When the Museum of Discovery closed last April for renovations made possible by a $9.2 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the staff also had another project in the works — rebranding the museum's image. The downtown math and science museum has long been a destination for families and schoolchildren on field trips, but adults without kids in tow have steered clear.
That's not likely to be the case when the museum re-opens Jan. 14. The educational hotspot's sleek new design and sophisticated exhibits send a clear message: The Museum of Discovery isn't just for kids anymore.
"Typically we've been known as a family museum, and we certainly don't want to give that up because we love our families, but we're trying to branch out to a broader audience," said Libby Doss Lloyd, the museum's marketing and public relations manager. "No longer is this just a kids' museum. This is a science, technology and math center. We really want to be a resource for the community and be known as a science center."
The museum, which had been 45,000 square feet, has grown by another 5,000 square feet. A former loading dock has been transformed into an expansive entryway opening directly onto President Clinton Avenue; previously the entrance was inside the Museum Center at 500 Clinton Ave.
As visitors enter the Great Hall, their attention is drawn upward toward a specially-commissioned kinetic sculpture that melds art and math: the wooden "Helix Wave," which undulates over the walkway to the galleries as rotating pulleys move the components. NASA junkies will want to check out a small display that holds moon rocks from the Apollo 11 mission and another lunar rock, the highly publicized Apollo 17 rock that was presented to the state, lost and rediscovered in 2011.
The rest of the museum is divided into several galleries spread out over two floors, including three main areas: Discovery Hall, Earth Journeys and Amazing You. The largest is Discovery Hall, which explores the physical sciences, with exhibits on energy, matter, force and motion. Walking into most children's museums feels like stepping into a Fisher-Price wonderland, with tons of plastic and lots of miniatures; a single glimpse of the Discovery Hall will convince visitors of the museum's grown-up intentions. The space's interactive exhibits are unified with a sleek contemporary design of blond wood flooring and dark punctuated paneling highlighted by touches of orange hues on seating.
Also a bonus: the activities aren't built solely for short patrons. An adult can comfortably pedal a bicycle that demonstrates the different amounts of energy needed to light incandescent bulbs versus energy-efficient CFLs or can try to bounce a ball through movable rings in a station that mimics the angles of a pool game.
The subject matter is similarly successful in walking a tricky line between keeping children engaged without making grown-ups feel like they're reading a third-grade science book. The light bulb activity is a perfect example; a display on aerodynamics is another. A wind tunnel shows how its force can push a ball straight into the air, and when the tunnel is rotated the ball follows. The simple activity explains the basics of how planes fly — even to those of us who aren't science-smart.
The Amazing You gallery highlights biology and health sciences. There are kitschy aspects — a bloodstream "superhighway" pulses red liquid through tubes around the room. But disease prevention exhibits include visual and interactive lessons on how sunscreen blocks ultraviolet rays, how smoking affects the lungs and makes breathing more difficult, and how the body works. A timeline depicts the digestion of granola, from tasty snack to bile to feces, with samples lined up in jars. One fascinating wall illuminates thin slices of actual human tissue — lung, brain, stomach, etc. — that have been arranged to re-create the shape of the donors. Looking at the slivers, examiners can determine sex, age, lifestyle and more.
Earth Journeys connects natural science to Arkansas's landscapes. Most notably, this area is home to a large globe that plays air-traffic patterns, polar ice cap movement or the activity of an El Nino storm. Adjacent is a sensory experience that most won't want to miss: Tornado Alley. Visitors walk into a replica of a home's basement, modeled on the houses in Little Rock's Quapaw District. The experience is based on the devastating storm that hit downtown in 1999, and plays television footage of the actual weather reports, mimics the sound of lightning, rain and the rumble of a tornado.
Other features include the Tinkering Studio, where an educator leads workshops and helps crafty guests build various projects. The museum has also allotted two galleries for traveling exhibits. "Dinosaur Discoveries: Ancient Fossils, New Ideas," is the first to inhabit the Window of Wonders (WOW) Gallery, journeying all the way from New York's American Museum of Natural History. The second will debut exhibits created by the staff at the Museum of Discovery.
Another welcome addition is the store, where adults can participate by shelling out for all sorts of science-related toys. If this shop is as varied as the museum's original shop (closed, sadly, after a couple of years), it will be a prime place for gift-seeking grown-ups.
The museum is in talks to launch after-hours events specifically for adults called Science After Dark, and currently hosts the lecture series Pub Science once a month at Boscos. It's all about having fun while learning, which is something you can do at any age, Doss Lloyd said.
"People appreciate art and they go to an art museum and they learn about art and they are entertained at the same time," she said. "I think that's the vision for this museum — having people come learn about science, math and technology and have fun as they're doing it."