The Wonder Of It All

February 12, 2004

Imagine you're a child again. Think of the perfect classroom: bright colors, lots of light, the freedom to walk around, touch and explore things, to ask questions and experiment -- a place where learning and enjoyment coexist.
In the new Harry and Anna Jeanes Discovery Center, the centerpiece of the Sue and Frank Mayborn Natural Science and Cultural History Museum Complex opening on Baylor's campus in May, that dream becomes reality. And you don't have to be a fun-loving kid to enjoy a visit, although being there might make you feel like one.
The Mayborn Museum Complex will be dedicated on May 14, but it "had been a dream of a lot of people for a long time," says Ellie Caston, museum director. Both Calvin Smith and Bryce Brown, former directors of the Strecker Museum, hoped that one day Strecker's collections might find a more spacious, prominent place on campus. As the interest in and demand for museums grew nationally in the '80s, Baylor's Strecker Museum remained behind the times. 
The decision to build the new facility was largely need-based, Caston says. "We wanted to not only serve Baylor but serve the community, and we couldn't do that where we were" -- located in the basement of the Sid Richardson Science Building. 
The large turnout at the groundbreaking for the $23 million facility in January 2001 underscored the widespread support the museum project has received from the Baylor and Waco communities. "It's my understanding that this project garnered more community support than any other Baylor project," Caston says. "Let's face it, people love to give to places that are going to preserve a community's heritage, make it available to people and inspire children to be excited about learning." 
The museum's location on University Parks Drive, just off Interstate 35 and within two hours' driving time of Dallas/Fort Worth and Austin, makes it easily accessible to metropolitan populations. Baylor officials predict that more than 100,000 people will visit the museum annually. "It's going to be a tremendous asset," says Elizabeth Taylor, director of the Waco Convention and Visitors Bureau. "It has the potential to be an overnight, stand-alone attraction." She believes the hands-on learning approach and the creative presentation of exhibits will be the museum's sustaining draws. 
Entering the museum is a little like reading a choose-your-own adventure book -- the options are numerous, and each promises fun and excitement. Sarah Levine, the museum's marketing director, puts it another way: "We have fun all over the place!" Visitors walk into the impressive two-story Sue Mayborn Grand Rotunda, the hub for four arched hallways that lead to different exhibits. Straight ahead and underneath a giant relief map of Texas is the AT&T Orientation Station, where patrons can customize tours based on time and interests. The overall museum complex includes the Harry and Anna Jeanes Discovery Center, the Gov. Bill and Vara Daniel Historic Village and the Waco Mammoth Site. "We have so many things to choose from that you can put together your own experience. It's not up to me to say you have to start at A, then go to B," Caston says. "It doesn't matter if you skip things. It doesn't hurt your visit at all. We want people to choose." wonder.
Inside the main building, worlds of discovery and wonder await in the colorful Anna and Harry Jeanes Discovery Center. It features five divisions: the Natural History Exhibits (the former Strecker Museum), the Discovery Rooms (the former Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center), the SBC Theater, the Thomas E. and Emilyne Weed Anding Traveling Exhibitions Gallery and the History of Baylor University Exhibit. The building also houses Baylor's Department of Museum Studies academic division.
The Natural History Exhibits will house favorites from the former Strecker Museum such as the tree-slice timeline and the humpback whale skull. The exhibits focus on the natural history of Central Texas, in particular the story of Waco at the crossroads. Visitors can participate in many hands-on activities including four exploration stations on geology, natural history, paleontology, and history and archaeology. There are three walk-through dioramas, including a cave, forest and an exhibit about the Waco Mammoth Site. In a cultural history exhibit, visitors can explore constructions of the four distinct types of housing found in Central Texas in the early 1800s -- a teepee, a rock house, a Waco Indian grass house and a log cabin.
The Discovery Rooms are 17 interactive exhibits on topics such as Native Americans, optics and invertebrates and vertebrates. Highlights include a television and weather studio and a health room with a giant heart model. Then there is Mrs. Moen's Neighborhood, a complete toddler-scale town through which children can drive pedal cars. Favorite exhibits such as the bubble room from the former Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center also will be available.
The 178-seat SBC Theater will feature a short film about the museum complex, Baylor and the Waco community. It also will serve as a stage for educational films, lectures and symposia. 
