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Reimagining: Science Museum aims for the stars and the mind

Fort Worth Museum of Science and History

1600 Gendy St.

Fort Worth 76107


In its 75th anniversary year, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History is eyeing big changes. Again.

At its anniversary gala in October, the institution announced that it will “reimagine” the Omni Theater and that it plans to transform the museum’s programs for the 21st century with a new emphasis on technology.

The construction plans, two years in the making, are still preliminary, and the museum said it was not ready to release design details or the cost.

But now museum officials have revealed one major aspect of the project: plans for two theaters, not just one.

One is a major update of the Omni that should help it compete with today’s giant-screen multiplexes.

The other, a new building, will be home to a “film experience” that will be the first theater of its type in any museum anywhere. The architect will be Victor Legorreta, whose firm designed the current museum campus.

In the new, as-yet-unnamed theater, visitors will sit in moving seats with their legs dangling down ski-lift style. They’ll be largely surrounded by a domelike screen for an even more immersive effect than you get with Imax.

“The top is screen, the bottom is screen … you are surrounded by the film experience and you’re flying,” said Van Romans, the museum’s president.

Among themselves, museum officials are tentatively calling the proposed theater a “vdrome,” but, said museum spokeswoman Rebecca Rodriguez, that is not final. She said the viewer experience will be similar to two existing commercial theaters, one at the Mall of America in Minnesota and one in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

The Mall of America experience, FlyOver America, bills itself as a “flight simulation ride” and takes patrons on an aerial tour of the United States complete with wind, mist and even fragrances. Romans is resisting the term “ride” for the museum’s proposed theater, but he cited an aerial flyover as part of the programming envisioned by him and his new chief technology officer, Doug Roberts. Romans said he expects Roberts to push programming into space subjects. “He thinks we’re going to fly out to the moon, to Mars.”

As for the Omni, it opened in 1983 as a state-of-the-art facility, the first Imax theater in the Southwest. At its peak, it accounted for 80 percent of the museum’s revenues. Today that figure is more like 15 percent, perhaps less. Screens are bigger and seats are more comfortable elsewhere. “And when the lights are on, you can see that it’s 30 years old,” Romans said.

With basically the same footprint as the old theater, the new Omni will have better, safer seats and be compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act. It will have digital capabilities (the current Omni is entirely film-based) and a bigger screen, between 70 and 80 feet wide — the specs are being completed. The film program will be the same, with popular fare such as Polar Express as well as educational films.

“To create sustainability for this place,” Romans said, it was time to upgrade one of the museum’s main attractions.

It may seem unusual to release such big plans to the public in dribs and drabs, but this may stem from excitement over the 75th anniversary and from Romans’ particular temperament. As anyone who’s talked with him will attest, he’s an enthusiast.

Romans, who has a master of fine arts degree from the University of Southern California, came to the museum in 2004 after years with the Walt Disney Co. in its Imagineering division. As head of Disney’s cultural affairs department, he created exhibits at theme parks around the world — World Showcase pavilions at Epcot Center and Disneyland, for example.

Not long after his arrival in Fort Worth, Romans became the prime mover behind the $80 million Legorreta-designed museum building that opened in 2009. But after the initial excitement of the new building, attendance has at times been less than expected. Romans said the museum needs to keep moving forward.

On the technology front, Roberts brings a history of high-tech innovation at Chicago’s Adler Planetarium.

Roberts will also work with the museum’s curators and designers to use technology to enhance learning experiences throughout the museum, the Noble Planetarium and online. He will also work with the museum’s education team to create an array of resources and programs for educators and other professionals interested in digital learning.

The new DinoLabs exhibit, which opened in November, hints at the changes that are coming and helps illuminate the philosophy of the museum’s new, much-touted Academy of Digital Learning.

“This is probably the very first step toward it, because it combines millions-of-years-old artifacts with the technology of today. And it’s very experiential,” said Romans.

In the relatively small gallery that used to house the 60-foot Paluxysaurus jonesi (now displayed in the atrium near the museum’s entrance), the centerpiece is now the museum’s beloved pair of “fighting dinosaurs,” the allosaurus and camptosaurus, facing off on a large stand. On surrounding walls, artifacts from the museum’s rocks and fossils collections hang in profusion. A few are available for touching. Overhead are two rows of curved beams with a gap between them, suggesting you’re inside the ribcage of an enormous creature.

“This is much more about the experience than the previous exhibit was,” Romans said. “That was developed in the old building and just transferred here. This is our first chance to be demonstrative about technology and our collections.”

A major feature is a large video wall that shows dinosaurs moving through a landscape. The display has sensors that make the images respond when a person moves in front of the screen. A dinosaur might walk alongside you. Raise your arms, and the reaction of a velociraptor or T. rex might give you a jolt.

Behind this wall is a feature designed to let children run wild with their dinosaur dreams. Kids can color in a dinosaur image on a piece of paper and hand that to an attendant, who’ll make the creations appear on another big screen.

The whole approach of DinoLabs gallery is “layered,” Romans said. “We have touchable things in the gallery, we have technology in the gallery, and we’re showcasing probably 60-70 percent of the collection,” whereas it was only about 15 percent before.

“I think engagement and storytelling are really important. This tells the story of our dinosaur collection, and it pushes us toward a whole new design ethic,” Romans said, pointing out the clean white walls, the dramatic lighting and the play of textures between ancient artifacts and high-tech screens.

“I think that we were all consumed with moving in the building and trying to get everything settled here when it opened. This is our first effort toward re-categorizing our permanent exhibits.

“There’s a rule in museums: Every five or six years, you’ve got to change things out, or people are not going to want to come back.”

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