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Museum highlights non-profit's global mission

Visitors look an a model of a Honduran farm village at Heifer International's museum in Little Rock, Ark. Danny Johnston / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Heifer International has opened a $7.5 million museum at its Little Rock headquarters to illustrate the work it does around the world to help impoverished people feed themselves.

The museum, called Heifer Village, opened in June and will add an important element to Heifer educational programs, which demonstrate the charity's mission to provide animals and training so the world's poor can have sustainable nutrition.

Narrative elements run through the museum's exhibits, showing the effects that fair trade, clean water or mosquito netting can have. Under a ceiling of rich, amber-stained wood, natural light falls on the exhibits as the building itself demonstrates sustainability strategies.

In a section focusing on education, a visitor can sit at a desk equipped with a touch-screen computer to go through a variety of scenarios. The visitor picks from four children who live in different parts of the world, each of them poor. Going from screen to screen, the user makes choices that the child might have to make, for instance, about whether to ask for more food or to see a doctor.

There are no right or wrong answers, but the user learns more about the situations faced by poor families and how one decision leads to making another.

"Each scenario would lead you on a different path," Heifer Village operations manager Kent Modlin said.

At a nearby stop, patrons can pick items from a grocery basket and run them over a barcode scanner to learn about sustainable efforts behind the products.

The museum is interactive from start to finish. Walking in, visitors see columns that depict different farmers helped by Heifer, each with panels that slide to reveal various facts.

The exhibit hall has exhibits in five main categories: infrastructure, health care, fair markets, education and sustainable agriculture.

Like many contemporary museums geared to young visitors, Heifer Village has wide-screen TVs, buttons to push and plenty of information panels. What sets Heifer apart is the way stories progress as visitors move through its 6,500 square feet.

After the main hall, visitors enter the "Make a Difference Lab" where they can commit to doing volunteer work, saving energy, reducing pollution or any number of other efforts. Visitors type what they plan to do into a computer. A giant computer screen scrolls the different entries.

While the focus at the museum is not on monetary donations, the organization says its fundraising has slowed due to the recession and it recently announced layoffs of 20 percent of its U.S. staff, 68 people. But aid programs overseas will be maintained. Heifer spokesman Ray White says it takes very little money to provide a village with animals and training, and to obtain promises that the offspring of the livestock will be shared with others in the village.

"Heifer is grass roots on both ends," White said, noting that a few hundred dollars from small donors in the U.S. have an impact abroad, providing enough to start a village livestock program.

"The exhibits will show how easy it is for someone to have food security, to have schools for their children, to have a roof to keep the rain off of them," White said.

Like the headquarters building itself, the Heifer Village museum is built of recycled and renewable materials, and uses passive solar heat and light. Rainfall at the Heifer campus is collected and flows into a wetland. Visitors to a trail learn how improved environmental conditions can improve living conditions for a community.

Last year, Heifer's headquarters received the American Institute of Architects' highest honor for its ecologically minded design.

The main building is curved and the new museum is also, fitting into a scheme of circles and semicircles across the grounds. Amid the immaculate landscaping are native plants and trees, including bamboo, yellow coneflowers and dogwoods.

The design projects a unity, which is within Heifer's message.

"Heifer Village is an attempt to bring more of that story to people who will help us end hunger and poverty," White said. "It's not so much about hunger and poverty as it is about the solution."