises. Like the Metaverse. Just hailed as the hottest trend, then abruptly replaced by generative AI like ChatGPT. This raises the question: What is still valid during this time? How do we still manage to inspire people, arouse their attention and engage them sustainably? Are places like museums, which mostly deal with the past, still inherently contemporary?

I still remember well being at the Documenta in Kassel when I was seven years old. I was totally fascinated by the Mouse Museum by Claes Oldenburg and the futuristic Air Unit by the experimental architects Haus-Rucker-Co. These were parallel worlds, in which their own laws prevailed and in which I could completely immerse myself. I couldn't get out of my childish amazement. Fiction, reality and art merged into a holistic experience that is still deeply ingrained in me to this day. Since then, I've longed to inspire a similar fascination in other people.

Nevada Museum of Art: Here dinosaurs become art

There is one species in this world that has held such magic and fascination for as long as humanity has existed: dinosaurs. To this day they remain a mystery. Their size, their appearance, their behavior - science has already discovered a lot, and yet we can only speculate. Ideal for inspiring our imagination.


A 32 meter long 3D sculpture made from recycled ocean-bound plastic demonstrates the true size of ichthyosaur lady Annie and her unborn baby ©Graft Brandlab

This mystery is about that Nevada Museum of Art in Reno, USA. The leading institution in cultural research into the interactions between humans and the environment is currently designing the new exhibition “DEEP TIME: SEA DRAGONS OF NEVADA,” in which never-before-seen ichthyosaur finds will be artistically presented. The 250-million-year-old prehistoric sea creatures historically referred to as "sea dragons" are considered the largest creatures to ever live on this planet. Together with my creative team from Graft Brandlab I have the unique opportunity to design this exhibition concept.

An exhibition of extremes calls for new artistic strategies

But how do we bring a paleontological topic into an artistic context? How do we make the incomprehensible visible and tangible and appeal to all of the visitors’ senses? And how do we design an artistically valuable and at the same time sustainable exhibition that is not only thematically but also ecologically groundbreaking for our future?

“Science is driven by beauty,” says Dr. Martin Sander, internationally renowned ichthyosaur researcher and scientific curator of the exhibition, thereby signaling his openness to an exhibition approach that clearly stands out from the well-known productions in natural history museums. A carte blanche, but also an extraordinary creative challenge.

My childhood experiences with the Documenta taught me that fascination arises when all the senses are addressed - and at the same time there is room for one's own interpretations. That's why we decided on productions that expand the physical into the digital and make the digital physically tangible.

One of the key productions will be the over 30-meter long “Probability Envelope” of the pregnant ichthyosaur “Annie”, as we affectionately call her. This spatial sculpture was generated from a digital point cloud and shows the currently assumed size of the marine dinosaur. Anyone who is confronted with the gigantic dimensions of Annie in human size will experience a huge leap in scale on their own body.

On the other hand, we use elements of augmented reality to build a bridge from 250 million years back to far into the future. With the help of artificial intelligence, we create possible future scenarios that offer space for visions and discussions about time, the future and the further development of our world.

 The media area "Future Horizon" forecasts and visualizes future scenarios with the help of artificial intelligence ©Graft Brandlab

Sustainability is a must for contemporary exhibition design

Whether museums or designers: those who design for the future today cannot ignore the precarious situation of our fragile home planet. In all phases of exhibition design, it is important to keep the ecological footprint as small as possible: from the use of reusable materials to resource-saving production to a flexible, digital design process and project management in which, for example, travel is reduced to a minimum.

Digital media are a real miracle weapon in the fight against constant new production and the resulting waste, as they can be used flexibly and reused. It is also important to act in an ecologically responsible manner with haptic art installations such as our spatial sculpture, the ichthyosaur lady Annie. The hanging sculpture, which shows Annie swimming in a curve with her unborn baby, consists of approximately 20.000 transparent spheres. They are made from Ocean Bound Plastic, a plastic that is collected before it enters the oceans, be it in rivers, beaches, streets and many other places. In this way, Annie helps protect her own habitat, the world's oceans.

Preparations are in full swing - and new finds are constantly being added as the excavations continue. An exciting project opening in autumn 2024. We are very excited about the visitors' reactions - will they be as touched as I was at the Mouse Museum?



Always informed about the latest lifestyle trends, architecture, design & interior, as well as current technologies around sustainability.

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Author: Nikolaus Hafermaas

Prof. Nikolaus Hafermaas is Managing Partner Creation of the innovation agency Graft Brandlab. The former dean of the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena / CA focuses on the creative connection between technology and being human. He runs the agency together with Rico Zocher, which was founded by Graft Architects in 2014, with the aim to make brands tangible in a multidimensional way, while acting at the interface of art, design and technology. Projects include the development and implementation of branding strategies in the form of multimedia branding, communication, architecture and mediatecture.

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