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Mid-America museum a hands-on experience

By JACK SCHNEDLER SPECIAL TO THE DEMOCRAT-GAZETTE

This article was published January 9, 2014 at 2:41 a.m.

Visitors to Hot Springs’ Mid-America Science Museum experiment with the facility’s Sand Pendulum.

HOT SPRINGS - There’s action aplenty at Mid-America Science Museum on a winter weekend afternoon.

In contrast to old-fashioned museums, hardly anything here is embalmed behind glass in exhibit cases. Instead, youngsters as well as teenagers and grown-ups are pressing buttons and pulling levers to make things happen at more than 100 hands-on exhibits.

At the Sand Pendulum, a boy and two girls create wavy patterns by releasing the device’s plumb bob from different locations. On the Erosion Table, a brother and sister vigorously pump water to create hills and rivers. In the Shadow Trapper Room, a green wall captures ghostly midair images of visitors jumping at just the right time.

A lesson in gravitational force is learned by stepping on a scale that converts a person’s weight on Earth to its equivalent on the sun - a staggering 28 times greater. A recently installed Tinkering Studio lets visitors build a contraption of egg cartons, cardboard tubes and other discards that will fly in the provided wind tubes.

For more adventurous -and agile - museum goers, the Underground Arkansas Cave offers a climb-through experience that involves rope bridges, slides, tunnels and dim lighting. A sign warns: “This exhibit is not for everyone. You must be able to crawl through a 36-inch tube.”

Another display, a toilet bowl labeled “A Sip of Faith,” asks visitors to put aside preconceptions. As its sign explains, “This exhibit challenges your mind to separate what you believe this common bathroom object is normally used for from what it is here: a drinking fountain.” For those still wary, there’s this note: “Rest assured the fixture is brand new and has never been used for any other purpose.”

The 57,000-square-foot museum operates with an ambitious statement of purpose: “to stimulate a lifelong interest in science, spark curiosity, reshape attitudes and stir the imagination. Our goal is informal science education that encourages learning in ways not ordinarily found in the classroom.”

Visitors this winter can enjoy a temporary exhibit, “Dinosaur Discoveries: Ancient Fossils, New Ideas,” organized by New York’s American Museum of Natural History. Its seven interactive stations aim to furnish “a journey into the exciting world of modern paleontology” made possible by advanced technology that “allows scientists to look at these fossils in fresh ways.”

Fans of the Jurassic Park movies may be disillusioned by a display titled “It’s Not So Easy Being Big,” which debunks the notion that a Tyrannosaurus Rex could have chased down a motorized vehicle. If the exhibit is to be believed, a creature as immense as a T-Rex probably had a top running speed that barely could top 10 miles per hour except for very short distances.

A couple of impressive objects just inside the museum entrance are not meant to be touched or toyed with. One is a life-size replica of a mastodon skeleton, evoking the elephant precursors that roamed much of North America, including Arkansas, in prehistoric times. The other is a dazzling chunk of Arkansas quartz crystal weighing 500 pounds.

Opened to the public in 1979, Mid-America Science Museum was owned until 2001by the Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism, which then deeded it to the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. In 2001, it also became the state’s first Smithsonian Affiliate, linked to the famous complex in Washington.

This summer, the museum will undertake a major renovation financed by a $7.8 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. The project will add a digital domed theater, a sky walk into the surrounding 21-acre forest canopy and an Inventors Workshop Gallery with six hands-on areas.

The site will close next fall for about six months as work proceeds. Meanwhile, the Underground Arkansas Cave and the other active exhibits await the intrepid among us.

Mid-America Science Museum, 500 Mid-America Blvd., Hot Springs, is open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday in the winter. Admission is $10 for adults, $7 for visitors 65 and older along with youngsters 3-12 and members of the military. Call (501) 767-3461 or visit MidAmericaMuseum.org.

Weekend, Pages 36 on 01/09/2014

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