Over the electric sizzle of the Tesla coil, the giddy giggles of children thumping down the 24-foot-tall spiral slide and the intense conversation of two adolescents poring over chest-high chess pieces, the shrill roar of a dinosaur reverberates through Science Museum Oklahoma.
“When you move, it moves, too,” said Colin FitzSimons, the new chairman of the museum's board of trustees, while watching the animatronic Deinonychus tilt its head and open its toothy jaw in a simulated shriek inside the new “Red Dirt Dinos” exhibit.
Like the interactive reptiles, Science Museum Oklahoma is making big moves. Following an evolution that began nearly a decade ago and saved the venerable Oklahoma City institution from extinction, the museum is continuing to adapt, with substantial changes coming in the new year.
“It's just amazing. I mean, I can remember when if a grenade went off in there, you didn't have to worry about anybody getting hurt,” Jim Farris, the board's past chairman, said with a wry smile after watching visitors explore the museum's ground floor on a recent weekday. “It's an off day, but you can see how crowded it was and how many kids were going through out there. It makes it all worthwhile when you see that.”
Farris likens the museum to a geode, with an ordinary exterior that conceals an array of wonders.
“We're very fortunate that when John Kirkpatrick sort of started the idea for this place that he had a terrific vision. And what that vision and Mr. Kirkpatrick did was give us this building that's fantastic for what we need to do. … The outside just looks like a rock, but when you crack it open, there's all kinds of neat things inside,” said Farris, who in November wrapped a crucial eight-year tenure as the museum's board president.
“The museum has basically transformed itself into a destination point for people that want to come here. The problem is when you look at the outside, it doesn't draw people in. And what we want to do is come up with a new design so that people might drive by and say, ‘I wonder what that is. I'd like to go see that.' Right now we kind of look like an Atlas Van Line storage room.”
A year ago, the museum announced it was getting a $12 million grant from the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation to help fund a new exterior and entrance, parking lot improvements and a new children's hall. Construction will begin this summer, and the $21 million project is expected to be finished in late spring 2015.
The museum is amid a capital campaign that has raised $5 million for the overhaul, with the goal of bringing in $4 million more.
“Science Museum Oklahoma is kind of new to being on the capital campaign trail, so to speak, but we're getting a great response from folks,” said FitzSimons, who anticipates the campaign will wrap up in spring. “People have this passion for the place.”
The board worked with Rand Elliott's architectural firm to develop plans for a space-agey new facade, safer and more convenient parking and a 21,000-square-foot hands-on children's exhibit. The Reynolds Children's Hall will measure larger than 95 percent of the freestanding children's museums in the country, said Don Otto, Science Museum Oklahoma president and CEO.