A stunning new exhibition at the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo chronicles the histories and impacts of Nonsuch and Trunk islands

After six years of careful research and artful design, the Bermuda Aquarium, Museum & Zoo (BAMZ) has opened a beautiful and visually impactful exhibit recounting the pasts of both Nonsuch Island and Trunk Island. In an effort to understand the inspiration behind the exhibit, as well as how it may be appreciated by the public, we sat down with Dr Ian Walker, the principal curator of BAMZ.

To start, can you tell us the name of the new exhibit and where at BAMZ it’s located?
The new exhibit, A Tale of Two Islands, is located in our renovated Local Tails building that housed our touch pools. The building is now known as A Tale of Two Islands and is between the Natural History Museum and our playground.

We heard that this new exhibit took years to create. Do you love the end result and was it worth it?
The exhibit took about six years from the first inkling of an idea to completion. Of course, we had a pandemic in the middle, which did not help with supply chains or working as a team. I fell in love with this exhibit early on; it became a definite passion of mine and I love the end result.

So, there are three distinct parts to the exhibit. First, the exhibit is the history and evolution of Nonsuch Island. Why was that an important subject for you?
I think Nonsuch Island is a such an incredible place. It has a rich history and, of course, is now critical habitat for the cahow. Quarantine station, research centre, reform school, living museum and now home to one of the rarest seabirds on the planet. The story tells itself….

The next section focuses on Dr William Beebe’s fascinating research projects and his bathysphere. Given the connection to the aquarium, was telling this story in an exhibit a longtime goal?
Part of Nonsuch Island’s history is that it was the centre of Beebe’s research in Bermuda in the early 1930s. Prior to the bathysphere, Beebe used Nonsuch as a base to explore the tide pools and surrounding water for specimens which he and his team collected and described scientifically. Once the bathysphere arrived in Bermuda, the island provided a base for quick access to deep water so Beebe could explore the abyss. His work was groundbreaking and to travel one half mile under the surface was a feat of engineering, even by today’s standards. BAMZ has told the story before peripherally, but I don’t think we have done it in such an engaging or complete way for children and adults alike.

The third part is about Trunk Island and your work there. Tell us about the significance of that.
When we were gifted a portion of Trunk Island, Nonsuch Island was just starting to become critical habitat for the cahow. As a result, touring large numbers of people, or students camping on Nonsuch, was starting to be viewed as a real concern. We decided that Trunk Island could take that pressure off Nonsuch and become our BZS Living Classroom. Hence Nonsuch Island, the Living Museum, and Trunk Island, the Living Classroom. We really want Trunk Island to be the place to learn about how to return invasive forest back to natives and endemics and be a base to learn about most of the different habitats around Bermuda.

From a visual standpoint, the exhibit is remarkably impactful. We love the comic book-style graphics! Who is the artist and was everything made here?
Ruby Fresson is the amazing artist! I found her work on Beebe’s bathysphere dives off Bermuda in the New York Times Magazine and thought this would be an amazing exhibit. Her style evokes nostalgia and reminds me of my youth reading Tintin comics so I immediately thought this would appeal to a lot of people. Ruby was thrilled to be part of the project and it just went from there. We also hired Linda Weinraub of Studio Fluent to help coproduce and bring our vision together. The team at BAMZ was also amazing; they’re a very talented group of people who helped with the storyboarding and writing to various technical pieces within the exhibit. It was just a great team effort!

So you worked very closely with Ruby. Did she have to come to Bermuda at all for research purposes?
Yes, we had weekly meetings for a long time—covering an exhibit with custom graphics takes a lot of work, especially if you need to get the look, feel and science right. More work than any of us realised at the start! Our clients know what many of these people and places look like, so it was very important to make sure we got it right. Early on I sent loads of photographs to Ruby and then we flew her to Bermuda to give her the grand tour. She was able to visit both islands, hold a cahow chick, speak with all our main characters and get to know us better.

Within the comic book illustrations, we see several real people depicted, like Dr David Wingate, Jeremy Madeiros, Trevor Rawson and Dr Miguel Mejias. Why did you decide to incorporate them into the storytelling?
They are the main actors within our environmental story, so it was important to us to showcase their life work in the best way possible. We chose Miguel to narrate the story at the start as he has worked closely with David and has a great relationship with him. Additionally, he was working on (and has now received) his PhD in ornithology and is one of the future faces of conservation in Bermuda. An additional sub-story of this exhibit is that anybody can make a difference, so we chose our characters to reflect the makeup of Bermuda’s population.

What did they think of the final results?
I have spoken to the majority of them, and they are thrilled with the end result. David in particular has said several times that he loves the exhibit and thinks it does a wonderful job of telling the stories in a relatable way for all ages. I love the fact that he keeps bringing people down to see it.

We also see some really cool multimedia elements within the exhibit, like video of the bathysphere and radio reports on the bathysphere’s descent. How did you produce those?
Yes, we wanted there to be some multimedia components to further bring the story to life. We sat in a recording studio with David and Miguel and had them relate their adventures together. We scoured the archives for video and audio footage and Linda helped put those together with one her amazing contacts. Lastly, we hired voice actors to play the role of Beebe, Gloria Hollister and Ford Bond. I took a stab at writing the narrative based on the original diaries from these characters and then the actors brought them to life.

It is such a great family exhibit. Now that it’s been open for several months, how have you observed adults and children interacting with it?
For a relatively small building there is a lot of information, but it is served up in small, tasty bite-sized pieces. So, we have seen families come back again several times to learn a bit more each time and interact with a different portion of the exhibit. Also, the graphic novel-style helps draw people in and makes them want to read the information more than typical didactic panels. I have not seen this type of exhibit anywhere else before, and by that I mean using a wall-based graphic novel to interpret important stories.

There is so much to learn here, so obviously this exhibit is a useful educational resource for students. How do you see that best happening?
Our short-term goal is to bring this exhibit to life with staff and volunteers to help interpret. The touch pools were extended so a class can easily stand around them and a teacher can observe each student and how they are interacting. We are building lesson plans around the exhibit so we believe it will be an excellent resource for school trips whether self-guided or through our formal BZS education programmes. The exhibit incorporates history, natural history, conservation, technology, biology, physics and more, so I think there is something for everyone.

What is one thing you’d like the public to know in advance of seeing this wonderful exhibit for the first time?
I would encourage people to come in multiple times and take a section at a time as there is so much to digest. In the end we want people to know that they can make a difference and to encourage them to take an interest and get involved.