Eighty-five million years ago, while dinosaurs roamed the earth, Kansas was a shallow ocean, swarming with fanged sea monsters. Today, those toothy creatures can still be found in Overland Park.
Well, in a museum, at least.
The marine fossils are just a fraction of the fascinating artifacts showcased at the Museum at Prairiefire, an architecturally stunning facility quickly becoming an iconic landmark in Johnson County. The museum, which opened the summer of 2014, collaborates with New York City’s American Museum of Natural History to house traveling exhibitions.
It serves as the anchor for Prairiefire, a $400 million mixed-use development near 135th Street and Nall Avenue, which also features a Cinetopia, Pinstripes and REI.
In its first year and a half, the museum has produced impressive numbers. There are currently more than 3,000 members. More than 10,000 children have toured the museum through field trips.
For drivers zooming down 135th Street, the sharp-angled museum is a spectacular sight, with the building’s vibrant glass colors changing throughout the day.
Inspired by the sizzling red, orange and glowing blue hues of Kansas prairie fires, developer Fred Merrill, of Merrill Co., and Boston-based architect Verner Johnson Inc. took a unique approach to the building’s design by incorporating dichroic glass.
The material, developed by NASA, is a glass that undergoes color change with the help of different angles and thin film. It is an element popularized in art and jewelry.
At the Museum at Prairiefire, each pane of glass on the building was handcrafted individually. Secured between layers of lamented glass is a copper bronze film, which is thinner than a Post-it Note. At different angles and at different times of the day, the film produces a dynamic array of colors.
“It’s about using science and technology to create art,” said Jon Mansheim, the marketing manager for 3M, the Minnesota-based company that creates the dichroic film used for the museum. “This film brings the building to life, making it dynamic and colorful. We’re very proud of the way it turned out.”
Although the material is used in architecture around the globe, the Museum at Prairiefire was the first building in the United States to use it.
The building is also made out of natural Kansas limestone, featuring embedded fossils.
The museum’s partnership with the American Museum of Natural History, however, is what draws the crowds.
Two times a year, crews from the famous New York City institute arrive in Overland Park to unload an exhibit. The meticulous process usually takes four to six weeks.
Right now, the featured exhibit is “The Horse,” which will run through Jan. 24. It focuses on the evolution of horses and the animal’s cultural interactions throughout history.
The exhibit also introduces the museum’s latest way to help children, ages 4 to 12, engage in the learning process: interactive backpacks.
The backpacks contain free activities, including sketching and a beaded craft project, which are incorporated in different stations throughout the exhibit.
“A 4-year-old tends to run through an exhibit, if there’s nothing for them to do,” said Donna Deeds, museum president. “With the interactive backpack, kids learn scientific and historical information and have fun, while the adults can walk through each exhibit without feeling rushed. It’s a win-win.”
Outside the 7,000-square-foot exhibition space sits the museum’s Great Hall, which features free displays on Kansas natural history and dinosaurs.
A popular hands-on activity is a digital paleontology dig where users can also create and name their own dinosaur. The creature then pops up on a large screen in the lobby, interacting with patrons.
Another section of the Great Hall is dedicated to legendary fossil hunter Barnum Brown, a Kansas native who discovered the first documented remains of the Tyrannosaurus rex in the early 1900s.
An exact replica of his T-Rex discovery greets visitors by the main entrance.
Upstairs, in the Discovery Room, hands-on activities in anthropology, paleontology, geology, astronomy and biology greet eager children.
On weekends, the vast room is bustling with elementary school-aged children excited to discover artifacts through microscopes, play an ancient game, or gawk at creepy insects and reptiles.
“The kids will gravitate towards the fields they’re interested in and it’s cool to see their unique learning styles,” said Trisha Roberts, discovery room manager. “It’s not very often they get to handle these type of artifacts up close.”
The interactive room is an important tool in engaging young students in science, technology, engineering and math — otherwise known as STEM.
“If you don’t capture kids’ attention in these subjects at an early age, they’ll use interest,” said Deeds. “We want to show kids that science is about discovering the unknown and solving problems. It’s much, much more than memorizing facts from a textbook.”
The museum also features formal lectures by nationally renowned scientists, movie nights, science classes for kids and adults, and hands-on workshops.
The Museum at Prairiefire is gaining momentum as a popular event space, too. Classrooms moonlight as birthday party and corporate meeting venues. The entire building is used for weddings and Christmas parties.
“Museums bring the world to the community,” Deeds said. “We’re providing a vehicle for culture and science that people wouldn’t get without traveling. We are so thrilled and excited it has become an important destination, not just for the Kansas City area, but for the region.”
Jennifer Bhargava: firstname.lastname@example.org
On the Web
For more information about the Museum at Prairiefire, visit museumatpf.org.