The History of Baylor University Exhibit will feature Baylor's past, changing displays on traditions and events and updates on cutting-edge University research and news. 
The 5,500-square-foot Thomas E. and Emilyne Weed Anding Traveling Exhibitions Gallery will host a number of exhibits such as Engineer It, Children Just Like Me and Dinosaurs Alive.
The participatory nature of the entire complex will engage children and adults. "People of all ages like to learn by doing. Hands-on education doesn't stop when you turn 12," Caston says.
Step out the side entrance of the Natural History Exhibits hall and you'll be strolling through the Gov. Bill and Vara Daniel Historic Village, an early 19th-century riverfront town that has been a popular tourist and educational attraction since it opened in 1991.
Research and preservation continue at the Waco Mammoth Site, so it is not yet open to the public. Located off-campus near the confluence of the Brazos and Bosque rivers, this excavation area discovered in 1978 holds the largest known concentration of a single herd of mammoths dying from the same event. To date, the remains of 24 animals have been discovered. Plans are being made to open this internationally recognized site to visitors in the future, Levine says.
The academic/administrative wing of the new building will be home to Baylor's Department of Museum Studies. It includes faculty and administrative offices, classrooms, curatorial offices and workstations, collections storage, maintenance areas, a library and a laboratory where students can learn to care properly for museum artifacts. Students also will use the museum as a lab, helping design and set up exhibits and leading tours. Baylor has 50 students enrolled in museum studies and is one of the only schools in the country to offer both undergraduate and graduate degrees in the field. "[Visitors] might be in an exhibit that's an experiment," Caston says. "One of our students may be watching [them] learn so that we'll know how to do better exhibits. It's a great learning laboratory for everybody involved."
Students in the School of Education also will benefit from the museum, meeting there for some classes and conducting others for visiting children to gain student teaching experience. The experiment room features a one-way mirror through which advisers can observe teaching technique. Additionally, education students provide ideas to enhance museum programming. "They've given us some great ideas," says Jill Barrow, the museum's director of education. "It's a mutual benefit."
Educators in Central Texas are encouraged to use the museum complex as a teaching resource because programs directly relate to Texas curriculum requirements. "We make sure that the programming we offer is for every grade level in both sciences and social studies," Barrow says. "We will change the educational aids in the Discovery exhibits monthly so there's always something new to learn." She adds that the educational programming is not just for schools -- civic and church groups and other children's organizations are encouraged to schedule visits.
Caston envisions many possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration among Baylor academic departments. "I would love for a student in a completely different field to come to the museum. I would love for faculty to want to do research ... and for people from the University to use our collections or the laboratory to study," she says. 
Barrow agrees: "This is Baylor's museum ... and we want [the campus community] to take advantage of this." For instance, she says, the science departments could help develop the center's butterfly house. 
The dedication of the Mayborn Museum Complex will coincide with spring commencement and the Board of Regents meeting. The grand opening for the public will be held on May 22. "We are going to have a series of celebrations to recognize the contributions of people. We have lots of donors, community people, volunteers, our students and Baylor people. We just can't do it all at once," Caston says.
The museum complex is the result of monetary donations and time commitments made by many benefactors, she says. Major donors include Sue Mayborn of The Frank W. & Sue Mayborn Foundation, Harry and Anna Jeanes, and Tom and Emilyne Anding. 
Major corporations that contributed include the SBC Foundation and AT&T Corp. A three-dimensional mosaic display featuring names of major donors to the museum will reflect the collaboration among the campus and the Central Texas community that made the museum complex possible, says Larry Smith, assistant vice president of development programs and gift planning. 
Volunteers have dedicated many hours to the development of the museum project and will continue to be a significant part of museum staff, says marketing director Levine. She predicts the museum complex will need 200 or more volunteers from the campus and community on an ongoing and rotating basis. "Every aspect of the museum will use volunteers," she says. "We couldn't do it without them."
The museum complex has the potential to attract all ages from all walks of life, Caston says. "There are certain museums that appeal to one age or another, and they get stereotyped. More families are doing museum experiences together, and you're going to have multilevel age groups within families. We have lots of topics, and they're presented in such a way that lots of age groups can enjoy them. I hate to say we have something for everyone, but we almost do."