In 1971, Gene Wilder sang these lyrics in the film “Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory”:
“Come with me
And you’ll be
In a world
Of pure imagination …”
Wilder, of course, was singing of Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but 45 years later in Arkansas he could be singing about the Scott Family Amazeum in Bentonville. The new children’s science museum, celebrating its one-year anniversary this month, is a labyrinth of learning made fun — and like Wonka’s, the Amazeum even features a laboratory of chocolate confections.
Named for the family of former Walmart CEO Lee Scott and his wife, Linda, great supporters of the museum, the Scott Family Amazeum opened in July 2015 with much hoopla. The $28.5 million facility sits on the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art campus. Heading to Crystal Bridges, you literally can’t miss it.
Marketing Director Dana Englebert said the museum had projected it would have 180,000 visitors in its first year. “We have surpassed 250,000 before our first year’s even ended!” she said. “It’s all very, very loved.”
Creativity — the actual act of creation — is at the heart of everything in the 50,000-square-foot learning center. She said the museum is intended to complement other children’s science centers in the state, including Mid-America Museum in Hot Springs and the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock. A distinct difference is that the Amazeum is heavily focused on tinkering and making. “We’re all about using ordinary, everyday objects to create the extraordinary,” Englebert said.
Nine-year-old Arden Carroll of Little Rock visited the Amazeum on Mother’s Day with his sister Sophie, 7, and parents Brandie and Tim Carroll. “It was so cool!” he said, when asked about it two months later, talking nonstop about an indoor treehouse air cannon they loved operating. Another highlight was an outdoor area with many water activities, including making boats out of household objects like bolts, tin cans and string. “My boat was basically made of felt, popsicle sticks and rubber bands — and it floated!” Sophie reported that her boat “kind of floated, but tipped over.”
“We want the kiddos to feel comfortable creating things from the time they can lift a little hammer to actually thinking through a complex process of, ‘How do you do that?’ We raise makers here,” Englebert said. “We don’t teach them how to do it.”
The museum exhibits are uniquely grounded in the surrounding area, intentionally specific to the particularities of the region. For example, because Northwest Arkansas has a lot of trucking and distribution centers — it’s renowned for distribution and logistics science — a “General Mills’ Lift, Load and Haul” section of the museum gives children a chance to discover through play what that local industry is about. Similarly, a winding replica Ozarks cave that children can explore, as well as a massive, climbable tree installation and other wildlife elements, get kids more excited about The Natural State’s outdoor offerings.
Sophie and Arden told of climbing the “tree” and discovering the museum had set up camera feeds of different species of birds around the state. “We got to see a bird hatch out of its egg!” Arden exclaimed. “I think it was a harpy eagle.”
Likewise, the log cabin homestead and farm where Sophie spent much of her time are a hat tip to Arkansas’ heritage and agricultural industry today.
Family members of all ages can be seen laughing and learning in the museum. Englebert characterized ages 2 through 10 as “our sweet spot.” Most spaces are accessible to any age, but two areas are set aside for the youngest children to play, and some activities or experiments are only for kids 7 and up.
The Amazeum has an “amazing, dedicated” staff of play facilitators working on the floor, Englebert said, but it is not a drop-off facility. “Parents or caregivers need to stay with the kiddos,” she said. “We know full-family interaction is best for a child’s development and learning.”
Nicole Atchison of Grafton, Mass., discovered the Amazeum with her son Bryce, age 4, while visiting the area in May. “This is amazing,” she raved, pausing from helping him load foam “packages” on a conveyer built to be scanned for “processing” in the General Mills Lift, Load and Haul space. “We love it! There is so much here for him to do, and it’s all awesome. We don’t have anything like this back home!”
She’s right. There is no way a kid could get bored here. These are just some of the activities and areas the Amazeum offers kids:
- Hershey’s Lab: In this interactive classroom featuring supervised experiments throughout the day, the catch is that all the materials being studied are Hershey’s confections. Kids might learn about density experimenting how different candies float in water, for instance, or learn about taste science and changing states of matter through melting chocolate.
