For those who spent their formative years in Palm Beach County, chances are the South Florida Science Museum has been checked off the childhood educational bucket list. A staple of the school fieldtrip and summer camp circuit for more than a half-century, little had changed at an otherwise unremarkable building on the southern edge of West Palm Beach’s Dreher Park. But recently, the museum underwent a transformation that is set to be unveiled June 7 with a ceremonial ribbon cutting, which the public is invited to attend and experience the new center free of charge from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
What started as a response to Sputnik in 1959, the South Florida Science Museum has blossomed into the newly minted and expanded South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, marking a new beginning for a West Palm Beach landmark.
The yearlong construction project and expansion—50 years in the making—was more akin to a metamorphosis: In went the South Florida Science Museum, a 20,000 square-foot science center, and out came the South Florida Science Center and Aquarium, complete with an additional 6,500 square feet of new space and 6,500 square feet of renovated space. The new and rehabilitated science center includes a 6,000-square-foot traveling exhibit hall, the 3,000 square-foot Florida Exhibit Gallery (which incorporates the 8,000-gallon Aquariums of the Atlantic) and the room-sized globe in Science on a Sphere. This equates to more than $1.3 million in museum exhibits alone, which was part of a $5 million capital campaign and the first meaningful change to the organization’s facility since 1969.
“We wanted to do a number of things,” says Lewis “Lew” Crampton, president and CEO of the newly minted South Florida Science Center and Aquarium. “First, we wanted to refresh our whole public offering.”
This is an understatement. Essentially, half the museum is new or renovated—and with that, new exhibits. The goal behind the expansion and renovation, as Crampton puts it, “is to be one of the top, best-in-class, community-based science center in the country.” And that started with the name. The switch from South Florida Science Museum, a brand 50 years in the making, was not an easy decision, but the new name aligns with the vision of the center, according to Crampton.
“We see ourselves as a place where people come to do science as opposed to come and look at science,” he says. “We’re high-tech and high-touch.”
While maintaining the original mission of “opening every mind to science,” SFSCA pairs the exhibits everyone has come to know and love with new hands-on, interactive stations and learning opportunities.
“For many years, we lived in a museum that had very little curb appeal,” Crampton says. “It didn’t look all that attractive—like it didn’t have much going for it on the outside, but on the inside, it was a different story. People love this place; they deserve a great science center, and we aim to bring that.”
The museum's exterior received a full facelift with a large steel architectural structure that towers over the new entrance and speaks to Crampton’s want for curb appeal. On the interior, changes are much more drastic. The entrance has shifted east. Gone are the days of the narrow, dark hallway and subway-esque ticket windows; in is a dynamic new lobby, complete with an updated circular welcome desk, a full-fledged gift shop, a glinting saltwater aquarium and a viewing area overlooking the new Traveling Exhibit Gallery.
The new gallery, the bridge between the existing west wing of the center and the new east wing, is a huge boon for the area. This space, about 6,000 square feet, allows the center to bring in the top major traveling exhibits in the country, something that was simply out of the question in this part of the state until now. Exhibits like Titanic (expected in the fall), Bodies and Savage Ancient Seas—currently on display—now have a home in Palm Beach County, expanding the center’s appeal.
“We are moving out of a nice place to take the family and kids and broadening our audience to include adults—still the kids, but adults, too, because of the quality of our exhibits,” Crampton says.
Immediately off the traveling gallery space sits the unique Science on a Sphere. Designed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the suspended six-foot globe dominates a darkened alcove where four high-resolution projectors cast Earth, the sun, Jupiter, videos and more in an interactive, highly interpretive display. Tapping into NOAA and NASA satellites and datasets, more than 520 programs have been developed, depicting real-time weather, historical weather events like the 2004 Atlantic hurricane season, the migration patterns of monarch butterflies, views of our planetary neighbors and even educational videos and documentaries about the deep sea or deep space. Just 94 of these exhibits exist worldwide, with only three in Florida—making SFSCA’s, which was backed by the Quantum Foundation of West Palm Beach, a unique learning experience.
With more than 500 programs stemming from NOAA and NASA satellites and datasets, Science on a Sphere is the ultimate planetary and extra-planetary learning device.
“The sphere slices and dices science so it's accessible to people,” Crampton says as he calls up the daily flight paths of planes from airports around the world for a group of students on a field trip. As the animation turns, depicting sunrise and sunset, red streaks representing flight paths crossing the globe begin appearing. The children stare in rapt attention; the exhibit clicks for these kids—no older than 8. The interest was genuine, an example of the center’s mission in action.
The Florida Exhibit Gallery
Immediately off Science on a Sphere sits the coup de grâce of the expansion, the Florida Exhibit Gallery. All encompassing, the Florida gallery shines the spotlight on the natural wonder of the state as well as some of the burgeoning scientists in the community. The Student Science Showcase is dedicated to presenting the best and brightest by featuring some of the Florida’s most outstanding school science projects, while the Conservation Research Station puts the guests to work at an adapted learning laboratory, focusing on conservation efforts and aspects in Florida.
