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Riverfront Luminarium Serious about Making Science Accessible for all

January 29, 2023

Article originally published by the Omaha World Herald by author Henry J Cordes. View original article here(opens in a new tab).

Silva Raker shows off the stellated icosahedron structure above the Kiewit Luminarium’s front entrance, the tricky name of the unusual geometric shape rolling off her tongue as easily as the word cat.

The Luminarium CEO points to the windows offering vistas of the Missouri River, talking of how the science center’s riverfront location helps tell the story of why the city is here.

She imagines how patrons of all ages will interact with the many wow and gee-whiz exhibits being installed in advance of an April grand opening.

But nothing gets Raker more excited than explaining the Luminarium’s family membership structure, including free memberships for families from disadvantaged backgrounds. That, she said, is what will help make science and the wonder of discovery truly accessible for all in the community — one of the institution’s chief aims.

“The things we are doing in Omaha are really innovative, not only in content areas, but business model innovations,” Raker said. “And I think this is the best place in the world to do it.”

The Omaha philanthropists who first conceived of putting a science museum on Omaha’s riverfront said from the start they wanted to build a world-class facility — one that would not only serve as a major new city attraction, but also spark interest in science that could one day help the region fill essential jobs in science, technology and engineering fields.

Three months ahead of its scheduled opening, Raker and other staffers at the Luminarium last week offered a sneak peek into how that vision is taking shape inside the steely, silver building on the river at Lewis & Clark Landing.

A number of the attractions are already in place.

Visitors can pour water on a frozen glass pane and look through a magnifying glass to watch the beauty and symmetry of ice crystals forming.

They can release a drop of water into a cup and take by-the-millisecond photos of the wonderous water forms created by the splash.

They can sit in a chair surrounded by a concave dish and have a normal conversation with a person far across the room, as the dish helps amplify and direct the sound.

They can see how a ringing bell goes silent when the air surrounding it is removed to create a vacuum. Without air, there can be no sound.

The amenities of the museum are also taking shape.

There’s a restaurant on the main floor and an upstairs lounge area where a tired parent can take a break with a cup of coffee during a day of exploring with the kids.

That same lounge area could be used by adults enjoying a glass of wine on Thursday nights, when the museum will be open for special programs and community discussions catering to adults.

Based on membership interest, Raker initially expects visitors will need to obtain time-stamped entry tickets to gain admission to the facility, which can accommodate 2,000 to 3,000 visitors a day.

Located just south of the Bob Kerrey Pedestrian Bridge over the Missouri, the facility figures to be a new jewel on Omaha’s riverfront. It’s part of the wider, $400 million RiverFront park redevelopment that is already reshaping the city’s downtown.

Outside the Luminarium, the big orange climbing structures that are part of the park’s destination children’s playground are already in the ground.

“It’s going to be incredible,” said Rachel Jacobson, president of Heritage Omaha, the donor group that raised $107 million to build and launch the Luminarium.

Bringing a needed amenity to Omaha — at the perfect time

When looking at Omaha’s range of cultural attractions, from arenas to arts centers to museums and the zoo, a science museum has long been a gap on the landscape.

Most of the other major cities in the Midwest — Des Moines, Kansas City, Wichita, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Oklahoma City, Denver and Chicago — have long had science museums.

They are often referred to as “science centers” or “discovery centers” because their exhibits aren’t static, providing hands-on and interactive ways for visitors to explore science and technology.

“These are places that connect science and society and support lifelong science learning and science engagement,” said Christofer Nelson, president of the Association of Science and Technology Centers in Washington, D.C.

Five years ago, when the philanthropists behind The RiverFront park redevelopment project were considering the kinds of amenities they wanted to see, they pondered something that could draw people to the river all months of the year.

A science museum came into focus. Community leaders became particularly intrigued by how the museum could inspire children’s interest in science, math, engineering and technology, helping to fill a critical need for workers in those STEM fields.

Heritage Omaha, the influential Omaha philanthropy organization that has been behind dozens of major civic projects in Omaha over the past three decades, took on the project, agreeing to privately raise all the funding for it.

To help ensure that the Omaha center does rank with the country’s best, Heritage partnered with one of the nation’s premier science museums to develop the center’s exhibits and programming. San Francisco’s Exploratorium is routinely ranked among the world’s top handful of science museums.

That relationship also eventually brought the Luminarium its founding CEO.

Raker was part of the Exploratorium team working on the Luminarium project. From the start, Raker said she was impressed by the commitment in the city to create a science center that would be first-class, cutting-edge, engaging and accessible to everyone.

She decided she wanted to be a part of it. Steeped in both science and business, the enthusiastic Raker has now been working for the past year and a half with the museum’s board, staff and community advisory group to bring that vision to reality.

