Exploring the natural world on an epic scale: The BBC Earth Experience
By Theresa Thompson, Timeless Travels Art Correspondent
Immersive exhibitions or experiences are all the rage, it seems. More typically found in art exhibitions, there’s now a new attraction in London that invites visitors to “experience a journey through the natural world and explore the extraordinary diversity of our seven unique continents on the most epic scale.”
The BBC Earth Experience opened its doors to the public in Earls Court, London last week. I went to see it, and epic in scale it certainly was.
Narrated by the world’s most famous naturalist, Sir David Attenborough, the massive 360-degree audio and visual experience uses footage from the BBC Natural History Unit’s ‘Seven Worlds, One Planet’ television series that first aired in 2019. The award-winning nature documentary was BBC One’s most-watched factual TV show that year.
The sonorous tones of Sir David’s voice welcomed me to Africa as I followed the corridor round to enter the main gallery of the purpose-built Daikin Centre. There, multiple multi-angle screens used the very latest digital screen technology to show highlights and extended scenes from the series.
I was immediately surrounded by enormous chimpanzees banging rocks – they were using them as tools. Projected onto the high angled screens, the chimps dwarfed us humans walking around. I was in their world. The sound of the chimps repetitively bashing their rocks sounded like a factory. If Sir David was saying anything at that point it was lost on me; I was all eyes.
Sir David Attenborough. Photographer Alex Board copyright BBC NHU
The screens morphed to cheetahs, racing across the savannah chasing antelope, a fast chase and in the sequences I watched the hartebeest escaped. Then, the screens cut to an electric-blue underwater world and jewel-like fish, before bringing us back to land with shots of elephants rumbling around, gigantic tusks, and trunks stretched sky-high to reach greener leaves. We human visitors were outdone by the glories of the natural world.
Shifting to Europe, suddenly it was all buildings and infrastructure as people took over. But not for long. Footage of brown bear cubs clinging to trees or hungry hamsters fighting to keep their food restore the mood.
Africa, Asia, Australia, Antarctica and so on, roll before our eyes as we experience a typhoon roaring around us one moment, watch the Northern Lights over the Arctic the next, and then watch fireflies giving a spectacular light show in North America, or a huddle of snub-nosed monkeys trying to stay warm in Asia. A line of penguins shuffling their way across the Antarctic ice, in my view was pleasingly echoed by the line of people I could see on the viewing deck above. While most of this is experienced at ground level (there are a few benches here and there), from up there you get sweeping views over the landscape as if in a hot-air balloon or on a dizzying mountainside.
It becomes more interactive in the smaller side zones – the Water World or Micro Life zone (“Enter if you Dare” says the sign to the room where mammoth-sized spiders and insects creep and crawl). Sensors located above some screens allow you to move shoals of fish or create bubbles by moving your arms: fun for children as well as adult-sized ‘children’!
The boast is that you can experience “our seven continents in all their glory, like never before!” And, they add, without the need for a passport!
But can you? The scale is epic, the photography out of this world, the soundtrack awesome, and it’s perfect to have Sir David’s narration…. But how does it feel? The expectation is to feel awe. Does it really engage the visitor? I asked around. Most people said they enjoyed it, did feel that sense of wonder, but one said that in some ways it felt a little hollow, perhaps needed more interactive material, smells maybe, she suggested.
The drive behind much immersive art or experience is often financial: visitor numbers. The BBC Earth Experience will get those, but there is another agenda here as well, one with a strong message that witnessing the beauty of nature is one thing, but it's up to us to protect it.
Unfortunately, the entry cost is high, and especially will be for families – yet it is promoted as an “epic adventure that brings environments to life for all the family.”
On the other hand, the experience of being surrounded by fantastic footage of animals and natural landscapes is entrancing. Nature in our everyday lives all too often goes unnoticed, and uncared for, so it is a wondrous thing to see the beauty of nature celebrated in this way.
Snippets of information come and go as you walk around, but this is not a fact heavy experience: the visual experience is primary.
However, at the end, in a rousing finale under a revolving Earth glowing like a blue marble, Sir David highlights the challenges faced by nature in today’s world. He implores us to think, to act, saying: “With the changing climate, over exploitation of natural resources, and the drastic reduction in biodiversity we are facing a critical moment for the future of life on Earth.
“That future depends on our actions now. Nature is our greatest ally. Whenever and wherever we restore and attempt to nurture the natural world it brings balance back to our planet – and we all share in the benefits. We are both part of the natural world and the greatest problem solvers that have ever existed. This surely should give us the motivation and hope we need. It is within our power to make a difference. We can do it. We must do it. Then, there will be a future for planet Earth and for us all.”
The BBC Earth Experience
The Daikin Centre, Earl's Court, Empress Place SW6 1TT
NB: The BBC Earth Experience’s aim is to inspire visitors to protect the planet. True to its message, sustainability is at its heart: for instance, the 1,608 metre-squared venue is built from materials which can be recycled or reused (even the cotton screens will be repurposed after the exhibition), and the projectors are powered by renewable energy.