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Mid-America Science Museum

Mid-America Science Museum’s mission is to stimulate interest in science, to promote public understanding of the sciences, and to encourage lifelong science education through interactive exhibits and programs. Located near National Park College (NPC) in Hot Springs (Garland County), the museum is a major tourist attraction in Arkansas, with an estimated 100,000 visitors annually.

In the mid-1960s, Governor Winthrop Rockefeller conceptualized the Mid-America Science Museum as Arkansas’s first interactive, informal learning environment. Rockefeller held an exploratory symposium with various state leaders and engaged one of the nation’s foremost museum consultants to determine the feasibility of such a project. Eventually, Hot Springs was deemed the ideal location for such a museum. Governor Dale Bumpers continued the support of the idea, and in 1971, the Arkansas General Assembly passed Act 515 establishing the Arkansas Museum and Cultural Commission, with Rockefeller appointed as chair. In September 1974, the commission’s initial staff opened temporary offices in the Medical Arts Building in Hot Springs. Here, the first museum offices were established, and original exhibit designs and development took place.

Construction began on March 11, 1977, on the present 65,000-square-foot facility built on twenty-one wooded acres in Mid-America Park, a commercial development that includes the community college, the museum, and industrial and commercial entities. The multi-million-dollar facility is divided into two wings, which are connected by a glass-enclosed bridge that spans the outside stream. The museum opened to the public on January 20, 1979. Sunday, April 22, 1979, was proclaimed “Mid-America Day” by the mayor of Hot Springs as the museum was dedicated by Governor Bill Clinton in a grand opening ceremony. It also received the Henry Award from the Governor’s Conference on Tourism in 1982, honoring contributions to the state’s tourism industry. In 1981, the Hot Springs City Council appropriated, through the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission, one cent of the hospitality sales tax to support the museum after Governor Frank White abolished the museum commission and the appropriations for its operations, transferring it to the  Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.

The museum has been cited with many honors throughout its history, including a local “Parent’s Choice” award as the Best Museum for Families in 1995. In November 2001, the museum was selected as a Smithsonian Affiliate, the first institution in Arkansas to have this designation. The museum was selected as Arkansas’s official Star Station One site, which was a national educational program about the International Space Station. The museum continues to partner with NASA for its space education programming.

In 2003, the museum became a partner in the Donald Reynolds Foundation’s Arkansas Children’s Museums Discovery Network, a statewide network of museums dedicated to inquiry learning. In 2006, this collaboration received a $7.3 million grant to continue its work over the next five years.

The Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism owned the museum until June 2001, when the facility and property were deeded to the Hot Springs Advertising and Promotion Commission. In late 2004, the museum began efforts to reorganize under the governance of an independent board of directors as a private non-profit organization. At the end of a five-year transition phase, the ownership of the museum transferred to this new governing board.

The museum is known for hosting the world’s most powerful conical Tesla Coil (as recognized by Guinness World Record in August 2007), “Caged Lightning,” which produces 1.5 million volts of electrical energy. Its inventor, Nikola Tesla, has become known as the “father of electricity and master of lightning.” Richard and Mary Ellen Mathias developed an educational program in 2005, known as “Sermon from Science,” to educate school children and the general public of Tesla’s many life-changing inventions (250 patents).

The museum closed in August 2014 for an extensive renovation, reopening to the public in March 2015. Among the current exhibits are the “Marvelous Motion Gallery,” which explores basic concepts in physics; “Arkansas Underfoot,” an exploration of the state’s biology, topography, and geology; and five different workshop settings with numerous interactive projects. In addition, the Bob Wheeler Science Skywalk extends 240 feet from the building into a forest canopy forty feet above the ground. The museum also has the fifty-seat Oaklawn Foundation Digital Dome Theater, which features a 180-degree screen and is used for customized programming on space research.

On June 1, 2016, the Mid-America Science Museum received a medal for community service from the Institute of Museum and Library Services at a special White House event.

For additional information:
Mid-America Science Museum. http://www.midamericamuseum.org (accessed April 1, 2015).

“Mid-America Science Museum: Self-Guided Tour Book.” Hot Springs, AR: Mid-America Science Museum, 2006.

Richard Mathias
Mid-America Science Museum

Last Updated 6/2/2016

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