It seems there is as much art as science in running a historic natural science museum.
That is the challenge and joy that Adam Kane and his team of staff and volunteers are tackling at Fairbanks Museum.
The 117-year-old Main Street icon closed Jan. 2 for a three-week overhaul during which staff and volunteers are performing building maintenance and upgrades, cleaning existing displays and installing a number of new exhibits.
The last few years the museum has closed for several weeks in January, traditionally the slowest time of the year, said Kane, the museum’s executive director, and this year is no different. When the museum reopens on Jan. 20, Kane hopes the changes the museum staff and volunteers are making will strike the right balance between the museum’s traditional and historic displays and new exhibits that will entertain and educate new and repeat visitors alike.
The museum is investing a considerable amount of its space in a series of new hands-on, interactive exhibits. The new exhibits will occupy the south-west corner of the main floor that once housed the OmniGlobe and be named the Soucy Family Exploration Station after Peg and Phil Soucy, who grew up in St. Johnsbury and have made generous contributions to support the museum and the new exhibits, said Kane. Phil Soucy is also a member of the museum’s board of trustees.
The interactive exhibits will explore a variety of scientific topics and allow visitors to experiment and tinker with the different installations. One such display will feature a wind tunnel where people can create items and test them out in the device while another will allow people to observe the interaction of different colored lights. There will be an infrared camera and monitor for people to view themselves and a selection of varying items, exhibits on magnets and circuits, and an improved spin browser with new high-definition video, among other displays.
The new exhibits will also feature a spot for visitors to hear the weather forecast created by the museum’s Eye on the Sky weather team, see a real-time accounting of the museum’s energy use and production as well as an installation featuring a miniature, hand-operated heat pump and details on how the technology works. The last two reflect the museum’s ongoing commitment to transitioning to 100 percent renewables through its existing solar investments and future plans to heat the museum’s campus through a series of heat pumps, said Kane.
The new exhibits are a bit of a high-tech departure from the museum’s traditional display of pieces from Franklin Fairbanks’ collections.
“We are a historic museum but that doesn’t mean you need to be historic in everything you do,” said Kane.
Kane hopes the new exhibits will be evocative of the museum’s past Hall of Science that was once housed in the basement.
“We are trying to get back to a suite of exhibits that are more akin to that … those hands-on, aha moments of ‘Now I understand,’” said Kane.
While the most notable changes in the museum will be in the Exploration Station, the rest of the museum is getting a once-over as well.
Teams of volunteers have been spending the three-week closure to extensively clean the displays and introduce some elements from the museum’s collections that haven’t been seen in years, if ever.
“We don’t want to be a dusty, old museum … so we vacuum. We do a lot of vacuuming,” said Kane.
Along with the cleaning and improvements in lighting, the museum is also finishing work on phasing out the town history items that were on display upstairs. In that space will go new exhibits on turtles, birds and taxidermy, as well as information on William Everard Balch, who was a botanist, ornithologist, photographer and the museum’s original taxidermist. The museum has also put a pair of lions on the main floor that haven’t been seen by the public in nearly a decade, a choice popular with some of the volunteers working last week that were thrilled to see the return of the lions. According to Kane only about 50 percent of the museum’s collections are on display at any given point.
Kane said he and his team are striving to find the best use of the museum’s space and to strike a balance between maintaining the museum’s traditional displays and sense of nostalgia for longtime visitors while periodically introducing enough new elements to keep the experience fresh and engaging.
“That is the joy of the job,” said Kane. That’s the fun part.”
Other projects underway for the museum, which welcomes over 12,000 students a year through its doors, is to paint and replace the carpeting in its main classroom, as well as in its gift shop, where they will also install a new point of sale system.
Kane said the work is only possible through the dedicated efforts of the museum staff and many volunteers and encouraged anyone interested in helping the museum to reach out, as there is a year-round need for volunteer help. Kane also pointed out that residents of St. Johnsbury and the majority of surrounding towns get free admission to the museum because of their town’s support to the museum through annual town meeting appropriations.
Looking to the summer season, Kane said Fairbanks will host a visiting exhibit titled “Electricity” from the Franklin Institute that will consist of 16 interactive stations on the main floor.