By Emily Williams
For the past 20 years, the McWane Science Center has strived to spark wonder and curiosity in the people who visit.
With the city evolving around it, the center has become not only an asset to the education of children, but an asset to the downtown revitalization process.
“We have been waiting for neighbors for year,” said Katie Baasen, McWane’s director of marketing and communications.
Since the facility opened its doors, the neighborhood has started to take shape around it. With new neighbors popping up in the nearby Pizitz building and a boom in the Theatre District, Templeton noted the increase of families with younger children in the area.
“We are happy to have them and have always known the downtown of Birmingham is a thriving location in the heart of our city,” she added.
In the Beginning
What is today a fixture in Birmingham began as an idea in 1985 to combine the two science centers that were operating in the city at that time: the Red Mountain Museum and the hands-on children’s museum Discovery Place.
The city-owned Red Mountain Museum opened in 1971 and focused on the geology of Red Mountain and the paleontological findings when the mountain was cut to create Red Mountain Expressway.
The Red Mountain museum officially merged with the children’s museum in 1991, and a year later they formed Discovery 2000, with John Mackay serving as the first president and CEO.
With revitalization in mind, a new facility for the museums’ collections was chosen, and work began to lease and renovate the historic Loveman’s department store building.
The facility was named to honor the McWane family, which donated $10 million to the project.
In 1998, the 180,000-square-foot center, including its IMAX Dome Theater, opened to the public with a crowd of more than 10,000 people attending.
“‘Everest’ – our first IMAX film ever – will be showing this summer to commemorate our 20th birthday,” said Baasen.
Milestones for the building have included a 2003 level 3 expansion and completion of a special events center, and the 2008 renaming of the building to the McWane Science Center and the opening of the Joseph S. Bruno Science Plaza.
Over the past two years, the center has welcomed major growth. The center hosted nearly 400,000 visitors in 2016, reached a total of 10,000 members and celebrated its six millionth visitor.
A factor in that growth was the 2015 opening of the Itty Bitty Magic City Children’s Museum, which is a space created to serve preschool-age children through the exhibit activities, as well as special demonstrations and programs.
According to Baasen, the staff knew just from the turn out at its opening weekend that the addition a success which the center is hoping to build upon when envisioning the future of McWane.
“We have continued to offer programming and to build on the programming offered in Itty Bitty,” she said. “Our commitment to early education is also in our staff and programing, not just the exhibit space.”
Two years ago, CEO and President Amy Templeton and the board announced the creation of a five-year plan and a new mission statement to better express its dedication to not only a scientific educational experience, but to education on the spectrum of STEM subjects.
Currently, the team is finishing a market research study in order to start the master planning process, said Baasen, “These are all imperative to the success and future success of our museum. We want the next 20 to be as successful as the first 20 years.”
She noted that more renovations and restructuring to some of the building older exhibits likely will occur in the future once they have each been evaluated.
As a celebration of the center’s foundations in paleontology through the Red Mountain Museum, one of its permanent exhibits is “Alabama Dinosaurs,” which includes a large selection of fossils that have been discovered throughout the state.
According to the center, Alabama is recognized as the best place east of the Mississippi River to find dinosaur remains, and many of the fossils recovered make their way to McWane.
In 2007, fossils of a previously unknown species of duck-billed dinosaur were discovered on a creek bank in Montgomery County. The estimated 83 million-year-old skeleton was excavated and transported to McWane, where it has been researched by staff, volunteers and local experts.
In January 2016, the more than 12-foot-long skeleton finally was legitimized when the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology officially named the dinosaur the Eotrochodon orientalis.
Its remains, along with the fossilized remains of hundreds of dinosaurs, reptiles, fish and birds, are under the care of Jun Ebersole, McWane’s director of collections, and his staff.
Just this year, the center announced the discovery of a new species, a mega-toothed shark species named the cretalamna bryanti. In the announcement, Ebersole noted that the fossilized teeth that led to the discovery had been collected more than 40 years ago. They were re-examined by Ebersole alongside other teeth in McWane’s collection and in the Alabama Museum of Natural History at the University of Alabama.
The teeth were nicknamed the “Bryant Shark” in honor of the longtime support given to the center by the Bryant family, which included the legendary UA football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.
Beginning May 13, the center will open its new exhibit “Dinosaurs in Motion,” featuring interactive and life-sized metal dinosaur sculptures. Though it’s temporary, running through Sept. 3, the dino-centric exhibit complements the center’s close connection to dinosaurs.
The museum has been offering special rates on the 20th of every month, with tickets available at their original 1998 prices, which will also be offered on July 11.
“There will be a party on July 14 and 15 – we will have a special Birthday Weekend. There will be activities on the Plaza, special demonstrations, special guests and cake, of course,” Baasen said. “We’ll have specifics on our website closer to the time of the event.”
For more information, visit mcwane.org.
*** This article was edited on May 3, 2018 to adjust information on membership numbers and opening data.