Saturday, April 20, 2024

Midwest Museums

What’s happening in the museum and attraction scene in the heartland


by Hilary McVicker, Judith Rubin, Elizabeth Mathews, David Smith & Linda Smith


Minneapolis & Milwaukee

GeoDomes Immersive projection design firm The Elumenati have developed a turnkey solution for Earth and space science education, the GeoDome that is proving to be quite popular around the Midwest.

The first GeoDome project launched in 2006 in Minneapolis, when the Minnesota Planetarium Society (MnPS) was in search of a temporary solution to use for outreach while funds were raised for a permanent planetarium. The GeoDome combines the Elumenati’s dome and projection system with Uniview, the software platform in use in the world’s leading planetariums, which uses videogame technology to bring NASA’s Digital Universe Atlas to life in interactive 3D. More than thirty GeoDome installations are now at work around the globe.

Since 2006, the MnPS’s popular outreach dome has reached over 120,000 students and other learners in Minnesota schools. The program is now managed by the Bell Museum of Natural History at the University of Minnesota, which is also home to a second GeoDome system that lives on campus. The MnPS and the Bell Museum have built a successful business model with the outreach dome, generating revenue through business sponsorships and direct fees. This “little planetarium that could” was recently ranked the 4th best planetarium in the US by

Photo credit: Alex Roob
Photo credit: Alex Roob

Educators Joel Halvorson and Sally Brummel guide the effort to promote the GeoDome as a tool for teaching and learning. Their work with the MnPS project developed the Minnesota Regional Planetarium Network, a mix of fixed and portable GeoDome systems. Educators in both formal and informal education, from elementary schools to universities and museums, share costs and program development. Networked “domecast” presentations enable collaboration with colleagues around the world, including other GeoDome clients like NOAA’s Climate Program Office and NASA centers at Goddard, Marshall, and JPL.

The Minnesota Regional Planetarium Network now boasts ten systems in the midwest, with several more on the horizon. The network includes GeoDome Evolvers – the Elumenati solution for digital planetariums – at Mayo High School, Mankato East High School, Como Elementary, Minnesota State University Moorhead, Southwest Minnesota State University, and the University of Wisconsin River Falls. GeoDome Theaters – based on the Elumenati’s 6.5m fully enclosed dome – are in use at the Bell Museum and The Journey Museum. The Bell Museum’s campus installation and the Jackson Middle School Observatory both use a GeoDome Portal, a smaller truncated dome.

AdIAAPAThe most recent addition to the network is the GeoDome Evolver at the University of Wisconsin River Falls. The UWRF physics department will be working with the UW-Madison Wisconsin IceCube Particle Astrophysics Center to bring new ways for students and community members to explore the Universe.  Their goal is to develop new content to show the incredible advances that have fundamentally changed our understanding of the Universe, to exploit the multidisciplinary capabilities that the GeoDome offers, and to partner with other facilities running  Uniview to fully leverage the opportunities they can offer students and community members.  Their initial focus is on particle astrophysics, but UWRF programs in General Physics, Astronomy, Biotechnology, Geography, Chemistry, Mathematics, and other applied and social sciences will be involved with this engaging way to explore data and images of all types.

The Elumenati was incorporated in Minneapolis, MN, in 2003, but its founders have been involved in virtual environments since the 1990’s.  In 2007, the company moved to its current headquarters in Milwaukee, WI. From there, they’ve built a diverse client base around their patented OmniFocus fisheye lenses, OpenDome inflatable and semi-permanent immersive screens, and interactive software.  Integrators use Elumenati products in a range of applications from location-based entertainment to training simulators. The Elumenati creates custom projects for museums, science centers, art installations, and creative clients like Cirque du Soleil. Find out more at and

St. Louis

The Loop Trolley • Developer, entrepreneur and local legend Joe Edwards gave the St. Louis metro area The Loop. This thriving, pedestrian-friendly retail, restaurant and entertainment district began in 1972 to bring urban renewal to Delmar Blvd. with the founding of music venue Blueberry Hill. Loop landmarks today include the Tivoli Theater, Pin-Up Bowl, Moonrise Hotel, St. Louis Walk of Fame, The Pageant and everybody’s favorite new photo op, the statue of favorite son Chuck Berry. The Loop was named “One of the 10 Great Streets in America” by the American Planning Association in 2007.

