Inside the new Delaware Museum of Nature and ScienceJun 29, 2022 11:45AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
“Is it open yet?” Benjamin Parker, a 3½-year-old from Kennett Square, has been asking that a lot as he and his mother drove along Kennett Pike near Greenville. He was referring to the new Delaware Museum of Nature and Science, and in May, he and his family were among the first to experience the 17-month, $10.8 million renovation of the old natural history museum.
“It’s more interactive, kid-friendly, realistic and highly educational,” said his mother, Alysha Parker, who visited the museum weekly with her mother when she was growing up.
“It’s like the whole world is open,” said Alysha’s mother, Carolyn Isakoff, also of Kennett.
The museum’s major wings focus on Delaware-area and iconic global ecosystems, with exhibits to touch and manipulate, live animals to observe, taxidermied and preserved creatures to look at, lifelike replicas (though decidedly dead for fossils) to inspire, tunnels to go through, drawers to open, videos to watch and ambient sounds and evocative lighting to teleport visitors to these environments.
The Discovery Gallery in the museum’s core showcases short-term, hands-on exhibits, with the opening material from the museum, the Delaware Mineralogical Society, First State Robotics and the University of Delaware’s Center for Applied Coastal Research.
“We want people to explore,” Cathy Perrotto, the museum’s public engagement manager, said in an interview from the Discovery Gallery. “We don’t give them the answer.”
Can visitors match the mineral to the refined product? Can they recognize the classic six simple machines in a modern and complex robotic hand? “It’s very hands-on,” Perrotto said, noting it’s geared to ages 8 and above – including adults with childlike curiosities.
What visitors will see, feel and hear
Visitor Ari Wiebke, a 15-year-old from Hockessin, interviewed while generating waves in a Discovery Gallery tank, said the creatures preserved in jars were her favorite features. “It was fascinating to learn about the process to preserve them,” she said.
“I’m most excited about introducing people to animals and environments that they may have never seen before – tiny snails in a local cypress swamp, deep-sea squat lobsters or even a capybara in the rainforest!” said Liz Shea, the museum’s director of collections and curator of mollusks.
“We’ve completely shed that dusty, old museum perception,” Executive Director Halsey Spruance said in a statement. “Our focus is on what we know about nature and science, why it matters to us and what we can do to protect the environment.”
The museum was founded in 1957 and opened in 1972. The building is 72,000 square feet, with 27,000 square feet for exhibits and the same amount for research. The rest is for operations.
Some favorites have been retained, including the giant squid suspended over entrance (now chasing a school of orange roughy) and the walk-over hallway coral reef (with repainted features and enhanced with wall and floor murals). The reef, which generated the most questions about its future, has a unexpected use in training service dogs to gain confidence walking over transparent flooring.
The rethink is sensitive to visitors with varying needs, including access for those in wheelchairs, a quiet nook for nursing mothers and those facing sensory overload, closed captioning for people with hearing issues and layered text for different reading levels.
The details behind the scenes
The project also included work on lighting, sound, heating, cooling, fire suppression, paving and restrooms. Space has been made for sandwiches, wraps and other refreshments from Jamestown Catering. Outdoors, work has focused on recovery from the 2021 tornado.
Renovations involved experts near and far. A whale skull was prepared by Whales and Nails, of Maine. Dixon Studios of Arizona made the landscapes, based on samples of dirt, leaves and other items that museum staffers gathered from across Delaware. At-Mar Glass of Kennett Square hand-blew 23 customized glass jars for specimens. Kubik-Maltbie of South Jersey fabricated exhibits. JacobsWyper of Philadelphia was the architect, and Bancroft Construction of Wilmington the general contractor.
On opening weekend, New Castle County Executive Matt Meyer said he planned to propose a $500,000 grant for the museum. “We have some federal resources to address some of the inequities that we’ve seen in the past couple of years,” TownSquareDelaware reported him saying. “We share the vision of the leadership of this museum to see that the people going into this museum look like the people of our county look like.”
Throughout the museum, visitors should now look down (there’s an impressively large floor map of Delaware), at different levels of exhibits (can you find the bottle cap befouling the beach?) and up (one ginormous ceiling-mounted addition is the skull of a whale that beached in Kent County in 2017). They should not, however, climb the trees. It is OK to feel the bark and try to spot the half-hidden creatures.
Museum staffers will monitor visitor interest as they develop activities, and there are plans to create audio tours, probably via visitors’ smartphones.
“They have great family events,” said Tina Nuse of Unionville, who is sending daughter Samantha to summer camp there for the first time this year.
And dinosaurs, of course
The Regional Journey Gallery features five local ecosystems, plus space for interactivity. A “you are here” sign points out the museums sits on what was a deciduous forest.
In the other wing, the PaleoZone goes back millions of years to when Delaware was underwater, featuring the fearsome dryptosaurus, the flying “bat lizard” nyctosaur and the aquatic giant mosasaur.
Dryptosaurus, thanks to work from students at Shue-Medill Middle and Rep. Paul Baumbach, was nominated as Delaware’s official dinosaur. Bones from only two types of dinosaurs have been found in Delaware: dryptosaurus and what is most likely a hadrosaurus that’s New Jersey’s state dinosaur.
The Global Journey Gallery highlights the Arctic tundra, the African savanna and the tropical rainforest. Three more areas cover the ocean: shallows, midwater and deep sea.
“On the global side, I think the deep-sea dive into the Atlantic canyons will be popular,” said Shea. “It’s an immersive experience that uses real footage and real specimens to explore the ocean. On the Delaware side, I’m excited that we have a whole exhibit about the red knot and how important it is for them to feed on horseshoe crab eggs in the Delaware Bay.”
Three interactive touring exhibitions have been booked, starting in 2023. They are “Be the Astronaut,” originally set for 2020; “Mindbender Mansion,” brainteasers from the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry; and “Permian Monsters: Life Before the Dinosaurs.”
In the entrance to the Discovery Gallery, there’s a prominent quote from DuPont Co. chemist Stephanie Kwolek: “All sorts of things can happen when you’re open to new ideas.”
The Delaware Museum of Nature and Science is open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. daily. Admission is $12.95 for ages 3 and up, $3.95 for ages 1-2 and free under 1, with a $1 discount for tickets purchased in advance online. Admission is free for museum members. For the first year, members of Delaware Art Museum, Hagley, Mt. Cuba, Tyler Arboretum and Winterthur also receive free general admission. Details: https://delmns.org.