While Omaha has been a little late to join the science museum trend, Raker and others see the timing as perfect. The world has changed profoundly over the past three years.

The pandemic has accelerated the growing impact of technology in daily life. It’s created challenges in the education system, including a shortage of teachers. It exposed health disparities. And early in the pandemic, the murder of George Floyd sparked a national reckoning over race, historical discrimination and inequality.

The Exploratorium now has a chance to play a role in exploring and responding to those issues, Raker and others say.

“We are in a particular moment in time where you have an opportunity to do something that is really unique, because of the way the world is changing,” Jacobson said.

Raker sees Omaha, a mid-sized metro area of nearly 1 million, as the perfect place to work to make technology accessible to all. She said people are surprised when she tells them Omaha is actually more diverse than San Francisco.

It’s not just racial and economic diversity. Both cities have that. She says she sees that in Omaha whenever she visits the Kerrey bridge or the new Gene Leahy Mall, observing people from all walks of life.

But the Omaha region is also politically diverse, she said, both red and blue, and also combines both urban and rural in ways San Francisco and most other places don’t.

The Luminarium’s leaders in the end structured its membership program toward the goal of making technology available to all.

Given the wide variety of economic circumstances faced by people in the community, from the well-off, the middle class, those struggling to stay in the middle class, and others just trying to get by, Raker said, why would the museum offer just a single price to all?

As a result, the membership packages now available online feature a full family membership at $250 a year. But there’s also a discounted family membership available for $100, and it’s available to anyone. You don’t have to pass some kind of income test; you only have to indicate you need the discounted rate.

The museum is also working through community groups like the Latino Center of the Midlands and Girls Inc. to make thousands of family memberships available at no cost to families that are economically disadvantaged.

The new structure to date has proved to be a social experiment in itself. Many have chosen to pay the full $250, and some even take advantage of an opportunity to donate more.

So far, it appears the structure will generate both more memberships and more operating revenue than more traditional pricing structures, Raker said. She thinks it could become a model for all types of public museums around the country.

Raker said the Luminarium board’s embrace of the structure also shows the willingness to tackle issues like economic disparity and the challenge of preparing everyone for the high-tech jobs of tomorrow.

“We’re interested in these bigger questions and challenges,” she said. “We’re doing some things that are very, very different.”

Raker also sees an opportunity for the museum to increase understanding among people with diverse personal stories and backgrounds.

One of Raker’s favorite exhibits in the museum is called “What Load Do You Carry?” In it, visitors take a basket and answer a series of questions.

Is English your second language?
Are you left-handed?
Do you face a chronic illness? Or a learning disability?

For each answer, there’s a colored beanbag of a certain weight associated with it.

After answering all the questions, people will be able to compare the weight of their basket with others. That can increase understanding of the weight people carry in their daily lives, she said, and spark conversations about breaking down barriers.

That exhibit is just one of dozens currently being installed within the 82,000-square-foot museum, about the size of 1½ football fields.

There are four sections of the museum: one devoted to physical science and natural phenomena; one focusing on the built environment, including engineering; one that uniquely combines biology and social sciences; and one focused on math and geometry.

Technology runs through them all, and there should be something to appeal to everyone, said Thomas Rockwell, who helped design the exhibits on behalf of the Exploratorium. People will walk away wanting to explore more, he said.

“A good science center is a gateway drug to science learning,” he said.

Many exhibits reflect the unique history and culture of Omaha and the region. That includes an exhibit on potholes, how they form as part of the freeze-thaw cycle, and how they are fixed — reflecting a local issue Raker has heard a lot about.

Another exhibit exploring the science of clothing materials features clothing designs created by students at Omaha’s South High School, which has a fashion design magnet program.

There are also numerous exhibits that combine both art and science. That’s certainly true of the stellated icosahedron, a colorful and spiky geometric structure visitors can climb through as part of a “geometric playground.”

Raker also sees it as one of several locations likely to become popular selfie spots in the museum.

Raker is equally interested in how the museum works functionally.

Many science museums are set up in repurposed buildings. The Exploratorium is on a pier in San Francisco bay. But the Luminarium is purpose built, enabling its creators to choose the most functional layout.

Just inside the front doors is a welcome area that includes an education room, a staging area for the many school and youth field trips the museum expects to host.

One of the biggest frustrations for visitors at any interactive museum is attractions that are on the fritz. In partnership with Metropolitan Community College, the Luminarium features a repair shop where exhibits can be fixed or tuned up and quickly returned to the floor.

In Raker’s vision, that same shop is also where a development team will one day create future exhibits that after debuting in Omaha would be sent out as traveling exhibits to other science museums around the country.

It’s another example of the Luminarium’s world-class ambitions.

“Operationally, all parts of it work together,” Raker said. “It’s a dream come true.”