Dinosaurs rule, and science gets a showcase in new Johnson County museum

05/09/2014 3:54 PM

06/03/2014 5:20 PM

It’s hard to deny the attraction of dinosaurs.

That much is clear in the airy entry hall of the Museum at Prairiefire, which opens to the public on Monday. A skeletal replica of Tyrannosaurus rex, a pair of flying reptiles and big-screen animations of lumbering creatures, programmed by visiting kids, are among the visual stimulae in the space.

Given that Prairiefire is a new shopping center and mixed-use development still under construction in the southern heart of Johnson County, at 135th Street and Nall Avenue, you’d be forgiven if you thought you’d stepped into a T-Rex Cafe.

But the aim here is obviously higher than dining out amid the bones of extinct mammals (your granddad notwithstanding).

The museum, through the entrepreneurial effort of developer Fred Merrill, is an affiliate of the American Museum of Natural History in New York. And as such it has a serious mission of opening young minds to the wonders of science and to the intricate workings of the natural world. Last fall the museum showed a preview dinosaur exhibit in a temporary space nearby.

Now the $23 million Museum at Prairiefire is ready for action. There are interactive opportunities galore for younger children and informative, science-oriented exhibits, such as a wall-mounted series of photographs and scans revealing the inner structures of lizards and fish.

For the next couple of months, the centerpiece exhibit hall will feature a temporary traveling show from the virtual-parent museum, which focuses visitors’ attention on water — on the systematic operations of wetlands, rivers and oceans to the challenges of the future posed by industrial agriculture, global warming and other issues.

The exhibit takes an impressive global view of the subject, introducing viewers to such varied and far-flung places as Mono Lake in California to the Ganges River in India, the Oaxaca Valley in Mexico and the Cambodian home of giant catfish.

“It helps ground kids in the natural environment and at the same time opens their minds to the world at large and the broader fields of science,” the museum’s executive director, Uli Sailer Das, said of the global perspective Friday morning as I was wandering through the place.

Polar bears, sharks, penguins — some of the most child-friendly animals help tell complex stories of changing ecosystems and evolution. A projection system that illuminates various issues and trends on a hanging globe with changing views of the watery planet is fairly cool, too.

Walking through the winding exhibit reminded me of an experience I had a decade ago. In the midst of commemorating the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark’s transcontinental journey, I heard at least one historian describe their adventurous, scientific journey as satisfying a need to find out what’s around the next corner.

That’s the nature of curiosity, of course. With its arresting, almost garish facade of colorful glass and metal, the Museum at Prairiefire presents an unusual opportunity to fuel the imagination, especially of children, who are often more agile and less inhibited about leaping around the next corner and the one after that. As such the museum complements Science City at Union Station and the Natural History Museum at the University of Kansas in Lawrence.

At a time when it seems like science is under siege from so many intransigent corners, we can’t have enough institutions that assert the values of inquiry and “a new audacity of imagination,” as John Dewey once put it. And it’s admirable that a real estate developer found reason to incorporate such an educational mission into a high-styled shopping district.

Will the museum be the regional tourist magnet its promoters are touting? Beware projections of hundreds of thousands of annual visitors.

Still, from one dinosaur to a few others in the new place: Welcome to town.

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