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Construction Starts on Kiewit Luminarium

November 17, 2020

Omaha World Herald article from November 17, 2020 can be read here

Construction has begun on Omaha’s new $101 million riverfront science center, which now has a name: Kiewit Luminarium.

Luminarium appears to be rooted in the word illuminate, and that’s just what community leaders hope the new science center will do: shine light on subjects like science, technology, engineering and math, and perhaps inspire the next generation of STEM workers in Omaha.

“The wonder that comes from a name like that is the kind of wonder we’re trying to inspire in this place,” said Trent Demulling, an executive at Omaha’s Kiewit construction company who is chairing the board of the new nonprofit that will build and operate the center.

The ground-breaking ceremony for Omaha’s privately funded science museum — set to open at Lewis & Clark Landing in 2023 — was scheduled to be held on Monday. But concerns over the state’s fast-rising coronavirus numbers led organizers to call off the ceremony.

Instead, they provided new information on the project, including its name and details on some of its signature exhibits.

Among the attractions of the new center will be a “geometric climber,” in which visitors will be able to learn about the art and symmetry of geometry by walking and climbing through a two-story exhibit.

There will be another two-story exhibit space devoted to the science of materials, where visitors will explore the weight, strength and other qualities of materials used for construction and other purposes.

David G. Brown, president and CEO of the Greater Omaha Chamber of Commerce, said the new center “solidifies Greater Omaha as a world-class region.”

Renderings from Omaha architecture firm HDR show a sizable glassy structure on city parkland at Lewis & Clark Landing, with views of downtown, the Missouri River and the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge.

The museum will be in the area of the long-defunct Rick’s Café Boatyard restaurant. It’s north of Interstate 480, east of the CHI Health Center arena and south of the National Park Service’s Midwest region headquarters and the Kerrey bridge.

The center is an addition to the ongoing $300 million revitalization of the city’s downtown and riverfront parks, $250 million of which is being funded by private donors. The museum brings the total value of the riverfront facelift to over $400 million, with nearly 90% of those dollars from the private sector.

All money for the center is being raised by Heritage Services, the influential philanthropy organization that has been behind numerous major civic projects in Omaha over the past three decades.

From the time the project was announced last summer, it was known that Kiewit would be part of the new science center’s name. The Omaha-based construction company, which builds major projects all over the world, is making a “very significant” donation for the Kiewit Luminarium, said Rachel Jacobson, president of Heritage Services.

In addition, numerous Kiewit executives and several charitable foundations with Kiewit ties are making sizable donations for the project, including Omaha’s Peter Kiewit Foundation, the family foundation of former Kiewit Chairman Walter Scott Jr. and the family foundation of current Kiewit Chairman Bruce Grewcock.

Grewcock called the center one of the best investments the community can make to ensure a diverse and inclusive workforce for the city’s future.

“We hope that Kiewit Luminarium opens the door to STEM learning for those who may not think science or engineering is for them,” he said.

Kiewit is also serving as the construction contractor for the project, and that work has already begun.

The site has been cleared, and Monday marked the start of driving test pilings for the building’s foundation. Depending on the weather, Demulling said, it’s hoped all the pilings for the 82,000-square-foot center — about the total area of 1½ football fields — can be driven by the spring.

Plans call for construction to be completed by late 2022, with exhibits then installed for a planned April 2023 grand opening.

To help ensure that the Omaha center ranks with the nation’s best science museums, Heritage has partnered with San Francisco’s Exploratorium, one of the nation’s premier science museums, to develop the exhibits and programming.

Demulling said in planning the new center, he’s visited the Exploratorium half a dozen times. And each time he’s been on a guided tour, he said, by the end, some tour participants would be missing because they became fascinated by an exhibit and stayed behind to explore it.

“It’s just very engaging,” he said.

Tom Rockwell, creative director for the Exploratorium, said work on the Omaha exhibits is well underway. When completed, he said, visitors will explore the museum through four hands-on theme areas dedicated to:

  • Building self and community. Exhibits on the body and its cells, as well as social science and human behavior.
  • Building the world. Structures, infrastructures, landscapes, design, construction and engineering.
  • Building knowledge. Physical phenomena such as light, motion, energy, sound and electricity.
  • Making it count. Math, numbers and geometry.

Rockwell said the latter theme area will be home to the geometric climber. That hands-on exhibit will include “geometric manipulables” and puzzles for visitors to solve.

The math section will also include a nationally unique exhibit on money, monetary systems and financial literacy.

The signature exhibit on materials, called “The Grid,” will be in the “building the world” theme area.

It will explore everything from brick and concrete to modern composite materials engineered to be lightweight and strong. Visitors will have opportunities to test the weight, strength, hardness and other qualities of materials.

“It’s kind of like a tower of material science,” Rockwell said of the two-story exhibit. Rockwell said the Exploratorium is thrilled to be part of the Omaha project, which is among the largest around the world that the San Francisco center has ever consulted on.

“We are deeply inspired by the city, the region, and its history,” he said. “We believe this innovative new center will push the boundaries of joyful, experiential science learning as well as inclusive community engagement.”