On this Thursday morning, men and women in hard hats and neon vests scurry around the grand, new Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science, power washing parking spots, unwrapping exhibit panels and running through final installation tests.
The new museum is set to open in four days, on Monday May 8 and a year after initial projections, but it does looks like the building will just make it to completion right before its doors open.
“We always are [nail biting],” said Frank Steslow, president of Frost Science, “but it’s really exciting.”
A complicated construction plan, some serious financial hiccups, and a midway switch in construction companies pushed back the ribbon cutting, but the museum opening is a welcome final piece to Miami’s Museum Park complex.
The old Frost museum in Coconut Grove on Vizcaya property closed in August 2015, ending a 55-year run in that location. The new one, next to the Perez Art Museum in downtown Miami, is four times the size of the previous one, includes a new planetarium and 500,000 gallon aquarium tank.
“This is 2.0. What’s here now is going to change and evolve and grow. It's just a great canvas for us,” said Steslow.
Steslow says the only other combination of planetarium, science museum and aquarium in the U.S. is the California Academy in San Francisco. But, he says, with Frost’s focus on the South Florida ecosystem and habitat makes it one of a kind.
He says this museum has been 13-years in the making, during which time museum staff has been figuring out how to fill all the space in the new location.
As a Smithsonian affiliate, the Frost museum has access to its surplus collections, including a rocket engine on loan. New additions to the exhibit space include a F5 fighter jet that hangs from the ceiling of the “Feathers to the Stars” exhibit, above a full size model of a dinosaur.
Projected on the far wall of the same exhibit is a virtual wind tunnel through which flying objects move, showing their slipstream: how they interact with air and friction.
While the museum uses plenty of the traditional exhibit mainstays--text panels and objects--the slipstream is just one of the many examples of the museum’s lean towards digitally interactive exhibits.
Another is found in the “River of Grass” exhibit, designed for young learners. Outside are two water tables with little plastic ducks and trees that can be positioned to block and divert water as it flows down. Inside, though, is a half-room interactive projection of an animated scene from the Everglades. In it are cute cartoons of native animals from deer, spoonbills and fish to the ever-present mosquitos.
Sixteen projectors and seven 3-D capture cameras allow you to interact with the moving scene. You can swat the mosquitos away or scatter a school of fish.
With giant stuffed flashlights you can startle a panther or wake up an owl. The mesmerizing environment feels like you’re inside a real-life animated film. Or with a log-like pillow you can dam the moving water and see it rise behind the obstruction, much like in the wetter version outside.
While it may look like all fun and games, the hope is young people learn about basic hydrology, the flora and fauna of the everglades, and maybe ask questions next time they hear about Everglades restoration.
But the digital perks aren’t just for the kids.
The Frost Planetarium will have the capability to translate environments created for VR headsets onto its giant dome to be navigated collectively.
On top of that, planetarium has 3-D capabilities “so we can bring the immersive experience up to 11,” says Jorge Perez-Gallego, curator of Astronomy and Exhibition Developer.
“I’m like a kid at Christmas day [and] not just me, like South Florida. We’re getting this beautiful new toy,” said Perez-Gallego. “We’re going to be able to open the planetarium to our community, to artists, technologists, scientists.”
The new planetarium is a far cry from the analog one at the Vizcaya campus, built in 1966. From physical pinholes in sheet metal to pixels, the new digital setup opens up the catalog of possible programs available to the science museum.
And for those that miss the old Pink Floyd laser shows on Fridays at the old museum, there’s a laser exhibit that attempts to pay homage and do a little bit of educating about the science behind beams.
The museum is certainly not a black-box style museum. Four different parts of the building are connected by covered outdoor breezeways with beautiful views of Miami, Miami Beach and Biscayne Bay through government cut.
The position of the building invites natural tie-ins between the exhibits and the views of the ecosystems they address, like Biscayne Bay for one. With a small aviary of rescued birds rising up to skylights on the roof of the museum, the connection between the inside and outside environments appears seamless. Aquariums look like they spill right into Government Cut.
While the museum certainly seeks to capture some of the area’s active tourist market, it's firmly focused on bringing in the local community, hoping to change out parts of the museum regularly.
“Everything that we do is in the spirit of understanding how visitors learn in a museum and how they can best experience it so I think you’ll see changes and tweaks as we understand our audience better,” says Steslow.
And certainly theirs is a literal concrete acknowledgement of the community the museum is built in: no exhibit space is on the first floor, the building is built to withstand up to 20 feet of storm surge, a possibility that may become more commonplace as seas continue to rise.
When pressed about any challenge that may arise from building exhibits in a state where the governor has actively avoided using the term climate change, Steslow responded:
“Our role is to present the facts of science and you’ll see that throughout the museum. We’re not an advocacy organization, we’re advocated for science.”
You can see a full tour of the Frost Museum through Facebook Live when we return on opening day, Monday May 8 at noon.
Correction: An earlier version of this story identified the Museum as the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science. The correct name is Phillip and Patricia Frost Museum of Science.