The Loop catalyzed development and economic growth. Edwards’ $43 million Loop Trolley project seeks to galvanize more of the same. A major funding hurdle was cleared recently with approval of a $25 million Federal grant. With completion projected for summer 2014, the Loop Trolley will travel a fixed track along a strategic 2.2 mile route connecting The Loop with the Missouri History Museum, bridging neighborhoods and connecting two major St. Louis visitor destinations. It will use salvaged, restored vintage streetcars from the mid-1900s.

Speaking at an AIA meeting in 2008, Edwards explained that a fixed-track trolley is key to spurring development because businesses can rely on its permanence. More recently, he said at a community traffic meeting that track-laying was planned to begin in late spring 2013.

St._Louis_ArchCityArchRiver flows The enduring icon of St. Louis is Eero Saarinen’s Gateway Arch, symbolizing the city’s status as “gateway to the west.” For several years an effort, CityArchRiver 2015, has been underway to improve the riverfront area surrounding the Arch (the Jefferson Memorial National Park) and better connect it with surrounding attractions such as the Museum of Westward Expansion and the Old Courthouse as well as the downtown area, from which it is divided by a freeway. There are also plans to tie it in with the River Ring, an integrated trail system connecting trails located in St. Louis City, St. Louis and St. Charles counties that is a project of Great Rivers Greenway. The goal is to have substantially accomplished the project by 2015 in time for the 50th anniversary of the Arch. An “Arch Tax” to help raise some $38 million over the next two years is likely to be on the local ballot in April 2013.

The design team that resulted from the international competition is headed by landscape architecture firm Michael Van Valkenburgh Associates, Inc. The price tag for the full CityArchRiver plan is estimated at $500 million plus. CityArchRiver 2015 describes itself as a public-private partnership formed to fund and coordinate the design and development of the project and reports that “Private donors funded the entire cost of the international design competition, Framing a Modern Masterpiece: The City + The Arch + The River, and continue to fund design costs for the project. In December 2011, more than $57 million was secured through federal, local and private sources (USDOT, MoDOT, and CityArchRiver 2015 Foundation) to completely fund construction of the Park Over the Highway and I-70 connections associated with the project. Great Rivers Greenway has committed an initial $18 million to the new riverfront design. An additional $250 million in private gifts and grants will be raised to help fund the $380 million project in Missouri and endowment for the Foundation’s work as a conservancy.”

Zoo Expands In October 2012, the Saint Louis Zoo Association, a private nonprofit, purchased the 13.5-acre Forest Park Hospital site at 6150 Oakland Ave. in the City of St. Louis. The 90-acre Zoo is landlocked, and the new 13-acre expansion area is located on the other side of I-64 from the main facility. A planning team is already in place, headed by St. Louis-based firm SWT Design and including consultants Vector Communications, Horner & Shifrin, Lawrence Group, Crawford Bunte Brammeier, and Cowell Engineering, as well as Chicago-based architect Edward Uhlir, owner of Uhlir Consulting, LLC. The team will complete a framework plan in May 2013. The zoo’s origins trace back to the City’s purchase of the 1904 World’s Fair Flight Cage, a walkthrough exhibit of birds, commissioned by the Smithsonian.  Annual visitorship at the Zoo is 3 million.

(Larger than New York’s Central Park, Forest Park adjoins the well-to-do Central West End neighborhood of St. Louis, and is heavily used year-round. In addition to the St. Louis Zoo, it is the home of the Missouri History Museum, St Louis Science Center, St. Louis Art Museum and the venerable Muny outdoor theater. The park retains several legacy buildings and remnants of the 1904 world’s fair.)

Central Library is restored • Nothing but praise has followed the $70 million, 2-year restoration of the grand, downtown St. Louis Central Library, beloved by local citizens, completed in December 2012 during the library’s centennial year. Funded by bonds and private donations, new and old are aptly juxtaposed in this painstaking restoration and update of the 190,000 square foot library. The monumental original structure, designed by architect Cass Gilbert, is graced by huge bronze doors and arched windows, ornate exterior carvings, intricate ceilings inspired by Renaissance palaces, Gorham-designed stained glass, granite steps, heavy oak tables, and marble walls and floors. The restoration directed by renovation architect George Z. Nikolajevich of Cannon Design integrates all the information technology features of a modern library, including the conversion of the old coal cellar into an auditorium.

BSI Constructors was the general contractor; CLR Consultants was the developer. Subcontractors included Sachs Electric, Wiegmann Associates, Niehaus Construction, PaintSmiths. The St. Louis Public Library Foundation and president Rick Simoncelli were charged with raising $20 million toward renovation; the capital campaign was chaired by Thomas F. Schlafly and Alison Nichols Ferring. The St. Louis Central Library restoration joins other, notable achievements in the city’s ongoing renewal of its downtown, such as CityGarden and the Peabody Opera House.

