HORICON — The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources’ new interactive displays at Horicon Marsh aim to engage the eyes, ears and noses of visitors as they tell the tale of more than 10,000 years of natural and human history.
The 3,500-square-foot “Explorium” opens Saturday in the lower level of the Horicon Marsh State Wildlife Area’s Education and Visitor Center on the southern edge of one of the nation’s largest intact freshwater cattail marshes.
The new $3.7 million facility is expected to triple the traffic through the visitor center over the next few years — and maybe even entice a few more people to take a walk outside, facility wildlife supervisor Bret Owsley said last week as he stood near a rack of free maps positioned strategically at the Explorium’s exit.
“Now you know the story, here’s the map, so you can go out and see it yourself,” Owsley said.
The 33,000-acre glacial lakebed is already a well-known destination for birdwatchers. Thousands are drawn there each spring and fall migration season. DNR officials think the new displays can make the area more popular in all seasons as a family recreation spot, Owsley said.
The new displays start outside the visitor center’s front door with life-size sculptures of a woolly mammoth and a spear-wielding hunter.
Inside the Explorium, the first thing visitors see is a lifelike casting of a state wildlife area employee discovering an ancient spearhead in the earth.
From there, displays depict a glacial wall that chills the air, a woolly mammoth replica that smells like wet fur, and a muskrat hut that offers an underwater view of a snapping turtle.
Along with the animated screen displays, educational texts and recorded messages, there is a hunting lodge typical of the 1800s, a hand-operated model of a dam complete with spilling water, a fossilized woolly mammoth tooth and a puzzle made of soft 2-foot cubes that illustrate the predator-prey relationships that have driven the marsh’s history.
“When we’ve had test groups of kids in, these get thrown everywhere,” Owsley said of the cubes. “They have a lot of fun.”
The most elaborate display may be a simulated airboat ride that blows wind through your hair as you bump along while a curved 18-foot-wide screen shows video of a trip up the Rock River’s east branch, which runs into regions of the wildlife area not visible from roads.
“We think it will be popular because most people have only experienced the marsh from the window of their car and haven’t seen the interior,” Owsley said.
The Explorium describes the shaping of the land by a receding glacial lobe, and a series of short-sighted efforts by humans to realize profits from the land by draining or damming the waters, farming and commercial hunting operations that killed and shipped away in barrels hundreds of waterfowl daily before conservationists stepped in and demanded government regulation.
“People have always recognized the marsh as a pretty amazing resource in the state,” said Elizabeth Herzmann, a wildlife educator for the property, and the model for the spearhead-excavating employee in the first display.
“We’re targeting families, so we’ve got elements in the exhibits that will reach younger kids and others with more details that are for adults and for students — a little something for everybody,” Herzmann said.
About 50,000 people come through the visitor center each year, and DNR officials hope to increase that to 150,000 within three years.
The DNR purchased the property, a former medical clinic, in 1992 and completed renovations in 2009 that left space for the Explorium.
The Friends of the Horicon Marsh donated $555,000 in cash and displays valued at $428,000, in addition to thousands of volunteer hours.
Taylor Studios of Rantoule, Illinois, was hired to design and build the displays.
Several of the exhibits feature odors, from sawed lumber to gristmill to burning peat to woolly mammoth. The smells waft from scented beads manufactured by a subcontractor, said Taylor art director Cory Rodeheaver.
Taylor has created displays for scores of museums and interpretive centers and has worked often with the scent subcontractor, but the Explorium presented new challenges, Rodeheaver said.
“I don’t believe we have done the woolly mammoth scent before,” he said. “We had to create a scent for the marsh areas. Sometimes it’s a combination of several smells that we have to blend together, like mixing a dirt smell with the smoke smell.”
Of course, there was guesswork involved in getting the odor of the long-extinct mammoth just right.
“It kind of smells like dirty dog to me,” Rodeheaver said.
The marsh has been designated a “wetland of international importance” by a treaty called the Convention on Wetlands. It is a staging area for 80 percent of Canada geese in the Mississippi flyway.
In addition to hiking and birdwatching, Horicon Marsh has areas open to hunting, fishing and trapping. The southern one-third, controlled by the state, includes a 6.5-mile canoe trail.
The northern two-thirds is a national wildlife refuge with bicycling routes.