Investigation Station Lifts Children’s Museum to New Heights

June 25, 2012

By Teya Vitu

Piece by piece, year by year, the Children’s Museum Tucson has emerged from its long adolescence into a children’s museum you might find in a bigger city with much bigger bucks.

Children jump up and down on the Pumper Seat to make a ball.

Executive Director Michael Luria has visited some 25 children’s museums across the country and, in his eyes, Tucson is starting to match up, particularly with its two newest exhibits.

“When you look at Bodyology or Investigation Station, these exhibits compare with children’s museums of far greater size and scale,” said Luria, who has been at the helm since November 2008. “We’re coming into our own age. We’re coming to our adulthood.”

That’s an adulthood 26 years in coming for a museum that opened in 1986.

Luria has put building blocks in place all four years on the job to get to the point where he could convince his board and donors to fund the $250,000 Investigation Station exhibit that opened May 10.

Investigation Station by far is the biggest and costliest exhibit ever staged by the Children’s Museum – so big in fact that it fills the space once occupied by Dino Canyon and its growling dinosaur and then some.

Investigation Station is a fun way to sneakily introduce the concepts of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to the three-to-12-year-old set. There are eight stations that introduce the color spectrum and sound waves, for starters.

Kids joyously jump up and down on the Pumper Seats, where a ball rises higher in a tube depending on the force of the child’s jumping.

And the wondrous element of unintended consequences is already in play. Sometimes the balls that levitate above the Bernoulli Blower end up inserted into the Air Works, which is designed to swiftly blow scarves and fuzzy balls through a series of transparent pipes rather than the harder balls.

Children assemble the roller coaster ball fall to create a path for a ball to travel.

Crack the Safe does not lend itself to mischief or a child’s innovation. You have to push either three or four buttons in the correct order to open a pair of safes. This introduces the concept of permutations without using that polysyllabic word.

“This is the most intellectual station,” said Kevin Mills, the museum’s director of exhibits. “This is a nine-year-old girl thing. They appreciate this.”

The transition from Dino Canyon to Investigation Station illustrates the shift to a hands-on philosophy for all museum exhibits.

“Dino Canyon was not interactive,” Mills said. “It would scare a kid for a few minutes and then they were out of here. The early surprise for me (with Investigation Station) is watching early childhood development and the importance of risk. Risk and play go hand in hand. For two- or three-year-olds the air blasting in their face (from Air Works) is really menacing.”

That fits right in with the Children’s Museum’s mantra to create an environment that is fun, family friendly and educational.

“They’re experiencing physics principles. It plants the seed that science is cool.” Mills said. “Exposing them to new environments is priceless.”

Luria can’t resist supplying a more juvenile thought.

“Where else can you go to find a nose you can stick your hand up and feel the boogers?” said Luria, himself the father of Kelsey, 15, and Max, 11, who were prime Children’s Museum ages when Luria joined its board in 2003.

The Bernoulli Blower suspends balls in mid-air.

Investigation Station is the culmination of Luria carefully setting the stage first before asking for $250,000. He started as small as possible with Pet Vet, a Fall 2009 unveiling that measures less than 200 square feet.

“You have to crawl before you can walk and you have to walk before you can run,” Luria said. “In the last three years, we have been slowly introducing new exhibits.”

He added Techtopia in Fall 2010 and the $170,000 Bodyology followed in November 2011.

“It was important for donors and prospective donors to see we have a vision and are capable of carrying out the vision,” Luria said. “The lynchpin was Cox Communications investing in the museum and Techtopia. They were the single largest donation in one shot we have gotten, but TEP has been our staunchest supporter over 20 years.”

Angel Charity for Children topped Cox’s undisclosed donation with $237,000 for Investigation Station. Winning an Angel Charity grant definitely signals the museum’s adulthood for Luria.

“The museum applied for Angel Charity grants 10 times before and never got out of the first round,” Luria said.

Museum attendance has grown 33.6 percent since 2008 from 95,204 visitors to 127,160 visitors in 2011. Similarly, Luria has won budget increases from $750,000 in fiscal 2009 to $1.3 million in fiscal 2012.

The standing sound wave uses Styrofoam pellets so children can “see” sound waves in action.

“My philosophy was as good a job as the museum did, there was a need, a desire, I would argue, an obligation for us to do more for children and the community,” Luria said. “That became the catalyst for the staff, for me and the board.”

Luria brought on a new director of exhibits soon after formally becoming executive director in April 2009.

Kevin Mills, a child at heart and soul, became the Children’s Museum’s director of exhibits in June 2009 after a stint as chief preparator at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

“I’m a Tucson native,” Mills said. “I did not care for the Scottsdale culture at all.”

Mills’ training is in industrial design, where his fellow alums are more likely designing hands-on public components such as turnstiles and vending machines. Telling them he gets to play in a children’s museum must stir jealousies at any industrial designer reunions he attends.

“They are jealous, absolutely,” he said. “I landed in the dream job.”

Another measure of adulthood for the Children’s Museum was turning to nationally known exhibit designers rather than relying on in-house tinkering to create exhibits.  Hands On! Inc. of St. Petersburg, Florida, supplied the Investigation Station exhibits, and previously designed exhibits for the Arizona Science Center, the Boston Children’s Museum and the Kidspace Children’s Museum in Pasadena.

Ganymede Design Group of  Phoenix created the Bodyology exhibit as well as exhibits at the Jim Click Hall of Champions at the University of Arizona, the Hoover Dam Visitor Center and several exhibits at the Heard Museum.

“This was the first time we used real exhibit design firms,” Luria said.

The results showed immediately upon Bodyology’s opening in November with attendance up 30 percent over he prior November. December had a 19 percent increase and January a 23 percent jump.

Now that Michael Luria has brought the Children’s Museum Tucson to adulthood, he knows this is just the starting point for its future. Luria is thinking, though not publicly talking, on a grand scale.

“We’re not done,” he said. “There’s still more to do.”