Robin Groesbeck candidly admits the staff at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville couldn't have known how popular a group of light and sound installations in the museum's North Forest would be. But when the North Forest Lights concluded its exhibition in mid-February, nearly 108,000 visitors had walked through the ethereal nighttime experience in its three-and-half months on display.
A collaboration with Montreal-based multimedia and entertainment studio Moment Factory, North Forest Lights utilized technology to "create emotion with music and light," creative director Marie Belzil said at the time of exhibition's opening last fall. Each installation was conceived in response to its location, to engage with and activate the natural surroundings of the forest.
When Crystal Bridges announced earlier this month that the lights will return for a second season beginning Sept. 4, the post broke a record for the museum's most social media engagement -- proof that the fervor for the experience has yet to die down. The installation also won the 2020 mondo*dr "Americas Award" in the Parks & Attractions category, celebrating technology in entertainment around the world.
"We're hearing from folks that people are hungry for outdoor experiences that can give them an opportunity to be outside in a space that feels comfortable, and with people that they care about," offers Groesbeck, who is the director of exhibitions and interpretation at Crystal Bridges. "We think North Forest Lights is going to hopefully offer that for people."
Groesbeck outlines the various adjustments that will be in place for the second season of North Forest Lights in response to covid-19, including timed tickets, required masks for all visitors, and a one-third operating capacity for the trail loop -- which amounts to just under 200 people admitted per hour.
Other changes upon the lights' return are in response to feedback from visitors. Those requested updates include more lighting for the pathways and a longer exhibition period to allow more time to visit, as well as the opportunity to experience North Forest Lights in varying seasons and weather conditions.
"This is going to allow us to have not only a really cool winter experience, but also to have more fall and spring," Groesbeck explains of the extended display time -- through April 4.
"Another fun one is the rain, believe it or not," she adds. "Moment Factory told us, 'Actually it's really quite beautiful in the rain.' And what happens in the rain is that it catches the light in a different way, and you actually see the droplets and the mist, and you can see rainbow effects. So I do encourage people, if they can, to check it out a couple of times and in different conditions because it's a different experience."
The five installations remain the same as organizers put their efforts into making the experience as safe and as comfortable as possible for everyone who would like to visit. That means queuing at the entrance, as well as at Whispering Tree -- where guests can communicate with a magnificent tree and see the color of their own voice -- have been reconfigured to allow for better distancing.
Memory of Water, a simulated stream projected in and around a dry creek bed, will have a second bridge installed to accommodate more viewing while safely distanced.
"The pandemic is very, very challenging and difficult," Groesbeck acknowledges. With the safety measures, North Forest Lights "won't be as crowded and so, if there's any kind of up side, it's things like that where maybe you'll have a more personal experience with your loved ones or on your own.
"It sort of transports you," she goes on thoughtfully. "It makes being outside in the forest at night a safe space for everyone. And it also literally lets you see the forest in a new light. I also think that the combination of the music, the sound, the natural setting and the lighting experience is so magical and unexpected. It's a step out of the everyday for everyone."
North Forest Lights
WHEN — Sept. 4-April 4
WHERE — North Forest at Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville
COST — $10-$22; members, $7-$15; kids younger than 6, free; $5 increase for day-of purchases
INFO — 418-5700, crystalbridges.org
ACCESSIBILITY — The North Forest Trail is accessible for mobility devices. Wheelchairs available for checkout. Shuttle offered by request. Strollers and wagons welcome.