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Building for its future, RMSC reveals plans

The Rochester Museum & Science Center has been a leading community cultural and educational force since opening its doors in 1912, periodically tweaking its focus over the years to keep up with the times.
Now, as the East Avenue institution celebrates its 100th birthday, there are plans to accelerate the evolution in grand style, with major changes in the works to take the institution’s mission to another level.
The most significant changes are the planned construction of a building to connect the museum and the Strasenburgh Planetarium and the renovation of the museum’s third floor to create an Inventing Futures exhibition. The latter, RMSC president Kate Bennett says, is intended to awaken passion in the community for science, innovation, adventure and learning.
"We want to tell the story of Rochester’s entrepreneurial and inventive past and work to create the next generation of inventors and entrepreneurs," she says.
RMSC officials are planning a permanent exhibition hall on the third floor that will have workshop and exhibition spaces clustered around five areas with themes of significance to the Rochester industrial and commercial universe: food, water, machines, bits and bytes, and optics. The centerpiece will be an Inventors Center that will teach the process of invention and entrepreneurship.
"We know it’s a process that can be taught," Bennett says. "It’s not something that is just available to creative geniuses; it’s a learnable skill. Exhibits and displays will be created to take people through the inventing process, and there will be many, many wonderful hands-on experiences people can get involved in to learn about industries in Rochester’s past and help us solve problems for the future."
Museum officials also plan to create additional space on the third floor to accommodate larger traveling exhibits, which have been such successful attendance draws, such as "Our Body: The Universe Within" and "Titanic."
The construction of a 4,000-square-foot structure-the Gateway Building-to connect the main building and the Strasenburgh Planetarium also is a key component of the plans. The idea is to create a seamless learning experience between the buildings.
"One of the issues, in my opinion, is that folks come to the museum and then do not go to the planetarium because there’s a disconnect between the two buildings, so we’re losing some of that synergy," says board chairman Andrew Meloni Jr. "The Gateway Building will put a different face on the museum, give it a little bit more of an iconic brand and make it more visible in the community, give it something new and exciting.
"Where the museum has traditionally been into heritage and collections and artifacts and observations of things, we’ve said we have to make the museum more interactive, more engaging, more enticing for people to visit, so we thought the Gateway Building would be a great idea," he adds.
In addition to providing a link between the museum and planetarium, preliminary plans for the Gateway Building include a gathering space; a new, larger gift shop and an expanded restaurant and cafe. The main entrance will move to the south side, and there will be interactive pieces and possibly some exhibits, Meloni says.
Plans also include making needed improvements to the 44-year-old Strasenburgh Planetarium, he adds.
"We need to bring the equipment more to today’s times, get more creative and interactive with the planetarium," Meloni says. "We’re looking to expand the type of equipment and provide more opportunities for exhibits and displays."
More than 150 hands-on exhibits have been created in-house in the last 10 years, and more are planned, Bennett says.
"I’ve been able to see some really awesome evolution in the institution in the short time I’ve been here," says Calvin Uzelmeier, who began as a volunteer in 1998 and has been education director since 2007. "The joke is that in 1998 there was only one in-house interactive-the elevator.
"It’s great to look at where we’ve grown now with the Adventure Zone and Expedition Earth and How Things Work and all of these hands-on, inquiry-based experiences that we’ve been able to not only provide but create. We’ve been able to develop this really fantastic in-house expertise in creating these things, as well as bringing in fantastic stuff for the public."
Becoming even more interactive is imperative, Meloni says.
"The museum for many years was this collection (of 1 million items), kind of a heritage thing where you came in and looked at the different cultural things we have," Meloni says. "Our Susan B. Anthony exhibit, for example, is pretty phenomenal, but when you’re dealing with 6-, 7-, 8-year-olds, they’re not going to run to that kind of thing. They want something more interactive."
Uzelmeier sees the expansion helping to boost the number of schoolchildren, currently about 64,000 annually, who use the RMSC.
"This is exciting to me from an education standpoint because it’s an opportunity to address the interests of the community," he says. "Our goal is to get people excited about learning, especially about science and technology, to get them to recognize their own curiosities, for kids to recognize that they can go into science and be successful, for adults to know what’s going on when they read a story about hydrofracking or climate change, to be more knowledgeable, to have a stronger workforce."
Students from anywhere in the world also can visit the museum via Skype through a distance learning program that began last school year. So far, the most distant school to participate has been in New Jersey.
Meloni says a fundraising campaign with a goal of $9 million to $12 million will be launched later this year. Among other things, it will help fund the new building, the third-floor Innovation Place and planetarium upgrades. The museum also needs renovations, and Meloni would like to strengthen the endowment.
RMSC has received a grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services to begin work on the Inventors Center. Creation of prototypes for exhibits in the center will start in January, with installation slated for completion by March 2014, Uzelmeier says.
There is no timetable yet on groundbreaking for the Gateway Building; Meloni says he would like to have a couple of million dollars in seed money in hand before breaking ground. LaBella Associates P.C. has been hired to design the building.
The RMSC’s plans are the result of several years of strategic planning with the aid of Massachusetts-based museum consultant White Oak Associates and feedback from community and business leaders, university faculty, youth groups, schools, visitors and staff.
Bennett, who has been RMSC director since 1996 and first visited the museum as a child growing up in Penfield, is excited about the grand plans.
"This is a dream come true," she says. "For years, staff have talked about how important it would be to connect the museum and planetarium, and the community has been saying to us, please make sure that you do all you can to enthuse people to go into science, technology, engineering and math.
"So, putting these ideas together, we’re delivering on what the community has asked us to be, and we are continuing to be a museum."
Richard Zitrin is a Rochester-area freelance writer.

9/21/12 (c) 2012 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email [email protected].



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