I am not going to add any more syrup to the extra-wonderful coverage of the Perot Museum of Nature and Science since its first weekend open. I will show what it was like to actually go, not to write about it, not preview it with cocktails and a media tour guide, not vent about it being overblown, but go – on opening day and up to your elbows in parents, kids, and grandparents.
I took the train from Fort Worth. It was an easy 50 min. ride and 10 min. walk from Victory Plaza to the museum off Field Street.
And as I was on the train headed back from Dallas around 5 in the evening (it stayed open till midnight and was a reasonably decent-to-maneuver-but-crowded scene all the way until close), I saw Santa at the Irving station in a parade. I looked at my phone for notes of the day. I read the phrases I had overheard and keyed describing the place: It’s kinda cool; badass man; just wonderful; I’m still here; Mom, let’s go this way.
Passing Santa on the train, I added to my list: Christmas morning with a bunch of strangers.
Overdrive. Overwhelming. Tornadoes of paper and an unwrapped million-things to do. No matter how you celebrate this gift-giving holiday, over-Americanized version or not, that was my personal connection to the chaos as I settled into my quiet train seat to relax my brain.
And whether it’s actually the presents that makes Christmas morning Christmas morning, or all of it taken as a whole, the lighted tree, the special foods, the family day with nothing to do but play – Christmas morning is about the magic of Santa coming, bringing a surprise. Dallas has been good this year it seems.
It’s a $185 million privately-funded museum with 11 exhibits in 180,000 square feet of space. Choose your field and explore for $15. The museum presents itself as a gift, a jagged concrete box jutting out of the freeway, a starting point for many a future child or adult to descend into with deep curiosity. And yes its politics and sociology and even quirky little things it includes does crowd out some of the hard core science.
You can read about it here in The Dallas Morning News or here in the New York Times. The Dallas Morning News did a 20-page special report last Sunday (available to pick up in the museum), including stories on the C.E.O. Nicole Small and Pritzker Prize-winning Los Angeles architect, Thom Mayne, who has said the building is inspired by layers of rock. In a skyline of relatively boring buildings, I’m glad it’s sticking it’s tongue out. Obviously in the love-it camp — I like brash architecture. It certainly sets the tone as you enter. You’re heart starts beating a bit faster. It communicates energy, and draws attention to possibility — not power — with every detail.
I mean come on. That’s not ugly folks. That’s whoa. What on earth?
Part of a rain recycling system
The first thing I did was see the 3D movie Sea Monsters. I saw a boy in about the 4th grade, with a red and black painted face mask, lash back and forth turning his head from every monster reaching out of the screen at him. On the same row in front of me a grandparent threw out his hands at the monster a few times. I was being way too serious I realized.
I needed food immediately so I ended up eating and wandering the grounds first. Growing up in Houston, I’ve been to the Houston Museum of Natural Science a few times and McDonalds is the only choice you have. This was chef-run cafeteria style. Though there’s plenty of fried food, they have seriously decent salad-by-the-ounce options to keep you healthy.
After the salad, I started in the basement. The stairs down played musical notes leading me to the children’s museum which is across from the educational rooms where I encountered this demonstration of how materials conduct heat differently. We also watched a ceramic disk levitate with the help of some dry ice. This is when I started to notice the adult/kid line blur – for everybody. Everywhere I went, parents asked more questions than the kiddos.
And then the Sports Hall and Motion Lab. Run against a cheetah, practice your kick against Roger Staubauch and see how your moves measure up to his on your own personal touch computer screen. I watched another boy about 9 years old see himself kicking beside Roger and I may have seen his career path solidifying before me. He was stunned seeing his form mirror the ideal before his very eyes. Look, I’m just like him, he said. I spent way more time in this hall than I thought I would and didn’t come close to seeing or doing it all. Yes. Glow. I’ll try not to get too sweet here.
The Inaugural Exhibit Hall show is “Building the Building.” Along with construction plans, and videos of workers talking about how they chose their careers – they all started with dreams begun in childhood, of course. Hint. Hint. Not so subtly.
I found this.
