Morris Arboretum’s “Out on a Limb.”

Morris Arboretum’s “Out on a Limb.”

Morris Arboretum of the University of Pennsylvania was one of two museums to win the 2015 Building Museums “Buildy” Award in recognition of its exemplary accomplishment in leading an institution through the challenging process of creating new museum construction. The other recipient was the American Swedish Institute Nelson Cultural Center Expansion and Renovation.

Paul W. Meyer, executive director of Morris Arboretum received the 2015 award for Morris Arboretum on March 23rd at the Building Museums Symposium of the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums.

Martha Morris, associate professor and assistant director of Museum Studies Program at George Washington University, who presented the award, said, “This award recognizes museum directors whose completed museum construction projects demonstrate high achievement in the principles espoused in the Building Museums Symposium: careful, creative planning and diligent implementation of construction– projects that lead to institutional transformation and sustainability.”

Paul Meyer of Morris Arboretum and his architect, Alan Metcalfe, principal at Metcalfe Architecture and Design (Philadelphia), were instrumental in creating Out on a Limb as an exciting and exhilarating open metal grating walkway 50 feet above the ground. It’s a structure that both respects the natural environment and draws visitors together in an intense, shared experience.

Out on a Limb, at a cost of $2.5 million, was a relatively small investment for a large institution; but its impact has been significant. It increased attendance and membership by 30 percent the year it opened in 2009, and generated publicity that broadened Morris Arboretum’s reach.

“As we embark on spring in 2015, six year after Out on a Limb – A Tree Adventure opened, it’s exciting to see that we’ve been able to maintain and grow our levels of attendance and membership,” Paul Meyer said. “In an age when children are barraged with electronic and social media, our ability to connect them with nature in a real and meaningful way is very much part of our mission at the Morris Arboretum.”

The idea for the Out on a Limb exhibit was sparked when Morris Arboretum’s Paul Meyer saw a preliminary mock-up of the tree canopy walk at Kew Gardens in London, when it was just a small, temporary test structure made of construction scaffolding. Meyer immediately saw the potential of such an experience and came back to champion the creation of a similar structure at the Morris Arboretum.

Meyer and Metcalfe were able to take advantage of sloping terrain to avoid the need for stairs and elevators that were eventually needed at Kew. They also added several exhibit elements: a giant bird’s nest and an enclosed pavilion along the walk. The excitement of being on an open metal grating walkway fifty feet above the ground naturally draws visitors together.

But Out on a Limb has taken this a step further. Three segments of walkway are joined together with rope netting that forms huge hammocks. Visitors can walk, roll or tumble out onto this netting (called the Squirrel Scramble) and when they do, they instantly bond with the other “squirrel scramblers”in an intense, shared experience. This project illustrates the value of bringing excitement to an educational mission.

The Buildy Award reflects the new attitudes that are beginning to guide the process of institutional growth and building design in the 21st Century: respectful and appropriate attention to context, careful pre-planning to model business growth, engagement with user groups and the surrounding community, consideration of building impacts beyond the site boundaries, conservation of resources, and planning for the future. Out on a Limb exemplifies these guidelines with success.