The story of life - up close

9th June 2000 at 01:00
In among the hard hats, constant sounds of drilling, and a new home for exotic biodiverse plantlife, the pre-launch run-up to completing the innards of Bristol's new Wildscreen@Bristol Centre is into its last lap. The centre is a key project of the lottery-funded relaunch around Bristol's Harbourside and opens in July. It will house state-of-the-art technology - from the latest in multimedia to an IMAX cinema - that will guide visitors through the story of how life on earth works up close and in detail. It will explain how the interconnected worlds of the tiny, but 95 per cent vital majority of species, are crucial for the future health of the planet.

Schools visiting @Bristol will be able to pre-book workshops and classes right across its education programme, and in the Wildscreen building there is a complete education floor facilitating further access to the centre's myriad new resources. This includes a second 85-seat video theatre, and a tailor-made classroom with around 25 computer terminals.

One resource which the organising body, the Wildscreen Trust, sees as particularly significant is ARKive. With ARKive, the Trust wants to build the most complete digital library of species and habitat there is. Although it is still early days, the library is already online at A vast amount of wildlife film, photography, and recorded material has been tracked down and converted to digital form. Contributions range from individual conservationists and scientists, to the RSPB and the Royal Botanic Gardens, and such mainstays as the BBC, all keen to see these otherwise inaccessible educational assets reaching new audiences. Schools can order film showings for their visits, to complement classwork, or other parts of Wildscreen.

At the same time, ARKive will be an image and information bank, providing an audio-visual time capsule of all species and habitats under the sun. With the digital library equally accessible through the Web, classes and courses on biodiversty can potentially be transformed by the click of the button, bringing forth clips of films from the extinct Tasmanian wolf, to the ecological habitat of threatened rainforest "hotspots". For each species, the library is hoping to feature two minutes of moving image, three or four photographs, and three minutes of sound on the website. It will include a comprehensive "British" section, which will be relevant for classes exploring issues of biodiversity close to home.

Nearly four years of preparation has gone into ARKive's design and will be flexibly reponsive to teachers recommendations. Much of it has been on trial in local Bristol Schools. The result, in part, is that the site has been designed with differing levels of information relevant for key stages in the national curriculum. Teachers, students and classes can use the material flexibly and broadly, and indeed build their own curriculum.

If ARKive is presently in its formative stages, it will fit well with the arrival of next year's new national curriculum, with its realigned emphasis on sustainable development. Biodiversity is a critical strand in this remapping of environmental education, and also a crucial key to opening up an understanding of the web of life's central place to sustainability. The likely next stages include using the material to develop examples of full ecosystems; surely a step in communicating ecological issues effectively.

All this said, the main question hanging in the background is: are such approaches really effective? Or does it provide yet another seductive simulation of the natural, our susceptibility to techno-amazement pulling us even further from physical nature? Time will tell.

ARKive opens along with the Wildscreen Centre in mid July.

The Wildscreen Trust, PO Box 366, Deanery Road, College Green, Bristol BS99 2HD.Tel: 0117 909

Oliver Lowenstein edits Fourth Door Review, a green cultural, new media and built environment magazine

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