"This was all about the tooth, really. That’s where my expertise came in and sheer fascination with the animal."
Dr. Martin Nweeia began researching narwhals in 2000. He came to the conclusion that the prevailing research available about the narwhal’s tooth — such as Charles Darwin’s belief that the narwhal’s tooth was a secondary sexual characteristic like an antler or a horn — was only part of the story.
"I looked at it and thought, 'Everyone has passed this by as a secondary sexual characteristic and I think that it’s a more interesting tooth organ system,'" said Dr. Nweeia.
The research of Dr. Nweeia and his team culminated in an exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., called “Narwhal: Revealing An Arctic Legend.” The exhibit was prominently placed in the museum from 2017 to 2019.
"To be accepted as an exhibit at the Smithsonian is prestigious enough, but being in the main rotunda was pretty incredible," he said.
The exhibit is now hitting the road.
The touring exhibit will premiere March 28 at the Sam Noble Museum in Norman, Oklahoma, and close June 14. The exhibit will then move to the Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum in Provo, Utah, in July. The exhibit is already booked for the first year and some of the second. The Smithsonian hopes to keep the exhibit touring for at least five years.
The touring version will not be a carbon copy of the original. The Smithsonian has a group that looks for ways that exhibits can have more audience engagement, the dentist said.
As Dr. Nweeia points out, most exhibits are items on a wall, in a display case or hanging from a ceiling. To make more of an impact, the touring exhibit is adding an optional opportunity for museums to integrate an augmented reality technology to put audiences in the same room as narwhals in their Arctic environment.
The immersive experience uses technology from Microsoft called HoloLens and is designed by the Interactive Commons at Case Western Reserve University in collaboration with the School of Dental Medicine.
Another feature added for the touring exhibit is a graphic novel written by Dr. Nweeia and his wife, environmental economist Pamela Peeters. With an art team from Mexico and America and reviewed by five-time Eisner award-winning (given for creative achievement in comic books) artist Steve Rude, the novel tells the story of Eco Hero, a superhero who rides a flying unicorn and listens to the language of Mother Earth. The story addresses narwhals in their changing environment, influenced by seismic testing and global warming, while integrating Dr. Nweeia’s science with Inuit legends and knowledge about narwhals.
"All of the information in the graphic novel was reviewed by three Inuit elders, the Arctic Studies Center at the Smithsonian and the Nunavut Research Institute," said Dr. Nweeia. "Although it’s directed towards children, it’s a story that resonates with all ages."
The final new feature is one designed to involve visitors with visual impairment — a touchable narwhal. This model allows people with disabilities to experience the shape of the body, tail and flippers and find out what the skin and tooth of a narwhal feel like.
"We wanted to invite all audiences and get the whole family involved," Dr. Nweeia said.
For more information on the exhibit, visit the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History website at naturalhistory.si.edu