by Patrick McShea
Presque Isle State Park is the most visited component of Pennsylvania’s 121 park system. In recent years, the beaches, trails, and ponds of this six-mile-long, 3,200-acre Lake Erie sand spit have drawn more than four million annual visitors. Repeat visits by local residents account for a significant portion of the seven-figure tally. The peninsula’s eastward curl into the lake creates the bay which fronts the city of Erie, and the park, which celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2021, frames northward views in many city neighborhoods.
Some 120 miles south of the park, at Carnegie Museum of Natural History, visitors encounter a life-sized and un-peopled section of this unique landscape when they enter the Hall of Botany. This spacious plant-centered hall honors the vision of the museum’s first and longest-serving Curator of Botany, Otto Jennings, with eight dioramas created between the 1920s and 1970s that depict biomes with visually distinctive characteristics. The Presque Isle diorama, which opened in 1966, earns a spot among detailed three-dimensional depictions of the Sonoran Desert, Florida Everglades, and high-altitude slopes of Mount Rainier, by virtue of its representation of land continually shaped by the actions of wind, waves, and plant succession.
As a label adjacent to the summer scene explains, Presque Isle is a place where a full cycle of plant community development can be observed in a compact space. At many park locations, a cross-peninsula transect of a few hundred yards might include the bare sand of new beach deposits, dunes stabilized by pioneering plants, marshes framed by sand ridges supporting shrubs and young trees, and patches of mature forest.
One of the diorama’s interpretive panels invites viewers to notice a half dozen featured plants and animals, while another uses two preserved specimens of witch hazel branches, collected on Presque Isle on the same date, but 133 years apart, to document dramatic changes in this common tree’s spring leaf-out date. The museum’s herbarium holds more than 3,300 Presque Isle plant specimens from ongoing collection efforts that date to 1868. These preserved plants, along with the standardized information recorded with each one, document such changes as the relatively recent abundance of non-native flora, and the decline of some rare plant populations in the wake of engineered beach stabilization efforts.
Like all the museum’s dioramas, this window into the frozen time of a specific place lends itself to multiple interpretations by museum educators. In addition to narratives about plant succession, or the irrefutable evidence botanical records provide of a changing climate, the diorama’s recreated beach scene is a good place for students to listen to an explanation of the geology term “longshore drift,” or to consider how freshwater, even in a watershed as vast as the Great Lakes Basin, is a limited natural resource.
For some viewers, the diorama will serve as a visual prompt to visit or revisit the park and leave their own footprints on Presque Isle sands. Anyone considering a visit will find the experience enriched by making a preliminary electronic stop at the park website maintained by the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, as well a physical stop, just outside the park entrance, at interpretive exhibits in the 16-year-old Tom Ridge Environmental Center (TREC).
On the website, among activity descriptions, park maps, recent news releases, and relevant advisories, a tab labelled “History” (under the category “Additional Information”) leads not only to a summary of the peninsula’s role in sheltering a fleet of American ships during the War of 1812 and a link to geology-focused park guide, but also to a brief account that, when repeated, serves to acknowledge how this unusual landscape was long ago utilized and cherished by Native Peoples.
The Erie Indians lived along the southern shores of Lake Erie and were early inhabitants of the area. They hunted game from the forests, gathered plants, and fished from the waters of Lake Erie in birch-bark canoes.
According to legend, the Erie ventured far into the lake to find the place where the sun sank into the waters.
The spirits of the lake caused a great storm to arise, so the Great Spirit stretched out his left arm into the lake to protect the Erie from the storm. Where the sheltering arm of the Great Spirit had lain in the lake, a great sandbar in the shape of an arm-like peninsula was formed to act as an eternal shelter and harbor of refuge for the Great Spirit’s favorite children, the Erie.https://www.dcnr.pa.gov/StateParks/FindAPark/PresqueIsleStatePark/Pages/History.aspx
Repeating the account in the Hall of Botany can add a new dimension to a 56-year-old diorama.
Patrick McShea works in the Education and Marketing departments at Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History Blog Citation InformationBlog author: McShea, Patrick
Publication date: November 22, 2022