Macon museum gives new life to Fort Discovery exhibits

rmanley@macon.comOctober 7, 2012 

The $1.2 million makeover of the Mark Smith Planetarium might be the eye-popping upgrade at the Museum of Arts and Science, but behind-the-scenes work going on now could have just as big of an impact on the museum’s mission.

Earlier this year, museum officials hauled five tractor-trailer loads of educational exhibits and materials from Augusta to donated warehouse space in downtown Macon. Little by little, staff members and volunteers are bringing the interactive displays to the museum’s shop and making minor repairs to get them into shape for show.

The dozens of displays, valued in excess of $1 million, were bought from the former Fort Discovery National Science Center for the bargain price of $25,000. A number of the items have been refurbished to create a new exhibit that opens Friday, “Sparks: Understanding Energy,” that officials hope could become the museum’s first traveling exhibit.

“We’ve never had a large exhibit that we could exchange for another,” said Susan Welsh, the museum’s executive director.

The exhibit and the other newly acquired interactive displays which could figure prominently in plans to renovate the three-story Discovery House “museum within the museum” are designed to make science, math and other fields of learning fun.

“Science and math are under-performing areas in our region,” Welsh said. “Those materials will help us enhance the science programming that we offer at the museum, but they will also help us expand our outreach programming where our curators go into the schools -- a field trip in the classroom. It’s a wonderful experience in between trips to the museum.”

Museum staff is rushing to ready the “Sparks” exhibit to coincide with Careers in Energy Week, which runs from Oct. 15-19. Its dozens of interactive displays will demonstrate various forms of energy: radiant, thermal and gravitational, mechanical, chemical and electrical. Other interactive displays will allow for measuring and generating electricity.

However, Welsh expects the crowd favorite will be the “Human Gyroscope,” a ride demonstrating gravitational energy.

The exhibit so far has attracted three corporate sponsors: Flint Energy EMC and Southern River EMC, both of which have foundations, and Macon Power, an electrical contractor.

New energy at museum

“Sparks” is not the only energy around the museum. The overhauled planetarium, which reopened in March, has helped boost attendance by 70 percent.

Its 44-foot dome is the third-largest in Georgia. Its star projector -- the technology in the dome -- is just one of the three of that quality in North America, Welsh said.

The interior was completely gutted and rebuilt, The results, Welsh said, are “extraordinary.”

“It is absolutely state of the art. We’re thrilled with the programming we’re now able to offer in the planetarium. We have new educational shows for all age groups. We run two daily shows and grade-specific shows for organized field trips every day.”

Museum officials now hope to enhance the planetarium’s educational offerings with entertainment.

“For example,” said Welsh, “adding laser show programs. That would require a laser show projector.”

The renovation was Phase 1 of work tied to a $1.85 million capital campaign. Now the museum will turn its attention to revamping the Discovery House.

Phase 2 will be partial renovation of the three-story education museum.

“We’re raising the money that will be needed to accomplish that,” Welsh said.

And they’ll no doubt be dusting off and fixing up some of the educational displays from Fort Discovery for use in the Discovery House.

“They’re old, from the late 1990s, but they’re good quality,” Welsh said.

To contact writer Rodney Manley, call 744-4623.

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