words: Marla Cantrell
images:Saidee Holmes and courtesy Mid-America Science Museum
It is one of those perfect spring days. A breeze is rippling through treetops, the high will reach the mid-seventies by mid afternoon, and it seems as if every family within a hundred-mile radius has decided to take advantage of this perfect weather. The streets in downtown Hot Springs are flooded with tourists, many of whom are gathered at the town’s fountain where you can bring your own containers and take home all the spring water you want. This place was built on the popularity of the springs – there are
forty-seven of them – churning out a million gallons of water every day.
But the springs aren’t the only attraction. Just six and a half miles away is the newly renovated Mid-America Science Museum. It’s been less than two months since the museum reopened after a $7.8 million dollar renovation, thanks to a grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation. It is the state’s biggest hands-on science center and its first Smithsonian affiliate.
Children are rushing along the pathway, tugging at their parents’ hands, ready to get inside. There are more than 100 exhibits awaiting them (seventy-five are brand new), and everything in the museum is interactive. It’s the equivalent of a super-smart theme park without the long lines.
One of the first exhibits you’ll see is a peanut fountain, the only one around. There’s a clear cylinder in the center, through which air is circulating foam peanuts in a continuous column, then dropping them onto the surrounding area, which looks like a small trampoline. Kids are up to their elbows in foam peanuts, tossing them up and watching them fall.
The Rain and Terrain exhibit is in another area, and it’s stunning. There, kids are sculpting mountains and rivers and dams with a special material that shifts easily across the wide table. There are lights above that make it appear as if the rivers are flowing, and if you hold your hands over a mountaintop, it looks like it is snowing.
Not far away, kids are sitting on wooden seats, using their own strength to hoist themselves up several feet by using a rope and pulley system. In another area, they’re stepping onto a platform where wind swirls around them, mimicking the effects of a blustery storm. Farther away, they are climbing on a yellow sculpture that looks like a series of giant Cheez-Its® that have been twisted into odd shapes. Everywhere you look, kids are happy. Some are so caught up in what they’re doing that they don’t seem to notice anyone else around. Others are calling out to their friends, telling them to come see what they’ve found. Age doesn’t seem to be a factor. There are kids exploring who look to be two or three, and others who are clearly teenagers.
Drawing tons of attention is the giant water tower, Fluid Motion, that’s two stories high. Crowds are gathered both on the top floor and down below. In each area there are activities galore. But the favorite by far seems to be the area where you can launch colorful plastic balls into a water vortex. While the kids are playing, they’re also learning the Bernoulli effect, which is the principle showing the same forces that keep the balls flying along the column of water also allows birds and planes to fly across the sky.
The place to have your picture taken on this day seems to be in front of the Mastodon skeleton, which looms large in the cavernous space. Kids are posing and parents are snapping photos.
And there aren’t only exhibits. There are rooms where kids are working with battery power to make working lights, and animation studios where kids are creating videos. Outside, the museum continues with the Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk. There’s a treehouse pavilion high off the ground with telescopes so you can look around at the creek and the squirrels and the wildflowers of Arkansas. There is what looks like a giant woven potholder, where kids are lying down, sitting in groups, and even walking gingerly across it. The rope bridges are drawing tons of interest as kids walk one foot in front of the other along this swaying, narrow pathway. There’s even a musical bench that’s causing lines to form, since every kid seems to want to try this grand experiment of making music.
Another addition is the Oaklawn Foundation Digital Dome Theater, which seats up to fifty people, has state of the art surround sound and a 180-degree screen for viewing the night sky, as well as other special space exploration programming.
So much of the museum is new, but they did keep the tried-and-true exhibits Mid-America is known for. The Tesla Coil, which can produce 1.5 million volts of electricity, is still here. The Underground Arkansas Cave is still on site, and dozens of pairs of shoes are lined up outside the entrance as the kids inside find their way through, crawling, going down slides and across bridges, seeing what life is like in the belly of the earth. Even the Rowland Emmett’s sculpture The Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine (that appeared in the children’s classic movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) is in its prominent place.
A group of schoolchildren is ambling about. They stop at the Rock Crusher. This teaches kids about erosion, and it looks a lot like the machines at discount stores that urge you to put in a quarter and try to pick up a stuffed toy with a tiny crane. Here, though, there is a weight on a chain you can control with a lever, and down below are rocks you are trying to break apart. A blond boy works the lever, biting his lip, intent on crushing these stones to dust.
The only downside of the visit is having to leave. There is so much to do and so many ways to learn. Even if you’ve spent time at Mid-America Science Museum in the past, you need to go again. It has been transformed by this renovation, and it can transform you as well. It’s the place where you go to have fun and come out a little brainier, and a whole lot happier.
Mid-America Science Museum
500 Mid-America Blvd. Hot Springs, AR 71913
501.767.3461 | midamericamuseum.org
Hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 9AM – 5PM | Sunday, 1-5PM
Adults: $10 | Kids 3-12: $8 | Under 2: Free