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Nachusa Grasslands Visitor Center Merges Nature, Science and Experience

Updated: Mar 24, 2022

A large welcome sign in front of a view of the Nachusa Grasslands Welcome Center.

It started with, of all things, babies. Adorable, irresistible fluffy babies. Suddenly, people from all over the Chicago area were piling into their cars, heading out to Nachusa, and pulling over on the side of the highway to ooh and aah over the next generation of that prairie superstar, the bison. Considering the safety issues of hundreds of site-seers hanging out on the side of a rural highway, The Nature Conservancy, who manages the Nachusa Grasslands, decided it was time for a proper hub to welcome and orient visitors. That’s where Therese Huffman and Signature Design came in.

Along with her team, Huffman developed and executed the Nachusa Grasslands Visitor Center, a site that merges high-level scientific study with an engaging, educational visitor experience. TNC had goals to create advocacy and support the work they are doing in the grasslands, and so it was a balancing act for Huffman.

“It meant layering. We weren’t working at 4th grade or 6th grade, but we had to accommodate that,” Huffman says. “We were challenged to present advanced level environmental scientific discoveries in a voice understandable and evocative to the general public.”

To do this, Huffman saw the need to create an experience with multiple layers. Exhibits feature capture boxes, wildlife sound buttons, artifacts and interpretive signage. The aesthetic is as natural as possible, featuring real metals, stone and a natural color palette. It’s a low-tech site, and that’s by design. TNC wanted a to create a grounded experience, so GoPros and drone stations were taken off the drawing board early on.

“I agree with them ultimately, because they really did want to be more of a tactile, sensual experience than a media blast,” Huffman says. “I did like the idea of kids with GoPros, but [TNC] is more in tune with taking them on hikes. You want to sit there and look out at the prairie or take a walk.”

One of the most successful elements is an old standby, the white board. Boxes with markers are attached nearby, and visitors can record their observations after exploring the site.

A white board covered in messages and notes from Nachusa guests