The cultural exhibition known as Our Dynamic Earth is situated in the William Younger Centre near the Palace of Holyroodhouse, Edinburgh, Scotland. The aim of the whole enterprise is to highlight the many and varied ways in which the planet Earth has changed and will continue to change. It helps explain the role of humans in this process, and how our actions affect the other lifeforms with which we share this planet. The exhibition was created as a millennium project with partial funding from Britain's National Lottery.
Approaching Our Dynamic Earth
The entrance to the exhibit is near the foot of the Royal Mile, and is opposite the eventual resting place of the Scottish Parliament1. A wide sandstone-paved circle lies at ground level on the exhibit site itself, which in turn is surrounded on three sides by an amphitheatre with staircases at regular intervals. Above and behind this area is the distinctive turtle-shell shaped dome of the William Younger Centre.
At the base of the dome is a ten-foot layer of glass, tall enough to afford anyone inside an excellent view of Holyrood Park and the hills beyond and, eventually, the Parliament building as well.
Entering the Exhibition
Admission to the dome itself, shop and café areas is free-of-charge. The most striking feature on this level is a smaller self-contained dome, perfectly hemispherical, with no apparent function. We shall return to this later. However, all of these things are secondary to the exhibition proper.
After paying for the entrance ticket, you are directed down a flight of steps and greeted by the first - of what proves to be a string of many - guides who explains the basic premise of the tour. This is to describe the various forces which have shaped, and continue to shape, the planet Earth. The best way to do that is to go back to the beginning. In a time machine.
Before you board your time machine, you enter an introductory room which contains facts and interactive exhibits on the major forces of change in the contemporary world. Earthquakes, volcanoes, tidal waves, the weather in general, and time - are all demonstrated in some form or other. One notable point in this room is the counter which gives an approximate count of the human population at that moment, based on projections made from global censuses. You may be surprised at the speed at which this count increases.
The Time Machine
Your attention is then directed to the time machine itself. Detailed description would spoil the effect for those wishing to visit for themselves, but suffice to say, with a healthy dose of suspended disbelief, it's a clever device! The machine deposits its passengers into a chamber arranged as the bridge of a high-tech spaceship, that as your guide explains, is about to witness the dawn of the Universe - the so-called Big Bang.
Much of the process is narrated by Scottish actor John Hannah. This narration summarises the formation of the stars and planets while three large screens display a dazzling array of computer-generated visuals. Next, you are directed into a chamber set deep below ground, where volcanic and tectonic activity is demonstrated by the movement of the floor beneath your feet. A word of advice, hold on to the handrail as the guides tell you to. More graphics, including actual close-up footage of lava and pyroclastic flows, are shown. At the same time an excellent sound system accompanies, in full digital fury, the visual activity.
From Intense Heat to Extreme Cold
The next chamber deals with glaciers and their part in shaping the landscape which we inhabit today. Varying the theme of visual presentation somewhat, the screen used in this room is initially small compared to the previous ones, but when footage taken from a helicopter begins playing, the sides open out and a full panorama is shown. This is one of the most breathtaking parts of the tour, and the most dizzying - there is only one pillar in the chamber to lean against, no seats, and the entire room is white. You will quickly find yourself swaying with the movements of the camera across the frozen landscape.
Life on Earth
The subject of ice and water leads on to the emergence of life on Earth. The audio-visual presentation is replaced by a more traditional museum-type exhibit, featuring a primordial swamp at the entrance. The walls are a graphical genealogy of life-forms and a rough estimate as to when they first appeared, from the very beginning to the present day. Along the centre of the room are stone sculptures of various dinosaurs (including the foot of a brachiosaurus), and some interactive computer terminals running quizzes on various creatures. Towards the end of this chamber, there is a stone representation of early man holding a book which explains how human civilisation started. Finally, and setting the tone for much of the rest of the tour, there is another sculpture in the form of a dead dodo, hanging upside-down from a board propped up by a 19th Century flintlock rifle.
The second half of the tour is split into rooms dealing with each of the major climate zones on Earth. Polar, Temperate, Ocean, Jungle and Desert - each with a recurring narration and numerous pictures, ambient sounds, and points of interest relevant to the zone. For instance, part of the Ocean exhibit takes the form of the interior of a submarine (complete with working periscope), while the Jungle section has a two-storey high section of rainforest in which rain falls at regular intervals. Another common point in these rooms is the numerous examples of human effects on these zones - the melting ice caps, cities replacing natural habitats, and so on.
Nature vs Human Changes
The tour ends in a large circular chamber, almost totally dark. You are directed to sit around the edge of the chamber as the reason for the hemispherical dome you saw upstairs earlier becomes clear. A final presentation, with images projected all around the inside of the dome, leaving you with the message that what humans call disasters are in fact perfectly natural changes occurring to the planet, and that the changes we make as a species have the potential to be far more detrimental.
Ongoing Funding Needs
This environmentally-friendly message is somewhat spoiled by the fact the exit from the dome chamber leads directly into the shop. This type of venture has to be funded somehow. On top of the large amount of sponsorship which went into the construction of the project, ongoing funds are needed, not only to support the staffing of the exhibition and the conference suites within the centre, but also to provide an on-site education service on environmental topics. It should be noted that the shop does strike a balance between tourist-oriented gifts and other items representing positive aspects of what has been shown on the tour. Many are designed to feed the curiosity and genuine interest of the scientifically-minded, particularly the young.
Discounting that slightly bittersweet note, the whole experience was and is a very worthwhile one. For children especially, there is enough going on to hold their interest long enough for them to learn something. But even adults will be surprised by some of the information on offer here, and it may just get a few more people involved in reducing environmental impact caused by humans - leaving the job of change to Our Dynamic Earth.
The Official Dynamic Earth Website includes information on entrance prices and opening times, as well as an overview of the whole project.