You guys, I have a museum exhibit!!

Well, last week was pretty great. Thursday evening, we had the opening reception for the Hidden Prairie temporary exhibit at the University of Nebraska State Museum’s Morrill Hall. The exhibit, which runs from now until May, 2022, features the square meter photography project I did back in 2018. First a book, now a museum exhibit – all from a silly idea I had to see what I could find within one little bit of prairie over a year! As I said during the reception, I kinda feel like I’ve just pulled off the greatest prank of my life…

Here’s the first view of the exhibit as people enter.

From the beginning, the square meter photography project was meant to showcase the beauty and diversity of prairies and encourage people to explore prairies near them. Prairies can sometimes produce spectacular flower shows or contain big wildlife spectacles, but much of the time they look relatively dull when viewed from a distance by the uninitiated. I was hoping to show that prairies always have something interesting to discover if you look closely enough. I’m really happy to see that message resonating.

On Saturday, I went back to the museum with my two older kids and spent some time photographing the exhibit (and exploring the rest of the museum, which is really terrific – I’ve been there many times, but always learn new things). While the photos included here don’t show them, there were a lot of visitors passing through, and it was really fun to eavesdrop on their reactions. They included just what I was hoping for – a lot of surprise about the diversity of prairies and admiration for the beauty of the community and species.

My favorite parts of the exhibit are the four square meters of prairie made of preserved plants with insect specimens hidden in them for people to find.
This Maximilian sunflower will have a few other insects added to it and is designed to talk about insect/plant interactions with this sunflower species as one example.
There’s a combination of big vibrant photos and videos that talk about why prairies are interesting and encourage people to explore them more closely.
Here are the summer (left) and autumn (right) square meters, built by Zak Kathol, who did a phenomenal job. Visitors are given lists of species to look for, but there are many more included than just those on the lists.

I’m incredibly grateful for the museum staff’s energy and creativity that went into creating this exhibit. Angie Fox, in particular, drove the entire process and it was a joy to work with and learn from her. I also want to call out Zak Kathol for his amazing work in constructing the exhibit itself. When we first decided to pursue this exhibit, I said my dream would be to provide actual square meters of prairie for people to explore, but that I knew that was pretty impractical. Thanks to Zak’s willingness to innovate, we ended up exactly what I’d hoped for! He is also a wizard with PVC, as you’ll see in both the Maximilian sunflower and sideoats grama sculptures he created.

Here’s a closer look at the autumn plot. The plots were built with real prairie plants that Zak preserved through a variety of means. For being dead plants, they really amazing.
Can you see the little weevils on this rose? Entomologist MJ Paulsen worked to collect insects and include them in appropriate locations within these plots.
Here’s another close-up view of the spring prairie plot, showing a bumblebee on a yarrow flower.
This is a sorting blocks activity built into a sideoats grama plant.

There are several activities for kids (and adults) within the exhibit, including a sorting blocks exercise displaying the key characteristics of various insect groups, a couple activities related to research on the variety of insect larvae that can be found inside sunflower heads, and a video screen that encourages visitors to practice dancing like various prairie organisms. There are also several videos that talk about both the ecology of and cultural relationships with prairies, including indigenous perspectives and both historic and modern relationships between people and grassland.

Here’s a closer view of the sorting blocks.

If you live near, or will be traveling through Lincoln, Nebraska between now and May, I hope you’ll stop and visit the exhibit. Hopefully, you’ll be joining many many others who will be exposed to what most us already know – the fascinating and complex communities that live in prairies.

This is my daughter Anna looking at the wall of photos that shows the 113 species found during the square meter project.
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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.

54 thoughts on “You guys, I have a museum exhibit!!

  1. Congratulations, Chris! This is just phenomenal! I was just talking this weekend about how long it has been since I went to the museum – that’s going to change very soon!

  2. Way to go Chris what an accomplishment with a very important message. Beautiful exhibit. I hope it comes just in time for us to take much needed care of all inhabitants of our planet.

  3. What an awesome display! Congratulations on your 1 sq. meter project being made accessible to the public. Wonderful collaboration of all you talented people.

  4. This is amazing, Chris! What an amazing way to bring attention to prairies, the red-headed stepchild of the plant world, unappreciated and overlooked.

  5. Congratulations Chris. You have wonderfully shared via your great blog and now you have another special success. How grand.

  6. Congratulations, Chris, this is a beautiful exhibit! We Californians hope to visit one or more of “your” prairies some day when we are in Minnesota at our daughter’s house. Seeing the exhibit would be a plus… Anna van Raaphorst and Dick Johnson

  7. CHRIS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! This is so cool! Congratulations! –Kim

    Kimberly R. Hall, PhD
    Climate Change Ecologist
    TNC-LANDFIRE 517.282.8346

    [Description: Logo]

    The Nature Conservancy
    North America Conservation Region

  8. Absolutely awe inspiring. Peter J. Hahn, commissioner, PHNRC

    On Mon, Oct 18, 2021 at 1:29 PM The Prairie Ecologist wrote:

    > Chris Helzer posted: ” Well, last week was pretty great. Thursday evening, > we had the opening reception for the Hidden Prairie temporary exhibit at > the University of Nebraska State Museum’s Morrill Hall. The exhibit, which > runs from now until May, 2022, features the square m” >

  9. Wow! That is wonderful! Well deserved – and what fun it will be. Planning to check it out soon! Thank you again for reminding us to stop and take a closer look at the important stuff!

  10. What a fabulous exhibit. Big oaks, little acorns, and all that. I’m glad it’s going to be available well into spring. If I’m in the area, this would be at the top of my to-visit list. Congratulations!

  11. Congratulations Chris!
    As a former Chief Naturalist in the Dallas Museum of Natural History, sadly gone now, I applaud this work by staff, entomologists, photographers and You, bringing the prairie up close and personal to the many who will attend!

    Very important research and observations from a critically endangered ecosystem that is vitally important, especially now!

    Beautiful photos!

    Will this be a traveling exhibit???

    Thanks for sharing this momentous occasion with us 😊

  12. Awesome and amazing! I do hope this can become a traveling exhibit. I would be willing to make connections with the Greeley (CO) History Museum and/or the Museum of Discovery in Fort Collins CO.

  13. This is amazing and fantastic!! As an interpretive naturalist, this is the kind of exhibitry I love to see – and wish we had at our small nature center (maybe some day, if we have a new building…).


  14. Hi Chris,

    This is Awesome!  Congrats to you and the entire museum staff, what a great exhibit, so creative and engaging.  Wonderful for the Prairies too.  Maybe you can make it a traveling museum/exhibit, good for Nature, TNC, and the communities who get to view it.


  15. Wow! This exhibit is a tremendous success story, Chris — we’re all elated for you. The displays, photos, videos, interactive opportunities — everything is outstanding. A year spent with one square meter. You probably will never fully know how many minds and hearts you’ve touched, how many folks have discovered — like you and us — what an fascinating place prairies are. I, too, wish the exhibit would go on the road. Would that be possible if there was demand?

  16. Chris this is fantastic, nice work. It has been fun watching you progress in your career from a talented undergraduate to now. Keep up the good work. I shared this with my daughter in-law, the Senior Gardner at Lauritzen, hope the Garden reaches out as well.


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