This kid is brilliant. I’m ready to go to the video game museum. Where is it now? When I was a teacher, Minecraft was the coolest video game for students to play when not working on assignments in my class. They even set me up an account and thought it was awesome I was playing. Oops. I just made them think I was. Of course I was grading through lunch and never really had time to play. There are schools teaching kids through video game classes instead of books. The future. On a post-it and misspelled.
Then another wall asked what one word would describe the museum:The thing about museums is that they are places of paradox, the gathering of so many assumptions leading to contradictions, and museums get the job of deciding which ones you will see and which ones you won’t. No duh. I don’t need a newspaper to tell me that. It’s a cycle you accept going in. Paradox is what inspires, i.e. Archer’s Paradox. Go in with your own assumptions and leave with them — boring. You can keep them or be challenged by the contradictions. It all depends on where you go – sort of like letting Google tunnel-vision our lives. You can head to the Tom Hunt Energy Hall about hydraulic fracking, learn a country tune in the line of School House Rock about urban drilling and ride the Shale Voyager to extract natural gas because you think it’s a bunch of lies and still learn something or you can go just underneath it one floor to the Texas Blackland Prairie and read quotes by John Graves about the Brazos River in the ’50s from a panel because you’re a civil engineer who builds dams — and get inspired to read Goodbye To a River. Or, like I did, you can do both and chuckle before lingering at whatever floor is established as your own chosen field of wonder.
I did not learn much about dinosaurs as a kid. Going into the exhibit room I really wanted to learn something. I loved seeing the real fossils (not just replica) of 9 Alamosaurus neck vertebrae found by a UT Dallas grad student in 2001 in Big Bend National Park just below the surface. The staff I listened to in this T. Boone Pickens Life Then and Now Hall were exhausted by the time I got to them around 4, but they were smiling and still continuously answering questions of kids and adults, including some of the most basic. One of those was mine. My dumb question was answered and was kindly led to better information by the staffer. I learned where the world’s most complete fossil discovery of a T-Rex was found. She’s called Sue, after the scientist who found it, Sue Hendrickson in western South Dakota in 1990. Ask. It isn’t dumb unless you don’t ask.
I wanted to be an astronaut, or an aerospace engineer as a kid. The Solar System 3D “tent” makes you feel like you’re on the moon.
The Bio Lab is small and was full of kids and I felt bad going in there as an adult. Maybe next time.
I somehow lost track of how many floors I’d seen and with only an hour left before I had to catch my train, I discovered the coolest of floors. Save time for level 2. It’s got the most interactive stuff to do with the Being Human Hall and Texas Instruments Engineering and Innovation Hall full of options. Here are adults, using their brain’s electrical signals to activate table tennis balls. Yeah, I told you it was Christmas morning.
And then I sat down to program a robot to do things, and it did them. I could have spent 30 minutes on that thing. It was cool.
The exhibits – all of them – grab at kids with leading questions of career path. The message may not hit the young as directly but it’s not at all subtle. From the moment parents are handed early childhood exhibit points as fliers at the door to seeing room after room surrounded by post-it notes and touch screen panels that get kids thinking directly where they fit in the greater world of discovery, it does feel a bit disorganizing in the attempt to point you in some direction — sort of like which toy are you going to play with first only this is much, much more lasting a thing to put your mind to. What are the possibilities I haven’t explored yet? What could I be?
That’s what I’m talking about. Invent that my little engineer cookie friend. The amount of things to see and do leave you stunned and a bit in need of white noise for your brain to find something that sticks. It’s a mental marathon of exhaustion if you let it be. And it leaves you thinking of the possibilities. For the old and the young, it is never too late to learn something new. “We all have a lot to learn,” said Margot Perot in a video of the building the building exhibit — the teacher behind the many key donors who came together to fund one great show.
So Christmas did come, and in this case I think the tangible — not just warm hand-holding feeling in your heart of togetherness — matters. As far as discovery goes, it does matter that school children for years to come will see, feel, hear, touch, and smell the tangible of science. And that does give a nice warm fuzzy feeling worth more than the $185 million it took to pull off.