During my first visit to the new American National Fish and Wildlife Museum in Springfield, I tagged along behind two kids, Allie, about 4, and her big brother Bryan, who I guessed to be about 8. Like all kids, they seemed intuitively to find a fun route to the most interesting things. I first spotted them as they bounced across a rope bridge leading to an aviary-like perch high above an Ozarks stream. Their parents took the boardwalk, a more sedate route.
Allie and Bryan would have been miles ahead of their mom and dad, except they found so much to demand their attention. Near the Ozarks stream, for example, they stood riveted by the sight of two shiny, wet, fur-covered otters chasing fathead minnows.
"There's just something about live animals that attracts people," Amy Dooley, director of education for the museum told me later. "You can have all the electronic gizmos in the world, and people will still spend more time looking at a fish or an animal."
The museum features bats, seahorses, jellyfish, beavers, bobcats, free ranging ducks and turkeys, a 55-pound paddlefish, five types of sharks and a host of other wildlife and fish.
Allie and Bryan probably wouldn't know what "immersive" means, but that's the way exhibit designers want visitors to experience the American National Fish and Wildlife Museum, also known as the Wonders of Wildlife (WOW) museum. They've made the museum a feast for all the senses. Visitors can hear the roar of tumbling Ozarks streams, feel the cool air of a simulated cave, see the jewel-like colors of a rainbow trout or feel the tug of a marlin at a simulated fishing exhibit.
"We want to put the visitor in surroundings so stimulating that learning occurs easily," Dooley said. "Educators sometimes speak of a teachable moment, a time when curiosity is aroused, the senses are completely engaged, and we're in our most alert, information-gathering mode. Being at the museum is like one long teachable moment."
Bryan and Allie didn't know they were being "educated;" they thought they were seeing cool stuff. They liked the "Hoofs, Hide, Horn, Hair" gallery, where taxidermy mounted animals stood frozen in time, and they watched videos that showed the animals in their natural habitat. Allie was clearly awed by the huge bison, which loomed over her. Bryan favored the audio equipment that let him hear the real "call of the wild."
Their parents caught up with them in the room-size exhibit called "Why I Hunt." Bryan pushed all the buttons so he could hear and see different people explain why they hunt. They all learned the reasons behind a decline in wildlife habitat.
"Mommy, look at this man's dress!" Allie called, pointing to a life-size model of an Osage tribesman in buckskin clothing. The exhibit in front of her explains how hunting has evolved from native populations, who needed to hunt for meat and clothing and other essentials, to modern hunters and trappers, who still make use of animals but also enjoy hunting as a recreational activity.
After checking out the life-like characters, Bryan and Allie raced to the next area, where three bobcats stopped them in their tracks. The cats - two males and a female - remained oblivious to the visitors. One was catnapping; the other two playfully swiped at each other while leaping from perch to perch in their glass enclosure.
Mom and Dad were the first into the Conservation Heroes room, where "talking books" play video clips of Missouri's most notable conservationists, including Eugene Poirot and Charles and Elizabeth Schwartz. The room feels like a comfortable library, and visitors can even have their picture taken as the next "Conservation Hero." The museum supplements its income from entrance fees by renting this room and the shark room for special events.
Amy Dooley hopes to someday offer the entire museum for after-hours use so that organized groups of schoolchildren or scouts can enjoy overnight stays.
Dooley is also starting an Explorer Post at the WOW museum, but the most exciting project in the works is a new, freestanding education center to be constructed beginning next year on museum land. It will house classrooms, conference and library rooms, a laboratory and an animal collection. Until it is finished, temporary classroom facilities will host a conservation education program.
Before they visit the WOW museum, kids will visit a classroom for a discussion led by an instructor/naturalist. This pre-visit helps teachers accomplish classroom goals because it is designed to meet Missouri's educational testing standards.
Dooley and all of the instructors are Conservation Department employees.
By agreement, Dooley can draw on the expertise of Conservation Department biologists, education consultants, naturalists and foresters, and the museum reimburses the Department for the costs of the education program.
"Conservation education is the foundation of WOW's mission," Dooley said. "The unique partnership with the Conservation Department helps the museum be a national role model for conservation education, and it helps promote the conservation message."
All this talk of partnerships, agreements and educational concepts is far removed from the activities of Bryan and Allie, who have their faces glued to the 19-foot tall shark tank that holds 220,000 gallons of saltwater. Bryan watches an eel, while Allie studies a ray. It's clear the museum is working for them.
The American National Fish and Wildlife Museum - Wonders of Wildlife - opened in November 2001. The WOW museum is located in Springfield at the corner of Sunshine and Campbell, next door to Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World. Its winter hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the museum is open from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission costs $7.25 for children ages 4 to 11, and $11.25 for adults age 12 and over. Children under the age of 4 are admitted free. Discounts are available for senior citizens, students, military personnel and groups.
Memberships cost between $25 and $85 and entitle members to a range of benefits ranging from unlimited use passes to gift shop discounts.
Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Editor - Dickson Stauffer
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler