A family outing at the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery may include a planetarium show, a science program, a visit with the meerkats and imaginative play in the newly renovated pizza kitchen.
But no matter how much time you spend in the galleries, you’re seeing only a tiny portion of the museum’s treasures. Stored behind-the-scenes are 1.8 million objects that make up institution’s permanent collection.
In celebration of the museum’s 125-year-old roots, a new exhibit entitled “Explorers” opens this weekend. In addition to honoring some of the key donors who’ve made the local collection possible, it features more than 100 items from around the globe. Housed in the 4,000-square-foot Main Exhibition Hall, the show will run through August.
“Our museum started as part of the Dayton Public Library,” explains Jill Krieg-Accrocco, curator of anthropology and exhibitions, who has been with the museum since 2007 and came up with the idea for the new exhibit. “It was a result of prominent Dayton citizens going on trips or being in the service and bringing back items they wanted to share with the community. A public trust was developed to house those items.”
The Explorers exhibit will introduce visitors to five of the prominent donors who’ve been responsible for much of the extensive collection. After learning more about each individual, visitors will move into the galleries to explore the geographic regions where each donor discovered treasures and view items each brought back to the museum. The designated areas focus on Virginia Kettering’s gifts from Japan, J. Morton Howell’s from Egypt and Herbert Spencer Dickey’s from Ecuador. A.L. Corey collected Native American objects from Plains; George Gungle , who traveled to the Philippines, is responsible for contributing a set of Samurai armor, one of the first objects donated to the museum.
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Kids can pick up a passport to have stamped as they visit each area. They can step inside a Native American tepee and an ancient Egypt replica tomb, chart their way to the Philippines to learn about sailing and navigation techniques or try their hand at traditional basket-weaving. They’ll feel the difference between leather and rawhide, run through a Japanese bamboo forest and build a model of a pyramid.
Nesier, the museum’s mummy, is prominently displayed. “We really want to feature her because she’s always been so popular” says Krieg-Accrocco. “One of the stories we’re telling is how our museum came to have Nesier. Because Egypt is a desert, the preservation is astounding. We don’t have that level of preservation in Ohio.”
How museums have changed
There have been some dramatic changes since that Dayton museum first opened in 1893. At the time, it was basically a room full of objects with minimal interpretation. “As museums progressed, you started to see a lot more written texts and labels,” explains Krieg-Accrocco. “The modern museum has to have a level of interactivity to hold people’s attention. I always say you gotta tell ‘em, tell ‘em again and then let them do it!”
It's vital, she says, to introduce children to science when they're young. "It's amazing when you watch really young kids at the museum and see what they are able to do," she says. "We strive to engage at every age level — from zero to 105. Even infants who can't crawl can still take in experiences around them — the visuals, the bright colors. Museums today need to be tactile and interactive. If people tell you something, you kinda get it. But if you actually do it you'll learn a lot easier."
The early days
According to Nancy Horlacher, Dayton Metro Library’s local-history librarian, when the library’s Public Museum officially opened on the evening of Sept. 15, 1893, it showed off flora, fauna, rocks, minerals and prehistoric relics. “At the time it was a national trend for public libraries to house museums in their buildings,” says Horlacher. “The Dayton Public Library was the only larger public library in Ohio to follow this trend.”
In 1952, a group of citizens organized the Dayton Society of Natural History, which took responsibility for the collections and transformed them into the Dayton Museum of Natural History. The Ridge Avenue building was completed in 1958; a major expansion took place in 1990.
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Mark Meister — who officially retired as president and CEO of the Dayton Museum of Natural History on Dec. 31 — led the museum since 2000 and has witnessed a lot of changes in his industry over the years.
“When the Dayton Museum of Natural History opened in 1958, it was a typical museum of its type for the time,” he says. “The exhibits were primarily static, but the museum always had ‘hands-on’ education programs allowing children to delve into the natural world through exploration on the museum grounds, including river study in the Stillwater River. This exploration was expanded by utilization of the museum collections.
In those days, says Meister, children and teenagers cared for the zoo animals in the Animal Fair, and made their own telescopes in the Astronomy Department. He says the museum’s summer camps were tremendously popular. “We have photos of the long lines of parents at the museum’s old Ridge Avenue entrance waiting to register their children for these programs.”
In the 1970s and 1980s, two new types of museums were receiving national attention: science centers and children’s museums. In 1996, the Dayton Society of Natural History merged with the Dayton Children’s Museum which had been providing “hands-on” “play as learning” programs at schools and community centers in the region.
In 1998 the museum reopened as the Dayton Museum of Discovery and as a result of philanthropist Oscar Boonshoft’s major gift, The Dayton Museum of Discovery became the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery in 1999.
Expanding its scope
“When I arrived in January of 2000, the new Education wing of the museum had just opened,” says Meister. “In addition to the classrooms it included a 4,500-square-foot changing exhibition gallery so we could bring in traveling exhibitions from science centers, children’s museums and private exhibition companies to supplement the museum’s permanent exhibits. Because the Boonshoft is also an accredited zoo, it was able to host traveling exhibitions with live animals.”
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In 2012, the Caryl D. Philips Space Theater was the first planetarium in the world with the Digistar 4 full-dome system and Christie Mirage 3-D projector. In 2009 the BMD became the only museum in Ohio with a Science on a Sphere installation.
If you’ve been to the museum recently, you know that the permanent exhibits are in the process of being revamped. The grocery store, for example, no longer “sells” carrots and potatoes; it has morphed into a Shape Shop where young children can fill their shopping baskets with various colors and shapes. The new vet clinic allows children to dress up like a veterinarian, pick an animal that’s in the Discovery Zoo and care for it. Plans call for a new space devoted to ancient Egypt.
Meister says studies indicate that children who have experienced this type of “free choice” learning in a science museum are more likely to choose the educational direction that will lead them to a STEM career than students who do not have these types of experiences.
Krieg-Accrocco says a focus of the new “Explorers” exhibit is to acknowledge the opportunities that are available at the museum. “A lot of people don’t realize the depth of the collection we have here and the recognition of cultures from around the world.” she concludes. “We want to get back to our core mission of bringing back some of the natural history. 2018 is going to be a great year for us!”
WANT TO GO?
What: "Explorers!," an exhibition marking the 125th anniversary of the Dayton Society of Natural History
Where: Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, 2600 DeWeese Parkway
When: Hours are 9 a.m. – 5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, and noon- 5 p.m. p.m. on Sunday. Through Aug. 26.
Tickets: Admission is $14.50 for adults, $12.50 for seniors (60+), and $11.50 for children (3-17). Children under 3 and members are free.
For more information: (937) 275-7431 or at www.boonshoftMuseum.org.
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