E3 museum reopens with several new attractions
FARMINGTON – When she joined the staff of the E3 Children’s Museum & Science Center just north of downtown six years ago, education director Cherie Powell said she quickly learned to identify the source of every sound she heard originating from the exhibits floor.
When visitors to her office appeared startled by the beeps, bangs, booms, chimes or crashes they heard, Powell would just smile and tell them to relax, explaining the sound was a product of this hands-on exhibit or that one, and some local youngster was simply having his or her scientific or artistic horizons expanded a little — sometimes to an annoying degree.
But the museum, which is part of the city’s museums system, was closed for three weeks in late November and early December so its exhibits, gift shop and entry areas could be remodeled, and Powell said she’s facing a brave new sonic world in the months ahead.
“I’m excited I’m going to have a door to close,” she said, joking, on Dec. 18 as workers hurriedly completed the remodeling work in advance of the museum’s planned reopening the next day. “I know every sound in the building. Now, I’ve got lots of new sounds I’ll have to learn.”
While the exterior of the building remains the same, the public areas inside have undergone a major face lift, beginning with the entry, where a new desk will greet visitors. Alongside that is a revamped gift shop.
But the real focus of the project was a makeover of the exhibits area, where only a few holdover attractions remain. Families that are regular visitors to the museum are likely to be delighted with the changes — the first major alterations to the exhibits area since a traveling robotics display debuted four years ago, Powell said.
“Sure, we moved things around, switched things around,” she said of the ensuing time period. “But to really do new things? It’s been a long time.”
Farmington Museum Director Bart Wilsey, who oversees all the properties in the city’s museums system, said many of the ideas for the changes were derived from Explora, a children’s museum and science center in Albuquerque’s Old Town district. E3 formerly featured an open floor plan, but the addition of several walls as part of the renovation has allowed the museum staff to compartmentalize its exhibits.
“We have a sound area and an optical illusions area,” he said. “I think it’s fabulous. This has really just gotten us started. We’re already thinking about other ideas we can incorporate into that.”
Among the changes are a relocated and improved farming exhibit, a new microscope station with manual and digital microscopes, a new recycled art station where visitors can make projects from recycled materials, a changing exhibits area in the center of the space, a sound area featuring panels that light up and make different sounds when touched, a cutout upright piano that allows visitors to see how the instrument works, an optical illusions area that features an infinity mirror that hasn’t been on display for four years, and Powell’s favorite, a giant board based on the Lite-Brite children’s toy from the 1960s. Visitors are encouraged to plug colored plastic pegs into a large illuminated panel to create images or words.
Powell believes the changes have led to a warmer, more inviting atmosphere at the museum.
“It was a large open space, but it’s cozier now, and it’s filled with lots of attractions,” she said. “And people are guided through lots of settings.”
The changes were accomplished with surprisingly little money. Powell said the work was done by the city’s general services workers and two museum staff members, exhibits technician David Koonce and exhibits designer Kevin Ramler. She said Ramler, in particular, was invaluable when it came to bringing the new ideas to fruition.
Wilsey said workers were able to repurpose much of the equipment the museum already had as part of the changes, particularly in the aforementioned microscope station. He said a video kit and some cameras had to be purchased for a display and some storage had to be constructed, but he considered that investment a bargain.
“We got a pretty good interactive for about $600 and (the price of building) a cabinet,” he said.
Wilsey estimated the total expenditures for the work at between $3,000 and $5,000.
“It was pretty inexpensive,” he said. “We utilized a lot of exhibits we had never used before.”
The reopening of the museum on Dec. 19 drew approximately 100 visitors, and Powell said the new sound wall and Lite-Brite exhibits were as popular as she hoped they would be.
She said it was important to have the work done and the museum open again by the middle of December, when schools complete their fall semester and children begin their lengthy holiday break. A visit to the E3 can serve as a welcome respite for stressed parents, providing an entertaining but mentally stimulating activity for their children, Powell said. She added it’s also a nice place to bring out-of-town guests.
Jeffrey Richardson, the curator for the Farmington museums system, echoed that idea. He’s only been here three months after serving on the staff at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, but he considers the city’s museum’s system a jewel for a community of this size and was impressed at the efficiency of the E3 face lift operation.
“Coming from a private institution, it’s been interesting to see how a city comes together to work on this," he said.
The changes at the E3 are eye catching, he said.
“It incorporates new technology, both educational and fun things to do,” Richardson said. “Having seen E3 from what it was to what it is now, I think it really brings it to that next level of education.”
Powell welcomes Richardson’s presence and enthusiasm.
“He’s excited to do this,” she said. “It’s nice to have somebody coming in who is as excited about this place I am — and kind of knows how to do this stuff. I’m primarily an educator, so it’s nice to have somebody here who knows how to do certain things with exhibits.”
For the past few years, the E3 has attracted nearly 28,000 visitors or students for its programming each year. Since the new fiscal year that began in July, Powell said the museum already had drawn approximately 16,000 people — a robust pace that may grow even healthier, given the excitement the new attractions are likely to generate.
“I’m really excited that we’ve got some exhibits that are going to excite some of our older visitors,” she said. “We’re thought of as a place for toddlers, but with the new exhibits, we'll be able to do some different programming and hopefully hit that group we haven’t been seeing.”
The E3 does a good job of attracting children up to age 12, Powell noted, but it doesn’t fare as well with teenagers, who tend to be a lot more consumed with their personal digital devices and video games. Many of the new exhibits were designed to appeal to those older students, so Wilsey and Powell both hope they see a corresponding change in the demographics of their visitors.
“Everybody’s been really excited about the changes,” Wilsey said. “It’s really been especially good for the middle school kids. That’s the age we were targeting for that. We just wanted to give them more things to do. My kids love it, especially the recycling lab.”
Powell said the optical illusions section is likely to be especially popular.
“It’s very universal,” she said. “It will appeal to kids from the very young to older kids to the adults who are in with them.”
She also likes the flexibility of many of the exhibits. She said that some of them are designed so that adults can explain their workings to kids, while others are designed so that children can explain them to adults.
It’s also likely more changes are in store. Powell said the only attraction she really wanted to bring in that didn’t make the cut was a stop-motion camera, often used for animation. She said the new Sprout HP computers with a TouchMat interface have that feature, and she would love to have one for the E3 museum, explaining it would be especially appealing to older children.
Wilsey said the Farmington Museum at Gateway Park is using a Sprout HP computer as part of its “Mint Condition” coin exhibition that closes in January, and he said it’s possible that piece of equipment could be relocated to the E3 at some point.
Now that the work at the E3 is done, the staff at the Farmington museums system will begin preparing for its new ventures, including the opening of an Ansel Adams exhibition at the Farmington Museum at the end of January and the opening of the Navajo Art and Culture Museum downtown.
But Wilsey said the holidays will serve as the perfect time for local residents to reacquaint themselves with the E3 museum and the things it has to offer.
“We just invite everybody that has kiddos during this Christmas season to come on down,” he said.
Mike Easterling is the A&E editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4610.
What: The E3 Children’s Museum & Science Center
Where: 302 N. Orchard Ave. in Farmington
Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and by appointment
Contact: 505-599-1425 or fmtn.org/e3