Museum offers fun, memories

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published July 25, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated July 24, 2013 at 2:57 p.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Brooke Ownbey, marketing and volunteer coordinator at the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs, fires up the museum’s massive Tesla coil.

As Casey Wylie shot water across the table, forming torrential rivers that cut through level plains, someone else built hills and mountains, diverting the water’s path. It was easy to see that Wylie, education programs coordinator for the Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs, was having a good time.

“I work in a fantastic place, and I get to play all day and help others play and learn about the world around us,” Wylie said. “I have the best job.”

Wylie stepped away from the erosion table on the museum’s lower floor, watching the museum fixture. The table is covered with ground walnut shells. As water pumps start rivers across the surface, bladders of air underneath can be pumped to make hills and rises that force the water along different paths.

“This is one of our oldest exhibits,” she said, “and it is still one of the most popular.”

The exhibit not only teaches how changes in the Earth’s surface and water erosion can carve out cliffs and cause rivers to twist around before creating a delta, but the exhibit also provides insight for both young people and adults who live either in the delta of east Arkansas or the Ozarks of the west, and anywhere in between.

Helping explain how things work, from electricity to rivers and even dinosaurs, has been the mission of the museum since it opened in 1979, dedicated by then-Gov. Bill Clinton. Equally important for the museum staff and directors is that visitors also have a lot of fun.

Arkansans and residents of nearby states have been doing just that at the museum for 44 years.

“I used to come here consistently four or five times a year with my parents,” said Wylie, a Hot Springs resident. “My parents used to [visit the museum] before I was born. They have always enjoyed this place. I have a lot of memories about coming here.”

Diane LaFollette, executive director of the museum since just after the first of the year, said she hears comments from visitors about their memories of visiting the museum.

“‘I first came with my dad,’ or ‘I was on a school trip.’ I hear it all the time,” she said. “I hear about the erosion table or the Tesla Coil, and then I tell them it’s in its own theater now, and it has more impact now. It’s awesome in the dark.”

The Tesla Coil is another of the more popular and well-remembered exhibitions in the museum — the experience of seeing the power of “caged lightning” as 1.5 million volts spark from the coil. It is contained with a 5,000-pound Faraday cage that protects visitors from discharges of the machine.

“It’s very loud,” said Brooke Ownbey, marketing and volunteer coordinator for the museum, before she turned the coil on.

The electricity sparked, and with a growl that grabbed everyone’s attention throughout the museum.

New exhibits also excite and even scare the museum’s visitors.

“I talked with a woman the

other day who had been to see

Dinosaurs,” said Noreen Kil-len, director of guest services

for the museum. “She said she was terrified at the exhibit,

but was so interested she stayed for hours.”

The exhibit features three-quarter-life-size models of Tyrannosaurus Tex, Stegosaurus, Triceratops and other dinosaurs, which move and roar in the setting of a dark prehistoric forest. They turn their heads, growl and roar, and seem to follow the visitors with their eyes, making it startling when some of the models step forward toward the aisle.

“We first set up the exhibit differently,” Wylie said. “We found that every once in a while, one of the dinosaurs seemed to be looking around the wall of the exhibit to our Tinkering Studio, and that was a little unsettling.”

She said the Tinkering Studio, an exhibit where visitors can make something with a TinkerToy construction set and other building toys, was moved upstairs, and the peeping dino was relegated to the back of the exhibit. The dinosaurs will be at the museum through Labor Day.

The Tinkering Studio will be center stage for Mid-America on Saturday for Tinker Fest.

“From 10 a.m. until 3 p.m., we will have 11 stations for kids to be creative,” Ownbey said. “We will be making billfolds and purses out of plastic bags by fusing the plastics. We will also have a 3-D printer, along with a chance to take an engine and a computer apart, and you can take some of the pieces from those things and make jewelery.”

Another popular exhibit this summer has been SkyCycle. A bicycle, held in place by a large counterweight, allows riders to test their nerves as they pedal over a bar less than 2 inches wide.

“We have found that people use it to build confidence,” Killen said. “We had a little boy who was a cancer patient who wanted to ride it. His father carried him up the stairs to the bike, and he made it across and rang the bell. It took a lot out of him, but he did it, and then the boy and his father took our slide tube down to the floor. It was great to see his face and his smile.”

Kellen said the exhibit has made memories for more than just the father and son.

“We all remember things like that,” she said, “when people go over and above their expectations, interacting with an exhibit. Any museum loves a story like this.”

In the fall, another dinosaur exhibition will be on display at the Mid-America Science Museum.

“It is from the Museum of Natural History in New York and is part of the Arkansas Discovery series, LaFollette said. “Again, it will move, but it will also show the science behind the models. It will offer science, history and technology and will be more interactive.”

The executive director said the exhibit is expected to be a hit with the many school groups that visit the museum during the school year.

Those school trips, or visits to the museum with grandparents, create memories for thousands of Arkansas children that will remain with them as they grow up, LaFollette said. That is the mission of the museum, to promote science and creative thinking, make memories and offer fun.

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or

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