New science museum to open on the ‘prairie’

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05/08/2014 9:33 PM

05/16/2014 2:29 PM

The peaks and shards of colored glass in the building’s facade conjure a fire on the prairie.

Which is intentional, as they announce to passers-by the arrival of the Museum at Prairefire, a new venue in southern Overland Park that will give Kansas City a portal to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.

The $28 million museum, which opens Monday, is the cultural centerpiece of a 60-acre residential and entertainment district called Prairiefire that is rapidly rising at 135th Street and Nall Avenue. A bowling and bocce bistro and a cutting edge movie theater are also opening.

The museum emphasizes the sciences and will feature changing exhibits as well as permanent attractions. Although the American Museum of Natural History disseminates content around the world, its relationship with the Museum at Prairiefire is said to be unique in its depth and continuity.

Developer Fred Merrill Jr. knew he wanted to have some kind of civic component for his planned mixed-use development. Seven years ago he placed a cold call to the American Museum of Natural History and struck a vein.

“I hit them at a time when they were looking to expand their brand,” Merrill said. “I said why don’t we build a museum at Prairiefire that will have a continuous display and why don’t we sign a long-term contract? They were checking us out and checking the area quite a bit and after a couple of years we came to an agreement. We were definitely trailblazing.”

The woman he first talked to at the museum, Uli Sailer Das, even agreed to come here to be executive director of the new venue.

Cultural attractions within retail districts are not as unusual as they once were.

“This kind of thing is something we’re seeing quite a bit of in the industry,” said Jesse Tron, a spokesman for the International Council of Shopping Centers. “The creation of experience-driven concepts within retail properties has become incredibly important.”

Other examples locally include the Sea Life aquarium and Legoland at Crown Center.

Tron said the Prairiefire partnership with the prestigious New York museum “sounds to me like a win,”

The natural history museum will produce two large exhibits a year. The first is called “Water: H2O = Life” and examines the relationship between fresh water and life on Earth through interactive displays, including a Science on a Sphere projection system. After a brief stay of just two months, it will be followed by “Mythic Creatures: Dragons, Unicorns and Mermaids.”

The traveling exhibit space uses about 8,000 of the total 42,000 square feet in the building designed by Boston-based Verner Johnson and Associates.

The Museum at Prairiefire will offer visitors, including school groups, three distinct experiences that can be grouped under a flexible admission system: the featured exhibit, a great hall and a Discovery Room.

The airy great hall is dominated by a 40-foot-long cast of a Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton that was unearthed in Montana in 1908 by Kansas native Barnum Brown. It is surrounded by fun facts about dinosaurs in paleontology and in popular culture.

A pair of flying reptiles that once lived in Kansas soar high overhead while an electronic attraction allows kids to customize their own extinct creatures, which then come to “life” on high-def screens.

The Discovery Room, on the second floor, is a larger version of one that has been successful at the American Museum of Natural History and uses its intellectual content. It is intended for children ages 3 through 12, accompanied by a caregiver, and is almost entirely composed of hands-on activities exploring paleontology, anthropology, biology, geology and astronomy.

Here kids can assemble dinosaur bones, hold live hissing cockroaches, look at things through a microscope and take a simulated flyover of the moon or Mars.

The arrangement gives Prairiefire a 300-mile exclusive zone for exhibits from the American Museum of Natural History. Sailer Das expects the Museum at Prairiefire to draw between 200,000 and 400,000 visitors a year.

“The local community is kind of the foothold,” she said, “but we really think we can bring in significant numbers of people from adjoining states that will come here for a weekend or a long weekend or a week and then also stay at hotels, visit restaurants and go shopping.”

The museum is a nonprofit organization whose construction was capitalized with $22 million in Kansas sales tax revenue (STAR) bonds. Membership sales, at $65 per person or $100 per family, have already reached about three quarters of the museum’s goal for the first year.

The Museum at Prairiefire is built adjacent to a wetlands, which has been preserved and will feature an interpretive walkway with signage written by Kansas State University professor Ted Cable. A patio lunch area looks out over the wetlands.

The museum will be available to rent for private parties, weddings and corporate events against the striking backdrop of dichroic glass, which can look and reflect yellow or red from one side but blue from the other.

“I think it gives the inside a little special atmosphere,” said Sailer Das.

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