ROCKINGHAM — Discovery Place KIDS is getting a makeover.
Representatives of the interactive science museum met with the Richmond County Board of Commissioners and Rockingham City Council on Tuesday to outline plans for new exhibits.
Tifferny White, head of learning for Discovery Place, said museums typically plan to make changes every five to seven years. However, the COVID pandemic has left them behind.
“It’s been almost 10 years, they’ve been coming, they’ve seen the same exhibits, now they want to see something new and different,” White said.
The process began with focus groups made up of educators, regular visitors and other community stakeholders, including local businesses.
The top three suggestions from these groups were to broaden the age range to middle school, connect the exhibits to the community, and refresh the exhibits by adding new elements.
Discovery Place Kids currently features an old Rockingham Fire Department fire truck and car service station with a Rockingham Speedway backdrop to connect with the community.
Museum director Angela Watkins said the design team traveled to Richmond County in January to get an idea of how to integrate the exhibits with local landmarks and industry.
The Gizmatron, currently on the ground floor, will be moved downstairs and incorporated into a quarry to reflect a regional industry.
“It’s familiar to people who live here and they can see what’s going on inside, what careers and jobs could be inside,” White said.
“We talk a lot about physics and STEM and a lot of other things, we also want to showcase careers that you don’t need to have a four-year degree for,” White said. “Because sometimes people won’t get a four-year degree, and they still want jobs that are productive and allow them to have a comfortable life, so the career would highlight those…not just the jobs that are there, but it would highlight what happens in a career.
So when they see and walk past one, they’ll know that’s what’s going on inside.
The Gizmatron will be replaced by physics exhibits featuring demonstrations of force in motion and simple machines, “things that are exciting and engaging, but teach the STEM concept in an easy-to-understand way,” White said.
“And for families to have a good time when they’re there, for teachers to connect with their curriculum at school.”
The moving force display featuring balls will be connected to what White calls a “Wow Exhibit,” which will include a climbing structure that even adults can participate in and feature interactive exhibits throughout.
There will also be a connecting exhibit on the ground floor that will allow visitors to engage with each other on both floors, according to White.
White also said there will be “flex spaces” that can be easily changed periodically.
“So when you come in January you see one thing and when you come back in April you’re going to see something completely different,” White said. “It allows us to age to college age and capture the attention of parents who might be there who might also be interested in that content.”
The museum’s ground floor climbing and water spaces will also be redesigned to reflect local natural landmarks Hitchcock Creek and Hinson Lake and will include a kayak and disc golf cart.
Discovery Place received seed funding from the Cole Foundation and the Richmond County Community Foundation to develop a concept for the new exhibits – from the original designer.
White said Discovery Place plans to install the new exhibits in time for the museum’s 10th anniversary in February 2023.
However, she added, it is not yet clear whether they will keep DPK open and make changes bit by bit or briefly close the museum and install everything at once. If left open, White said the installation would take longer.
The origin of Discovery Place dates back to a small natural science museum opened in Charlotte in 1947, followed by the Children’s Nature Museum in 1951, according to its website.
A planetarium was added in 1965 and it was renamed the Charlotte Nature Museum in the 1970s “(a) amid growing interest in hands-on science and technology education”.
The museum was moved to a 72,000 square foot facility in downtown Charlotte and opened as Discovery Place in 1981 and has expanded over the years, including adding an IMAX theater in 1991.
In 2010, Discovery Place reopened after a $31.6 million renovation and also opened its first Discovery Place Kids location 14 miles north in Huntersville.
Since DPK opened in 2013, city leaders said they have been asked by residents of several municipalities how Rockingham was able to secure the museum.
Former mayor and current councilman Steve Morris joked to people, “We’re lucky to have a rich uncle in Charlotte, he sends us money.”
Morris was referring to Brian Collier, the foundation’s executive vice president for the Carolinas.
Collier originally said Discovery Place was looking at other Charlotte suburbs like Pineville and Matthews.
“But Discovery Place made the decision because of the support of this community,” Collier said, adding that the Community Foundation of Richmond County and the Cole Foundation are committed to supporting the project “for the long term.”
The city council in September 2021 voted to extend the lease of the property for another five years. The initial 10-year lease was signed in 2011.
Under the agreement, the city is responsible for providing and paying for water and sewer, natural gas, electricity, and security services, while the museum pays for communications costs.
“It was a great community project,” said Gene McLaurin, who was mayor at the time of the deal and also attended both presentations.
“The community can continue to be proud to have the museum.”
A MODEL MUSEUM
“This museum is special,” said White, adding that it was a model museum in the field.
“A lot of times we bring people here to Rockingham…and they decide if they want a special place like this in their community based on what’s here,” White said.
White said the original DPK designer recently called on a group that had visited 30 other museums across the country to find out what it takes to open and operate one.
“They made the decision to go ahead and have a museum there in their community and they said Rockingham was the best they had seen,” White said.
White attributes much of the museum’s success to Watkins and former director Katie Herndon Dawkins, who was at the helm for the first eight years.
“They love this place, they love this community, and it shows in the work they do every day,” White said.
Watkins took over in May 2021 after retiring as an educator of more than 30 years with Richmond County Schools. Most, if not all, of the staff are from Richmond County and are former, current or future teachers, she said.
Councilor Denise Sullivan said DPK is “a gem” in the community, attracting visitors from across the region and the country.
“We get a lot of people from out of state who come to the beach,” Watkins said.
DPK attendance has rebounded since reopening following the COVID pandemic – exceeding expected numbers, according to Watkins.
The museum has a drop-in program for people on government assistance in North or South Carolina, allowing them to visit at a reduced cost of $2 per person.
Last July, 1,000 visitors used the Welcome program, 10% more than the previous year.
Watkins said a large number of visitors to the Sandhills and Pee Dee area come from Aberdeen, second only to Rockingham, based on postcode data.
So far, since the start of the new fiscal year in July, there have been 512 guests from Moore County. Watkins credits the regional visit to advertising on billboards and in Pine Straw Magazine.