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Inside the Science Center

October 21, 2005
By JEFFREY B. COHEN, The Hartford Courant

A Place for Space
(PDF, one page)

Take a flying-saucer-looking thing with a center-mounted rotor and adjustable blades, power it up, and see how it soars.

Tour the Milky Way from a seat in a 3-D, wrap-around galaxy flying machine.

Or make it personal, exploring cells, chromosomes, and genetic signatures as you compare your tongue-rolling ability, hair color, and ear-lobe attachment status with others.

Today, officials will hold a groundbreaking for the 144,000-square-foot, $149.5 million Connecticut Center for Science and Exploration at Adriaen's Landing. An international competition ended last year with the selection of a futuristic, sweeping design by New Haven-based architect Cesar Pelli.

Now, with the building slated to open in 2008, museum officials are turning their attention to the critical question of what the museum will look like inside.

The central theme is fairly simple: experience. Visitors to the museum are not only going to see science or read about science, said Theodore S. Sergi, president of the center. They're going to do science.

"You can't be there and be passive, you've got to be active," Sergi said. "Because when you go and do something active, you remember it more."

The center's board in April hired an exhibit design team made up of two companies, Thinc Design of New York, and Jeff Kennedy Associates of Boston. Today the center's board will consider an "exhibit concept plan" to shape a visitor's experience.

"Concept design," said Jeff Kennedy,"is the most difficult part, because you have to narrow from huge areas of science down to a few, well-chosen opportunities for engagement."

The plan begins with the notion that science is both constantly relevant to everyday life - and constantly changing.

The center's four largest galleries would be devoted to earth science, space science, physical science, and human health. Other galleries would have the themes of art, music and culture; Connecticut inventions; Connecticut River Valley; clean energy; and sports science. There would also be a children's gallery.

As work continues, the names may change, but the concepts won't, Kennedy said. After the designers were hired earlier this year, the conceptual plan evolved based on input from over 100 people, including scientists, educators, engineers and science students from two area schools.

"People come because they're curious, and we're really trying to satiate that," Kennedy said.

One key element of the plan is to make sure the exhibits touch everyone, regardless of age or scientific sophistication. The challenge, Kennedy said, is to keep adults and science-literate kids interested, but also appeal to those less interested in science.

"Hitting that tipping point is exceedingly tricky," he said. Some exhibits will have "program modes" that add levels of complexity to them, but much is left to be designed, he said.

Another way to ensure interest is to root the exhibits in personal experiences - inviting visitors to mount and ride a stationary version of the bike used by cyclist Lance Armstrong, for example, in order to compare the rider's heart rate and lung capacity with that of the champion.

Another display might ask visitors to manipulate wind blowers to try to suspend a lightweight ball in the air. A light and shadow art performance space would allow people to use light, shadows, and their own bodies to create an artistic experience.

The museum will also feature Science Alley, a "dramatic, soaring architectural space" that will run through the heart of the building. The alley - 40 feet at its widest, 130 feet at its tallest - is both a public thoroughfare and an entrance to the center's galleries.

The alley is expected to contain a solar-powered, interactive mobile - based on the original mobile invented by Connecticut artist Alexander Calder.

The designers have also thought about the best ways to keep the exhibits fresh. Four "current science mini-exhibitions," one in each of the four main galleries, would change annually. And working off visitor feedback, the center's popular components could be augmented and expanded upon.

Finally, the center could have one new "feature component" that changes each year in a visible location.

Should the board approve the conceptual plan at today's meeting, the designers will move into the next phase, further developing their ideas and finalizing plans. A private firm will do audience research surveys and seek feedback on the exhibit design.

"They have to go back now and do some real design for development for June," Sergi said. "They've done a lot of work in six months."

The museum's $149.5 million price tag is being funded with roughly $107 million in state funding. The remaining roughly $42 million will come from other sources.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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