When the International Crane Foundation (ICF) designed their Cranes of the World wildlife exhibit and education center, their vision shared inspiration from zoos, parks, and gardens all across Wisconsin. The end result turned out to be something familiar, yet all its own. Hands-on learning displays and cultural and ecological exhibits, stages for informative talks from on-site experts and guest speakers, and an exploratory outdoor space featuring each crane species found around the world come together to form one seamless experience.
It starts when you exit your car and enter a paved walkway bordered on either side by native prairie grasses leading to the visitor center. Restored prairie is used throughout not only to link one area of the compound to the next, but because ICF’s founder, George Archibald, chose this spot in Baraboo for his headquarters after a piece of remnant prairie had been discovered on premises. Throughout are beautiful works of sculpture, many from local artists, depicting cranes and their habitats.
The visitor center courtyard then continues the sway of the path in a more visually stimulating way, weaving brown-stained concrete through light-grey concrete. “This represents water coming into the building, like a river,” says Kim Smith, chief operating officer at ICF. A subtle priming for getting visitors to understand the importance of water in crane habitats.
Inside, the visitor center itself splits between an interactive educational center and a gift shop. Throughout is a beautiful blue-stained concrete with dark splotches reminiscent of the braille tips of water lifted by the breeze. Heading to the educational center, thick timber logs line windows and corners to frame the outdoors and marry the wood-slatted ceiling to in-kind benches. White walls brighten the room with reflected natural light while also making colorful collages and murals pop. Behind the benches is an interactive exhibit for visitors to learn about different species of cranes and listen to their calls, all while having full view of the wall-sized window, functionally one side of a crane enclosure.
Going back outside, visitors are encouraged to navigate a six-exhibit mesh big-top in a counter-clockwise direction. Each crane’s enclosure has a massive panoramic painting of that crane’s habitat. “All of the murals are pictures that George Archibald either took or represent places he’s been,” says Kim. “The murals in each exhibit also represent the landscapes each crane enjoys in the wild. All exhibits include information about our work on 5 continents and 50 countries, to help save cranes worldwide, especially the 13 of 15 crane species facing extinction.”
As visitors experience the incredible new site and 10 acres of exhibits, they encounter stages for guest speakers; an area with pieces of cultural significance featuring cranes around the world; and, after completing their trip around the six-specie loop, a special theater at the whooping crane exhibit. “Guests experience a virtual trip across the globe, visiting regions of Africa, Asia, Russia, and North America—places we protect cranes and their homes,” says Kim. “Our site serves as the gateway to our worldwide mission and is the only place people can see all 15 species of cranes at one time.”
Though cedar pergolas and posts are used all along the path, the theater is a more significant structure. The ceiling is finished, and the back wall has the original shack in which George raised Tex, who in 1976 was 1 of 100 whooping cranes left in the world, in hopes she would lay eggs.
There is also a Siberian crane exhibit at the end of the walk. Everyone in Wisconsin knows whooping cranes are highly endangered, but the Siberian cranes are considered critically endangered. “We wanted to end on the crescendo of these two birds,” says Kim. “To talk about the similarities that they face in the wild even though one’s in China and one’s in North America.”
The trip outside eventually comes back to the visitor center, where visitors enter the gift shop and have the opportunity to buy unique gifts that help further support ICF and its mission. I would recommend returning to the educational center as well to solidify the experience. There’s a picture of sandhill cranes on the Wisconsin River blown up to wall size that you’d have been hard pressed to miss the first go, but it never hurts to take a second look.
When all is done, visitors might’ve noticed hiking trails between the big top and Crane City, ICF’s breeding center. Though Crane City is not open to the public, “People can come out and hike the trails,” says Kim. “They’re beautiful.”
Easily my favorite part about living in Wisconsin is knowing it’s been home to some of the most important figures concerning environmental stewardship. Cranes of the World, through meaningful and intuitive measures, has created something meant to continue this tradition, earning its place amongst other gems highlighting our natural world and inspiring tomorrow’s ecologists, biologists, and zoologists.
To learn more about ICF's mission, check out their article in Madison Essentials, then go to savingcranes.org/plan-a-visit to plan your trip to the new site.
Kyle Jacobson is the senior copy editor and lead staff writer for Home Elements & Concepts.
Photographs provided by International Crane Foundation.
International Crane Foundation
E11376 Shady Lane Road
Baraboo, WI 53913