By Brittany Shammas
Feb. 8th, 2015
Two years ago, leaders at the South Florida Science Center & Aquarium unveiled $5 million worth of renovations that transformed the half-century-old facility inside and out, giving it a new name, thousands of extra square feet in space and a new aquarium double the size of the old one.
They haven't stopped there.
The museum has just debuted its completely refurbished west wing, closed for about six months during repairs. Dubbed the "Hall of Discovery," it showcases rehabbed exhibits that were old favorites along with one that's brand new. Updates are underway on the telescope in the wing's observatory.
And down the hall, work continues on the new early childhood education room.
The Hall of Discovery opened to the public in February 2015 combining new and previously displayed exhibits.
When everything is done, it'll add up to $1 million in upgrades to the west wing — and signal the completion of a five-year plan that breathed new life into a museum that previously seemed to have lost its way.
"You wouldn't even recognize the new South Florida Science Center from what it was four years ago," Chief Operating Officer Kate Arrizza said. "And we're not done yet."
The transformation is being steered by the museum's director, Lew Crampton, who in recent years was persuaded by board members to postpone his retirement plans and take the helm.
A Princeton/Harvard/MIT-educated former politician, he had drawn attention years before for reinventing the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Ill.
When he stepped in at the South Florida museum, Crampton inherited a facility that was, as he put it, "fusty and old and dark." Three years earlier, plans for a proposed $45 million to $50 million new science museum at Lake Lytal Park had fallen apart. The existing museum, in West Palm Beach's Dreher Park, had little curb appeal and low energy, Crampton said.
"That's all changed," he says now.
He set about making changes soon after taking over, raising $5 million to add space for the new aquarium and what he calls "blockbuster" traveling exhibits: major displays that draw visitors in from across the region. He reopened the telescope, shuttered since Hurricane Wilma damaged it in 2005. He raised admission fees.
The museum began opening its doors after hours on weekends for "Nights at the Musuem," with costume contests and themes such as "Spooky Science" and "Fantastic Flights." It started offering a lecture series on the science of things like sharks, beer and chocolate — the chocolate one complete with a chocolate fountain — and collaborating with local pubs for "Science on Tap" events.
In the last year, science center officials also rolled out two after-school clubs meant to get kids excited about science. One is aimed specifically at girls and exposing them to the possibilities in science, technology, engineering and math; the other is technology-focused and allows kids to explore computers and coding.
The programming, Crampton said with a chuckle, "has just gone crazy" in terms of offerings.
Two blockbuster exhibits have been housed at the museum: a Titanic-themed one that began in October 2013 and was the museum's most popular show so far, and an ancient Egyptian one that arrived the same time last year and is on display through April.
All told, Crampton said, the science center has seen its revenue jump from $1.5 million to $3.5 million, its attendance from 100,000 to 205,000, and its exhibition space go from 20,000 square feet to about 40,000 square feet.
"Palm Beach County deserved a great science museum," Crampton said. "And I think now we can say that we have it."
On a recent weekday, he showed off the latest changes to the place. In the brightened west wing sat a foam model of carbon atoms that are part of the new "nanotechnology" exhibit, which explains the science of the very small through hands-on activities. It has the distinction of being the science center's first bilingual exhibit.
Behind a temporarily sealed entryway was the space that will become the "Growing Up Great" early childhood room. A rendering hanging on the wall hinted at what's to come: a 16-foot water table with waterfalls and water wheels, an oversized Lite-Brite-like wall and a photo booth where kids can dress up as astronauts and doctors and pose for pictures.
The museum also plans to have story time sessions several times a week, perhaps hosted by Crampton, who has been known to ham it up and engage with kids by dressing up for museum nights and leading them in costume parades.
"That room is going to be so much fun," Arrizza said.
When it's done, the science museum's leadership will have finished its five-year strategic plan ahead of schedule, Crampton said.
"It's just momentum. We've got a lot of energy, a lot of positive momentum," he said. "Now we've got to figure out where we go next."
email@example.com, 561-243-6531 or Twitter @britsham
If you go
The South Florida Science Center & Aquarium is located at 4801 Dreher Trail North, West Palm Beach. For more information, visit sfsciencecenter.org or call 561-832-1988.
Copyright © 2015, Sun Sentinel