Kansas City

LEGOLAND Discovery Center Kansas City brings families together through LEGO.  The building areas inside the attraction give families the opportunity to compete in LEGO races in the Build & Test area, design a LEGO skyscraper at the Earthquake Tables and create a unique model in the pools of LEGO bricks around the attraction.  Families can also work together to save the princess from the evil skeletons and trolls or even help Merlin conjure up a magic potion on two rides, Kingdom Quest and Merlin’s Apprentice. Also housed inside this indoor attraction is a 4D cinema where a 3D movie comes to life in the fourth dimension, as flurries of wind, rain and snow burst through the auditorium.

One last area to check out before leaving is the Master Builder Academy Workshop.  Guests get step-by-step guidance on building a LEGO model designed by LEGO Master Model Builder, Jeremiah Boehr.  These models can be anything from an airplane, a turtle or even a mini model of one of Kansas City’s landmarks featured inside MINILAND.  Guests can take the model home for $5 with a portion of the proceeds going to Merlin’s Magic Wand charity, helping disabled and disadvantaged children around the world.Aquarium

SEA LIFE Kansas City Aquarium has added many new creatures since the opening in April 2012.  Some of the more unique creatures are a giant pacific octopus, nurse shark, bowmouth guitar shark and a litter of Stingrays, to add to the more than 5,000 sea creatures in the 260,000 gallon aquarium.

SEA LIFE Kansas City Aquarium takes visitors on an adventure beginning at the Missouri River where guests see the fresh water fish from streams and lakes around the Midwest.  Guests then glide down the Mississippi River and land on the Gulf shoreline, where they see lobsters and horseshoe crabs, as well as many different types of saltwater fish.  Next to the Shoreline, guests can touch starfish, baby horseshoe crabs and other small creatures that live in the ocean.  Heading down into the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico, guests come across a Shipwreck where spooky creatures, such as an octopus, eels and even a Nurse Shark, are among other large fish that are found in the dark abyss of the ocean.

Traveling a bit further off the coast and to the center of the aquarium is the enormous 130,000 gallon Ocean Tank; complete with a tunnel that provides an almost 360 degree view.  The Ocean Tank houses different species of sharks, even including a bowmouth guitar shark, also known as the Panda of the aquariums because it is so uncommon.  More stingrays can be found inside Stingray Bay where different species of stingrays live among Moray Eels.  Finally, travel along to Seahorse Temple to check out the different species and learn fun facts about seahorses.


Cleveland Botanical Gardens

121106-197 1Too often, special events and new attractions are created without thinking early in the planning process about a singular image to powerfully convey the experience, both for marketing purposes as well as for guests to capture and spread through social networking. Smithink strategically planned to deliver a telegraphic, iconic image through the rebranding and reimagining of Cleveland Botanical Garden’s holiday show, called “Glow”. The Garden’s iconic Eleanor Armstrong Smith Glasshouse, literally glowing at night during the special event, was picked up by Reuters and posted on their big screen on Times Square.

Selecet-121106-090 1Botanical Gardens, by their very nature, are a lot about “viewing” while appreciating multi-dimensional horticulture displays. With the specific goal of appealing to a large audience, a trackless train – named the Garden Express – became an important “doing” experience, taking guests to the Peppermint Garden during Glow.  This experience was an instant hit for all ages.

_MG_6485A judicious balance of visually stunning horticulture displays, overlaid with special effects such as snow and scent machines, complemented with audio design & theatrical lighting, brought Glow to life in a multi-sensory way that resulted in dramatic increases in paid admission, revenue and membership sales.

Smithink assisted Cleveland Botanical Garden in developing a long-term strategic roadmap in 2011 and then executed a key component of that plan as Executive Directors in developing both brand and the guest experience for “Glow”, the Garden’s holiday special event that premiered in 2012.

Smithink is a consulting firm based in St. Louis, MO specializing in strategic planning for experience destinations. 

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Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki
Martin Palicki owns and publishes InPark Magazine. Started in 2004, InPark Magazine provides owners and operators the perspective from "in"side the "park." Martin has also written for publications like Sound & Communications, Lighting & Sound America, Attractions Management and others. Martin has been featured in Time Magazine, and Folio. Martin lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA.

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