- 3M Tinkering Hub: Ages 7 and up can use this workshop to investigate how things are created. Projects
fall into several categories, including science, art, engineering, math and technology. Some days kids can practice animation, using a laptop and video camera to create stop motion or design an old-school zoetrope of flickering images. Another day might have them building circuits that do neat things or tinkering with tools to take electronics apart.
- The Art Studio: Expressive art projects abound here. Kids can paint and repaint on clear glass walls and design artistic masterpieces in several stations that offer materials like clay to sculpt, paper to color or fold into origami, and an array of other crafts waiting for a child to imagine them up. “That is something we really want our guests to understand: Every one of us is creative, has that ability,” Englebert said. “We want people to flex that muscle here.”
- Traveling exhibits: Outside of those three experiential areas, the Amazeum has about 30,000 square feet of space for temporary exhibits from around the state or nation.
- The Homestead Cabin and Farm: This life-size, one-room log cabin complete with front porch, apple orchard and farm with life-size toy farm animals, can entertain for hours. The rocking chairs on the front porch are especially popular with the adults.
- The Market sponsored by Walmart: Children get their own pint-sized supercenter. They can shop for foods or work behind the counters in different roles selling toy breads and produce, or maybe preparing plastic food in the market’s cafe. Englebert explained that grocery stores are common in children’s museums for a reason — grocery stores are where kids spend the third most amount of their time. She added that “when they are at the grocery store with us we’re telling them ‘Don’t touch. Keep your hands to yourself.’ They are very much the ones in charge at this grocery store.”
- General Mills’ Lift, Load and Haul: Youngsters can send boxes on conveyors going up and down, sort them and send them around this complex exhibit. There are air tubes, loaders and scanners they can pass the boxes through and see what’s inside. An impressive full-sized Walmart semi-truck forms the base of this area with a cab they can sit in to “drive” and interactive games built into an open tractor trailer.
- Nickelodeon Play Lab: Children can compose original music using ordinary objects and explore many exhibits of experimental play here. A big draw is the 10-foot tall SpongeBob Squarepants puppet with nine control stations. When nine kids work those stations through coordinated teamwork, they can make SpongeBob go wild performing many actions at once — riding a unicycle, flipping the “Krabby Patties,” playing paddleball and more.
- Nature Valley Water Amazements: An indoor splash park and science-rich water table, this dynamic
space is especially popular in summer. The room recycles about 2,500 gallons of water in that area every day. Waterproof smocks are provided to protect kids’ clothes. The water fun continues in an outdoor area with a wading river and more activities.
- The Canopy Climber: Kids and adults can clamber up and through a 28-foot-high, fully netted indoor climber made up of giant “leaves” that hold 1,000 pounds each. Beneath the canopy is a cave full of rooms and discoveries to be made. The Canopy Climber connects to a treehouse overlook and other passageways along the top of the room.
- Emerging Explorers: Two areas are just for infants and toddlers to engage in age-appropriate play, climbing and investigating in a safe space. It includes a smaller cave for them to explore and developmental activities to nurture their language, social, cognitive and motor skills.
Besides other outdoor play areas, the Amazeum has almost a half-acre of undeveloped lawn where families can play and picnic. Inside, the museum also features an indoor cafe for snacks and meals, and a wonder-filled gift shop.
Thanks to a grant from Tyson Foods, most Wednesday nights the Amazeum hosts Priceless Nights, a popular and accessible time when the museum stays open into the evening, and visitors can pay whatever they wish instead of the $9.50 daily admission (always free for members and kids under 2). Family memberships at the Amazeum come with reciprocal or discounted benefits with hundreds of museums nationally, including Mid-America Museum and the Museum of Discovery.
Englebert said, “We want kids to not see technology as something mystical or magical. It’s a tool to solve a problem, a problem they can solve. We want them to be comfortable using tools and materials, understanding that anybody can use them to make something great — anybody.”