Connected to this lies the Hidden World of the Everglades, a two-part interactive Everglades exhibit with an indoor diorama and interpretive kiosk. Soon to come is an outdoor exhibit with the flora and fauna native to the River of Grass, water quality testing experiments and examples of conservation efforts. The emphasis with the Hidden World of the Everglades is to give visitors an idea of the historical changes the Everglades have undergone, from before colonial times to today, where the great wetlands have been marginalized and segmented. In the end, the kiosk looks into the future with a depiction of what the Everglades should look like in 20 years after the Central Everglades Restoration Project process is completed.
The River of Grass exhibit features the history and future of the Everglades, from its importance as an ecosystem and watershed, to the creatures that call it home.
“We have a very strong sense of environmental issues here and have been working closely with the Marshall Foundation and others to ensure the quality of the exhibit is precise,” says Crampton, who was once associate administrator with the EPA before beginning his second career in the nonprofit world. Tying directly to the Everglades exhibit is a live account of some of the aquatic species found in the River of Grass in the newly formed aquariums.
The Aquariums of the Atlantic is an eye-opener. Quadrupling in size to 3,000 square feet—“the size of a regulation NBA basketball court,” Crampton points out—the 8,000-gallon aquarium is the largest and most comprehensive fresh and saltwater complex between Orlando and Miami. More than 90 species will be on display in 14 different tanks, each representing a distinct underwater region in our immediate area—“from depths off our coast to our local canal system and into the Everglades,” Crampton says.
Created by Living Color Enterprises—the same folks on Nat Geo Wild’s Fish Tank Kings and the creators of the Marlins Park tanks, the aquariums at MacArthur Beach State Park and the River Center in Jupiter, among many more—the SFSCA tanks target the immediate area, each depicting a different aspect of the marine ecosystems.
Going from 800 to 3,000 square feet, the Aquariums of the Atlantic includes more than 90 different species “from depths off our coast to our local canal system and into the Everglades,” Crampton says.
“There is plenty of eye candy here,” Crampton boasts, including two 7-foot-tall cylindrical tanks: One is home to a school of silvery saltwater lookdown fish, while the other hosts a freshwater ecosystem. The coral reef tank dubbed the Rainforest of the Seas—Our Coral Reef gives visitors a unique perspective with a 360-degree pop-up view port underneath and “inside” the tank. To access, kids and adults have to climb below the tank, where a secret compartments leads to a viewing port.
For a real hands-on experience, the Marine-Life Touch Aquarium allows visitors to handle some of South Florida’s most interesting sea creatures. Mimicking the shallows around and about mangroves and seagrass meadows, the tanks highlight the individual ecosystems and their interconnectivity, their importance and the threats constantly hacking away at these rooty and grassy worlds. There is even a tank designed to raise awareness about the growing threat of invasive species that are rapidly impacting the waters, like lionfish, scorpion fish, snakehead fish and pacu. The largest and most dynamic tank is dedicated to artificial reefs. The 40-foot-long Shipwreck Cove houses nurse sharks, barracuda, eels, grouper and other reef fish and runs nearly the length of the aquarium exhibit.
The freshwater tanks are as equally interesting. Tanks with turtles and baby alligators are sure to need a daily account of Windex as children press their faces to the acrylic and peer in at the ancient reptiles. As part of the center’s ongoing mission to be more hands-on, the Undersea Learning Laboratory takes classes on a more detailed understanding of the sea life in the tanks. Adjacent to the pump and filtration room for the aquariums, the laboratory will have acclimation tanks and tanks open for species from the ponds and canals immediately outside the center’s facility in Dreher Park. This allows instructors to show the immediacy of nature and how the slightest of actions can affect the ecosystem.
All of this adds to the existing facility, a wing filled with brainteasers, hands-on activities and learning stations, the Dekelboum Planetarium and the only public observatory in Palm Beach County. Before the unveiling of the expansion, SFSM was the second-busiest science center in the nation for its size, hosting more than 125,000 visitors annually, not including the more than 40,000 school children who visit on field trips.
“Attendance was already strong, so just imagine what will happen when we open this new wing,” Crampton says.
The SFSCA is chock-full of hands-on science centers and brainteasers.
The hope is to increase attendance and continue with the capital campaign in order to finish the center's vision: to fully update and renovate the facility and install a state-of-the-art science trail outside. These initiatives will allow the center to tap directly into the nature to help explain the science behind it and the key to conservation and preservation.
“We want to get people excited about science,” Crampton says. “The kids are really open, the school district is excellent, coordinated and a great partner, and this is just the beginning. We hope everyone will come and join us here, to have fun and be part of the solution.
"The mission is education first and foremost, but mixing in entertainment is a great way of getting the message across. And with this new face for the new place, we have the capacity of being very prosperous.”