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Bat Pack 

"The True Story of Bats" at ECHO

Published November 5, 2003 at 9:36 p.m.

Halloween -- what better time to review a museum show about bats? After all, bats are creepy and scary. They're blind mice with wings that want nothing more than to suck your blood and get caught in your hair, right? Wrong. Setting the record straight is precisely the point of "Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats," a traveling exhibit on view at ECHO in Burlington this fall. The show's goal is laudable. Its realization is a little disappointing.

A bat gargoyle crowns the molded plastic "neo-gothic portal" that leads into the exhibit. Inside the entryway, cartoon-style "stained-glass windows" depict the most common misconceptions about the winged mammals. After you pass through the archway, the rest of the display is designed to dispel those myths and instill an alternative message: Bats are not only harmless to humans, but helpful; bats have been unfairly maligned and are now endangered. Bats are awesome.

There's something here to reach every style of learner. For the verbally inclined, big purple text panels list cool chiroptera facts. Who knew, for example, that bats come in more than 1000 varieties and comprise a quarter of all mammal species? That a fishing bat's sonar can detect a minnow's fin poking up less than 1/16th of an inch above the surface of the water? That vampire bats adopt orphans and risk their lives to share food with "less fortunate" roost mates? Or that a single colony of 150 big brown bats can protect local farmers from 18 million rootworms?

More visually oriented visitors can admire an assortment of stunning, backlit bat portraits by Merlin D. Tuttle, a leading bat expert and the exhibit's "content collaborator." Tuttle has been going to bat for bats since the 1960s. He founded the non-profit Bat Conservation International in 1982, has published bat books and tours the country spreading his bat gospel through lectures and seminars.

Tuttle's most convincing tool, though, has been his award-winning bat photography, which is currently featured on U.S. postage stamps. It looms large -- literally -- at this exhibit. One breath-taking action shot catches a lesser long-nosed bat hovering, humming-bird style, over a cactus and dipping its tongue into the fruit's seedy interior. A Madonna-esque image of a gentle-faced Gambian epauletted fruit bat cradling her big-eyed baby is unexpectedly sweet.

A rear-projection screen shows The Secret World of Bats, offering more outstanding Tuttle camerawork. It sums up the exhibit's message. Soothing music accompanies close-ups of bats at their repasts, plunging hungrily into cactus flowers and swooping gracefully down onto water to scoop up fish. The film closes with thousands of bats streaming from a cave at dusk, thick as smoke pouring from a chimney.

But what makes this show more compelling than, say, browsing through a beautifully illustrated book or watching the Discovery Channel are its interactive elements. Clips from the film can be viewed -- forwards, backwards or in slow motion -- at a special station. A kid could conceivably spend the entire afternoon watching a little bat twist a berry from a plant, munch on the fruit and poop the seeds onto the rainforest floor.

A series of detailed, bronze bat busts, enlarged to the size of human skulls, invite your touch. Nothing helps you appreciate the anomalies of bat anatomy more than running a finger over the ridges inside the leaf-shaped ears of the vampire bat, or feeling the upturned nose flap of the Mexican long-tongued bat's Pinocchio-like proboscis.

Other components offer more ingenious opportunities to participate. Pushing buttons next to pictures of different bats activates lights on a night-black map, revealing the range of the species' natural habitats. Shouting into a model cave and listening for the delays of the echoes makes vivid the physics of echolocation. Donning a pair of Dumbo-sized ears shaped like those of a false vampire bat demonstrates the creature's acute hearing.

Nuggets about bats' benefits to humans are scattered throughout the exhibit. A three-sided display illustrates the ways in which bats are endangered, and how the world would change if they weren't around. For example, when little brown bats are barred from North American homes, pest insects don't get eaten and the use of pesticides increases. Other displays make economic arguments. One warns that, without bats to pollinate the agave plant, the production of tequila would plummet.

Last Friday afternoon, when Vermont schools were closed, the exhibit was filled with families flitting from one display to another. Many bypassed altogether the faux-castle portal that's meant to introduce the rest of the show. But no matter where in the room they wander, viewers can't miss the show's message, because there's an awful lot of built-in redundancy.The exhibit also feels a bit superficial. Though Tuttle's photographs are stunning, accompanying explanation is minimal, turning what could have been powerful teaching tools into little more than pretty pictures. Ditto the bronze busts. Properly introduced, these models might inspire any number of epiphanies: how ears and noses evolved for echolocation, for instance, or the relationship between mouth shape and food source. But without, say, labels pointing out the patterns, the bat heads are simply funny-looking. Additional information on bats is available upstairs in ECHO's resource center. But the average visitor isn't likely to make the effort to find it.

ECHO is responsible for the exhibition's unstructured lay-out, which Executive Director Phelan Fretz calls "informal." The show's actual content came pre-packaged from an outfit called Clear Channel Exhibitions -- yes, a part of the same $8.5 billion media conglomerate that owns 1192 U.S. radio stations, 36 TV stations, 500,000 outdoor displays and 135 live-entertainment venues. Turns out the corporation also produces traveling science-museum exhibits -- one of just a few for-profits that does so.

In January, when the bat exhibit flies off to its next venue, ECHO will host "Biodiversity 911," produced by the World Wildlife Fund. After that comes an installation on birds of prey from the Science Museum of Minnesota. The plan, says Fretz, is to move towards shows with a more local origin and outlook. Good idea. Meanwhile, "Masters of the Night" at least beats the costume aisle at Ben Franklin.

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Ruth Horowitz


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