ROCKINGHAM — Discovery Place KIDS is getting a makeover.
Representatives of the interactive science museum met with both the Richmond County Board of Commissioners and Rockingham City Council Tuesday to present plans for new exhibits.
Tifferny White, chief learning officer for Discovery Place, said museums typically look at making changes every five to seven years. However, the COVID pandemic put them behind.
“It’s been almost 10 years, they’ve been coming, they’ve seen the same exhibits, now they want to see something new and different,” White said.
The process started with focus groups featuring educators, regular visitors and other community stakeholders including local businesses.
The three main suggestions to come from those groups were to broaden the age range to middle school, connect the exhibits to the community, and refresh exhibits by adding new elements.
Discovery Place Kids currently features an old fire truck from the Rockingham Fire Department and a car maintenance station with a Rockingham Speedway backdrop to connect to the community.
Museum Director Angela Watkins said the design team visited Richmond County in January to get an idea of how to incorporate the exhibits with local landmarks and industry.
The Gizmatron, which is currently on the ground-level floor, will be moved downstairs and incorporated with a quarry to reflect a regional industry.
“This is familiar to folks that live here and they can see what happens inside of there, what careers and jobs might be inside of there,” White said.
“We talk a lot about physics and STEM and a lot of these other things, we want to also showcase careers that you don’t have to have a four-year degree for,” White said. “Because, sometimes, folks are not going to get a four-year degree, and they still want jobs that are productive and allow them to have a comfortable life, so the quarry would have those highlighted … not only the jobs that are there, but it would highlight what happens in a quarry.
So when they see and they drive past one, they will know this is what’s happening inside of there.”
The Gizmatron will be replaced with physics exhibits featuring demonstrations of force-in-motion and simple machines, “things that are exciting and engaging, but teach the STEM concept in a way that’s easy for folks to get,” White said.
“And for families to have a great time when they’re there, for teachers to be able to connect to their curriculum in school.”
The force-in-motion exhibit featuring balls will be connected to what White calls a “Wow exhibit,” which will include a climbing structure that even adults can partake in and feature interactive exhibits throughout.
There will also be a connecting exhibit on the bottom floor which will allow visitors to engage with each other on both floors, according to White.
White also said there will be “flexible spaces” which will be able to be easily changed out periodically.
“So when you come in January, you see one thing and when you come back in April, you’re going to see something completely different,” White said. “This allows us to age up into the middle-school age and also capture the attention of parents that might be there that might be interested in that content, as well.”
The downstairs climbing and water spaces of the museum will also be redesigned to reflect local natural landmarks Hitchcock Creek and Hinson Lake and include a kayak and disc golf basket.
Discovery Place was granted seed money from the Cole Foundation and the Community Foundation of Richmond County to develop a concept for the new exhibits — from the original designer.
White said Discovery Place plans to have the new exhibits installed in time for the museum’s 10th anniversary in February 2023.
However, she added, they are not yet sure if they will keep DPK open and make changes a little at a time or briefly close the museum and install everything at one time. If it stays open, White said installation will take longer.
The origin of Discovery Place dates back to a small natural science museum opened in Charlotte in 1947, followed by the Children’s Nature Museum in 1951, according to its website.
A planetarium was added in 1965 and it was renamed the Charlotte Nature Museum in the ‘70s “(a)midst growing interest in hands-on science and technology education.”
The museum was moved to a 72,000 square-foot facility in uptown Charlotte and opened its doors as Discovery Place in 1981 and has expanded throughout the years, including adding an IMAX theater in 1991.
In 2010, Discovery Place reopened after a $31.6 million renovation and also opened its first Discovery Place Kids location 14 miles north in Huntersville.
Since DPK’s opening in 2013, city leaders said they have been asked by those in multiple municipalities how Rockingham was able to secure the museum.
Former mayor and current Councilman Steve Morris joked that he tells people “We’re fortunate to have a rich uncle in Charlotte, he sends us money.”
Morris was referring to Brian Collier, executive vice president of the Foundation for the Carolinas.
Collier said originally, Discovery Place was looking at other Charlotte suburbs like Pineville and Matthews.
“But Discovery Place made the decision because of the support of this community,” Collier said, adding that the Community Foundation of Richmond County and the Cole Foundation pledged commitment to the project “for the long haul.”
The City Council in September 2021 voted to extend the lease on the property for another five years. The original 10-year lease agreement was signed in 2011.
Per the agreement, the city is responsible for providing and paying for water and sewer, natural gas, electrical and security services, while the museum pays the communication costs.
“It was a great community project,” said Gene McLaurin, who was mayor at the time of the deal and was also at both presentations.
“The community can continue to be proud of having the museum.”
A MODEL MUSEUM
“This museum is special,” White said, adding that it is a model museum in the field.
“Often times we bring people here to Rockingham … and they make decisions on whether they want a special place like this in their community based on what’s here,” White said.
White said the original designer of DPK recently brought in a group that had visited 30 other museums across the country to find out what it takes to open and operate one.
“They made the decision to go ahead and create a museum there in their community and they said that Rockingham was the best that they had seen,” White said.
White attributes a large part of the museum’s success to Watkins and former director Katie Herndon Dawkins, who was at the helm for the first eight years.
“They love this place, they love this community, and it shows in the work that they do every day,” White said.
Watkins took over in May 2021 after retiring as a 30-plus-year educator with Richmond County Schools. Most, if not all, of the staff members are from Richmond County and either former, current or future teachers, she said.
Councilwoman Denise Sullivan said DPK is “a gem” in the community, drawing visitors from across the region and the country.
“We get a lot of people from out of state that are coming through to go to the beach,” Watkins said.
DPK’s attendance has bounced back since reopening following the COVID pandemic — exceeding expected numbers, according to Watkins.
The museum has a Welcome program for those on government assistance in North or South Carolina, allowing them to visit at a lowered cost of $2 per person.
This past July, there were 1,000 visitors using the Welcome program, which was 10% higher than the previous year.
Watkins said a large number of visitors from the Sandhills and Pee Dee region come from Aberdeen, second only to Rockingham, based on ZIP code data.
So far, since the new fiscal year began in July, there have been 512 guests from Moore County. Watkins attributes the regional visitation to advertising on billboards and in Pine Straw Magazine.