Wednesday, November 14, 2012 , Updated 12:00 p.m., November 30, 2012
Review: Perot Museum in Dallas is the quintessential 21st century museum
It has 11 exhibit halls, outdoor gardens, and lunch by Wolfgang Puck. It's a must-see.
DALLAS In the three years since its inception, the Perot Museum of Nature and Science has received plenty of hype as a world-class establishment founded on educational innovation and modern sustainability. When the doors swing open on December 1, patrons will witness rectitude to that designation.
The Perot Museum of Nature and Science, in short, is the quintessential 21st century museum. From the red carpet promenade leading to the entryway to the topmost floor of the building, the museum is full of interactive exhibits that engage all five senses. And while the former Museum of Nature and Science was geared toward a younger audience, the latest incarnation entertains adults as well as teaches (or reteaches) them something new.
“Think of the museum as your living room or dinner table where you have conversation,” said Nicole Small, Eugene McDermott chief executive officer of the museum, during a media conference in the 3D Hoglund Foundation Theater. “We want to start that conversation.”
Everything about the 180,000-square-foot contemporary building is intentional, according to lead architect Thom Mayne of Morphosis Architects, beginning with the fluid pattern of travel through all six floors. Museumgoers enter on the main lobby where the atrium, theater, gift shop, and café are located. From there they can take two escalators up to the fourth floor, including the protrusive one visible from Woodall Rogers Freeway. Taking this route will send attendees on a top-down spiral through enchanting history lessons, enticing science projects, and unbelievable technology demonstrations.
Minds first take flight on the fourth floor mezzanine (level 5 on the elevator) in the Rose Hall of Birds. Decorated with skeletons and life-like recreations of bird habitats, the Bird Hall aims to teach visitors about the species' relativity to dinosaurs by way of fun games and microscopes. Guests can fly above land and sea in a 3-dimensional attraction that uses motion censors to detect human movement and manifest it on screen: When you flap your arms, the bird flaps its wings.
Down one set of stairs is the T. Boone Pickens Life Then and Now Hall, which features a unique collection of dinosaur fossils including many found in Texas. The Tenontosaurus on display, for example, was discovered in Wise County, Texas, and was the world’s first dinosaur skeleton installation, according to Tony Fiorillo, curator of earth sciences. Another more egregious looking water creature was found in Lake Ray Hubbard, Fiorillo said.
The Expanding Universe Hall is the last exhibition on the fourth floor and the most didactic. A male voice narrates the creation of the universe as stars glimmer overhead. (And what do you know -- that's actor Owen Wilson's voice!) Visitors can physically test the weight of a bowling ball due to gravity on different planets and learn about star gazing opportunities in the local community. The demonstrations in this room are far superior to any science textbook, as students current and past can witness the glow of gamma rays, microwaves, X-rays, and UV-rays comparatively. The exhibit also features a spectrogram that refracts elements such as helium and neon to visually communicate the difference in makeup.
Level 3 of the Perot Nature and Science Museum roots feet back on the ground with the Tom Hunt Energy Hall, Lyda Hill Gems and Minerals Hall, and the Rees-Jones Foundation Dynamic Earth Hall. Interactivity again plays an instrumental role in educating on the subject of seismic waves and weather. Literally feel the ground shake on the earthquake simulator or warn locals of an impending tornado on a mock newscast before touching the cyclone simulator. Display cases house hundreds of sparkling gems, which can be learned about with the touch of an adjacent screen.
The Energy Hall in particular is extremely thorough, explaining to passersby how the global economy is fueled and the current techniques the world uses to extract energy. Named after Tom Hunt of the Texas oil dynasty, the exhibit describes in a balanced manner how energy consumption has grown over the last 10,000 years while listing renewable and nonrenewable resources. It does not, however, present the environmental conflicts of drilling for oil and natural gas or mining for coal.
“We decided to stick to the science in this hall,” Paul Bernhard, whose firm designed the level, explained in response to my speculation. “At the end of the exhibit there are [digital] forums where both the environmental and financial issues are fair game.”
Descending to the second floor of the museum, a world of biology, anatomy, robotics, music, and motion springs to life. One thing that architect Mayne said was crucial to the design of the Perot museum was transparency -- that way the interconnectivity of life sciences could be realized by contemplating them side by side. Level 2 achieves this by juxtaposing an anatomy walk-through and biology lab (complete with four custom experiments that break down DNA and bacteria structures) with a virtual hip-hop lesson and motion-censored artwork. Physics experiments buzz about while creative minds take to the recording studio to play with drum pads, keyboards, and audio-mixing software.
The building's numerous glass walls, living gardens, and solar panels effectively demonstrate this cohesion between urbanism and Earth; man and Mother Nature.
The last three exhibitions are located below the main floor — the Sports Hall, the Moody Family Children’s Museum, and Building the Building. Patrons can race Cowboys running back Felix Jones in a virtual competition that times a 50-foot sprint, or compare their baseball swing to the pros by way of video imaging. Head over to the Children’s Museum to see a miniature Dallas skyline flanked by hissing cockroaches and an outdoor sandbox. Lastly, explore how the Perot Museum came to fruition with video interviews and models. (This hall will change come May 2013 and serve as a traveling exhibition space.)
It was an incredible and rare journey to build a new museum, Mayne said. But he hardly felt the need to explain his reasons why.
“We communicate our words through our built environment,” he said to onlookers, “and it’s up to you to interpret it."
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