By Alex Khan
Balancing zip, originality, and enticement is a necessary but difficult task in welcoming individuals to a new space. In the case of the reinvented Discovery Museum, there are many options for consideration.
The 13-foot tall interactive ‘A-Mazing Airways’ sculpture adapts well to “Come Get Blown Away,” but the tired phrase is unreflecting of the space’s freshness.
The da Vinci Workshop, an on-site tinkerer’s haven, adapts well to “Find Your Inner Renaissance Man,” but this is too gender specific for a welcoming, fully-accessible museum that is open to all.
“It’s so Big, We Fit a House Into It” is, yes, true with its Bessie’s House replicating the former Children’s Discovery Museum on campus, but still, that doesn’t quite say it all. And “Come Get Your Inner House” is an incoherent mess, disregarding the careful consideration to unify the Children’s and Science Discovery Museums into one building.
The expanded and completely renovated museum has twice the exhibit space of the original museum and includes significant new galleries for STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) experiences including water; air; tinkering, design, and engineering; early brain development; math; light and color; and sound. It also includes reimagined visitor favorites from the original buildings including a Diner, Train Room, and Ship Room, along with other beloved exhibit components such as a giant amethyst and radar magnet.
The new building is ADA-compliant and all exhibits are accessible, designed according to Universal Design principles to be both aesthetically pleasing and useable by the widest possible range of people, without regards to age or ability. In combination with the museum’s Discovery Woods outdoor nature playscape and treehouse, the entire campus is now accessible.
The consolidation of the two sites into a singular Discovery Museum was decided seven years ago after the Museum conducted a broader Facility Masterplan, examining current and future museum experiences. In unifying the spaces, the Museum could provide a more coherent experience, and expand accessibility for visitors.
“The main thing that happens is that you develop a vision of what you are trying to create,” says Neil Gordon, CEO of the Discovery Museum.
At a conceptual level, the premise of increasing access to the Museum’s mission to “inspire enduring curiosity and love of learning” was uncontroversial. Potential problems arose from the pragmatic to the emotional: requesting funding, and decommissioning the Children’s Discovery Museum, respectively.
The 19th century yellow and red Victorian home preceded the Science Discovery Museum and acted as the primary site for younger visitors to the Museum campus since opening in 1982, including during the construction of the new Discovery Museum.
Situated directly off Main Street in Acton, the Children’s Museum served as a backdrop for the goodwill ambassador of the Museum – and symbol of offbeat-pride for many locals – Bessie, the Dinosaur.
Both the Victorian House and Bessie will remain.
Tasked with taking the temperature of the community were professional campaign feasibility consultants using anonymous interviews to survey community members and past supporters.
For the Museum, according to Gordon, the feedback was decisive.
“What was great about that process is that it really solidified for us the notion that the community viewed us as a community resource, and they were willing to make an investment in us.”
In 2013, the Discovery Museum began its first official capital campaign in over 25 years. In total, it was estimated $8.4 million to execute the Museum’s vision. While grants would support the Museum in-part, the goal was contingent on community donations.
In total, the Discovery Museum raised $8.8 million.
Core to the redesign was the Universal Design Principle (UDP), seven criteria developed to promote all ability access to and experience of designed spaces.
“It is really an anticipation of an understanding of the different ways that information can be absorbed,” says Charles Baldwin, Program Officer at the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s UP [Universal Participation] Program.
The Discovery Museum has participated in UP’s “Innovation and Learning Network” since 2015, and through the process, has cultivated a network of institutional contacts and consultants to gauge accessibility.
Along with strict functional elements, including wheelchair accessible paths, a second elevator, and bathrooms on both floors of the space, UDP finds congruence with the Museum’s mission promoting equal access.
It is of little surprise then to hear Gordon speak of exhibition goals consistent with criteria, such as simplicity and intuitiveness – “we want people to walk up to it and begin, rather than stand there and read directions” – and flexibility in use. “Most of our exhibits don’t have a right answer; the beauty of them is kids get to change lots of different things, and that is, of course, a core principle of science.”
Notes Baldwin, “the Discovery Museum under Neil Gordon has got it solid.”
Ensuring this goal of accessibility, the Museum will also welcome “expert users” of differing abilities to provide feedback upon opening. The Museum views such opportunities to recommit to improving accessibility amongst its exhibitions as a learning experience.
There are ten signature museum exhibits. All exhibit spaces are unified in an exploration of Science, Technology, Engineering. Art, and Math (STEAM) concepts.
Some of the exhibit spaces have a clear legacy point with rooms of the past.
For fans of the Children’s Museum, there is Bessie’s House — a two-story space with the same façade, it contains iconic but updated areas from the former building.
“It was important to the Museum (and to me) to capture the creativity and uniqueness of Bessie’s House in our reimagined exhibits, while making sure the spaces were safe, comfortable, and accessible to visitors of all ages and abilities,” says Margaret Middleton, who spent nearly two years designing the Museum’s new exhibits.
“The gallery spaces are smaller than the gallery spaces in the rest of the building to mimic the intimacy and coziness that people really cherished in the old building,” adds Gordon.
da Vinci Workshop’s use of recycled materials, hammers, nails, and free space for invention echoes a similar tinkering space in the Science Discovery Museum. Adding a twist, the Museum will feature a vertical airstream for engineers to experiment with aerodynamics alongside creating prototypes.
Some are newly configured spaces. The A-Mazing Airways sculpture created to demonstrate the power of air is marketed as “the only free-standing exhibit of its kind in North America”, and the space, ‘Yes, It’s Math!’ became a new area of exploration for the Museum.
To maintain scientific validity, the Museum took a multipronged approach. Internally, the museum used trained staff whose expertise in field and function promoted efficiency without sacrificing quality. Laterally, the Museum constructed advisory committees for each research subject to provide “upfront advice and to weigh-in and review designs during the process”.
Externally, the Museum used a cadre of designers with experience in building science-based family-oriented accessible exhibits, including Middleton, designer Kevin Harper for costumes, and Truro Designs in Rhode Island.
Along with new designs, the Museum will reserve 1,5000 square feet of space for its Community Gallery, built equally to host traveling exhibits, experiment, and provide space for “when the local high school robotics team [wants to] display things and interact with the public”.
Now ready to welcome guests, the Discovery Museum’s remaining task is adorn Bessie’s party hat.
The Discovery Museum is located at 177 Main St., Acton, Massachusetts.