After 17 years of planning, fundraising, designing and building, the South Carolina State Museum’s new Windows To New Worlds project officially opens on Aug. 16. It includes a planetarium, 4D theater, observatory and an exciting and collaborative approach to education that can reach every school and give every student a chance to reach for the stars. We were there the day a critical piece — an antique telescope that has been retrofitted with digital capabilities — was moved into place. Here’s a look behind the curtain.
The South Carolina State Museum has housed historic artifacts since opening in 1988, but on this day in June the museum is making history in South Carolina.
The museum’s $23 million Windows To New Worlds renovation project —17 years in the making — is coming to fruition, but not before a handful of people complete a tedious task.
On the fourth floor of the museum, a forklift gingerly elevates a 1926 refracting Alvan Clark telescope 15 feet in the air. While the vintage telescope dangles from two heavy canvas straps, a handler on a step ladder works to attach the telescope to a gigantic base called a pier with a series of large gears that resemble sun dials. The telescope is worth more than $2.3 million dollars.
“It’s a lot of mass and it’s a lot of moving mass, so there’s a little bit of nervousness, but we have a pro with us today,” says Tom Falvey, the museum’s director of education.
Three massive legs support the telescope to make sure the device doesn’t shake or lose alignment. Museumgoers will get their first glimpse of the gigantic tripod three stories below when they enter the first-floor lobby. Each leg of the tripod is 42 feet tall and weighs more than 11,000 pounds.
It’s hot. The only moving air wisps through plastic sheets blocking a large opening in a fourth-floor wall. A glimpse outside reveals a viewing terrace that will make for some fantastic star gazing. It also offers a great view of the city.
Back inside, men guide the pieces of the telescope together underneath another obvious new addition to the museum. A 5,000-pound observatory dome was hoisted on top of the State museum in April, altering the shape of the museum and the Columbia skyline.
With prior experience planning and building a $22 million theme park in Michigan and 20 years at Six Flags Astroworld in Texas, State Museum Executive Director William Calloway has never shied away from mammoth undertakings, but even he is awed by scope of this project.
“It looks great on paper, but until you see it get built, you really don’t understand the size and the scale of it,” Calloway says. “Even though I’ve done this for a long time, I was surprised at how big it is. How impressive it is, what a ‘wow’ factor it has.”
It takes more than an hour, but the telescope is eventually safe and secure. Staff members are overcome with emotion. Some tears are shed as they see the last major piece of the puzzle needed to make the renovation project click into place.
In addition to the refracting telescope, museumgoers will be able to view an antique telescope collection donated by a local amateur astronomer named Robert Ariail. The oldest telescope in the collection dates back to 1730.
South Carolina Nobel Prize-winning physicist Charles Townes, who led the groundwork for development of the laser, actually worked on the very same refracting telescope that’s being housed at the museum when he was a professor at Columbia University in New York City in the late 1940s. The university donated the vintage instrument to the State Museum.
“Imagine looking through the same telescope that Charles Townes looked through during his days at Columbia,” Tom Falvey, director of education, says. The museum is modernizing the instrument with gears, computers and digital eyepieces, so any kid in the state can actually log on to a computer and direct the telescope to a specific location and see the images.
The fully digitized telescope will play a central role in the museum’s new distance learning and onsite STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) initiatives.
“It will be the first time that remote access of a telescope will be provided free-of-charge to classrooms across an entire state,” says Anna Kate Twitty, public relations manager.
Falvey and Executive Director William Calloway are both excited about the prospects.
“For a kid to know that he or she is controlling the instrument and seeing the images and then talking live to an astronomer — I mean, that’s really special,” Falvey says.
Calloway sees a big boost in accessibility.
“A lot of kids, schools and families around the state can’t afford to come to Columbia,” he says. “This is a way that we can reach out to those kids.”
In addition to providing a hands-on approach to getting South Carolina students more interested in science and technology, workforce development was also a big consideration when developing the educational aspects of the renovation project.
If you park in the front lot at the State Museum, it looks as if the moon has been captured and placed in a enormous crystal box. The large sphere is the planetarium. The sight is captivating in itself, but it’s hard to get a feel as to how big the attraction is until you enter.
When you do, you are engulfed by a 55-foot dome-shaped screen; the theatre seats 145 people.
Imagine looking at the night sky when Sherman marched on Columbia in February of 1865: With the planetarium’s state-of-the-art software, State Museum officials can recreate sky and star positions up to 1 million years into the past or the future.
“It will be a great way for educators to tie in history with astronomy and science,” Public Relations Director Anna Kate Twitty says.
The museum’s partnership with NASA will allow students and visitors to see real-time spacecraft launches and interact with astronauts on the International Space Station.
But the planetarium is more than just an odyssey into space; the museum also plans to offer out-of-this-word laser light shows where people can rock out to music from bands like Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd.
Boeing and NASA are both major contributors to the observatory. Boeing is a major South Carolina employer and NASA’s administrator Charles Bolden is a Columbia native.
Museum Director William Calloway says he’s excited to see the reactions when people first experience 4D.
Anna Kate Twitty, public relations director, explains: “It combines a film experience with real-life sensations.”
Imagine a 3D movie tornado, but instead of just seeing it, you can feel the wind or the raindrops. Condensed versions of popular flicks like The Polar Express and Ice Age will be shown. This is the only permanent 4D theater in the state.
When you combine all of the elements of the renovation project under one roof, Twitty says the museum will make history again.
“It will be the first of its kind in the U.S. to have an on-site and online observatory and classroom, a digital planetarium and theater, a 4D multi-sensory theater and an outdoor viewing terrace all in one place.”
The museum is counting on rental space to be a major revenue generator, too.
The Planetarium Lobby, newly created meeting rooms and even the fourth floor Observatory and Terrace will be available for small dinners and receptions. The Cotton Mill Exchange museum store will be expanded.
Windows To New Worlds is slated to open to the public Saturday, Aug. 16. The museum staff expect to have more than 100,000 students visit the museum in the 2014-15 school year — an increase of 35 percent. School groups are admitted free.
There’s a lot of work that needs to be done before then, but nobody said adding a new chapter to South Carolina’s history would be easy.
An army of workers in hard hats and neon vests has stripped the old Cotton Mill building that houses the State Museum, uncovering original brick walls and hardwood floors dating back to the original 1893 building.
The Windows to New Worlds Project marries the old with the new, creating a storyline.
“The State Museum is current, it’s competitive, it’s unique, but it’s also history,” says museum Executive Director William Calloway. “We still are the storytellers of South Carolina, so this helps us tell our story in a different way. Through our films in the theaters, through our new exhibits, we can weave a wonderful story.”
For information on admission, hours of operation, exhibits and more, visit scmuseum.org.