New SA Children's Museum Is A Masterpiece 

click to enlarge Local firm Lake Flato's design for The DoSeum features dramatic lines, solar panels and repurposed materials. - COURTESY
  • Courtesy
  • Local firm Lake Flato's design for The DoSeum features dramatic lines, solar panels and repurposed materials.

It's always the most stimulating and visually engaging places, like museums and galleries, which enforce strict "do not touch" policies, as if bystanders could ever hope to truly become a part of what they're seeing.

The DoSeum aims to break that mold.

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Imagine a museum, built from the ground up, to be an imagination-activating wonderland. Imagine a place where children and adults alike are encouraged to mix it up with the exhibits, to play with things and figure them out, to climb, to ask questions and find their own answers.

Imagine a place where learning feels like playing and investigation is consistently rewarded with an endlessly unique array of discovery.

The DoSeum is a testament to the fact that ideas and imagination can, quite literally, change space and alter reality. You have to see it — or rather, you have to do it — to believe it.

The long-awaited opening of San Antonio's new cutting-edge children's museum takes place this weekend. Maybe you read about this place over the past few years or likely noticed the vacant lot on Broadway — the construction with the Mad Max vibes — transform into a bright, inviting and singular-looking complex.

Maybe you caught a spot about it on a local TV news program. Maybe you were bummed about the old SA Children's Museum shuttering its doors after nearly 20 years in the middle of downtown (the building is now for sale).

Or, maybe you haven't heard or seen anything about it yet. If so, that may soon change — particularly if you have kids.

Whatever you know about The DoSeum up to this point, it's a good idea to take a moment to step back and appreciate the scope, breadth and depth of this historic undertaking. More than five years in the making and trying the imagination, intellect, perseverance, planning and patience of many of our city's finest minds, the many lessons The DoSeum has to teach begin with its conceptualization and execution.

Doers That Did It

click to enlarge Young chefs in the making can tinker with new recipes in The DoSeum's interactive Tiny Town exhibit. - COURTESY
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  • Young chefs in the making can tinker with new recipes in The DoSeum's interactive Tiny Town exhibit.

When you set off on a mission to become truly unique, you must focus on defining and honing that which will distinguish you from the rest. This, unquestionably, takes some doing. Charles Butt, H-E-B's chairman, donated $20 million to jump-start the project. And then there are scores of other donors, planners, lobbyists, educators, builders and dreamers that helped make The DoSeum come to fruition.

The San Antonio Current conducted extensive interviews last week with two of the key players, DoSeum CEO Vanessa Lacoss Hurd and Lake Flato's chief architect on the project, Trey Rabke.

Hurd is more than a figurehead, more than an executive. A mother of three and the director of SA Children's Museum since 2008, she's invested in the project as a parent, educator and community steward. For the longtime teacher and former director of Teach for America Houston, The DoSeum has been a bona fide labor of love.

As she walked around the $47 million, 104,000-square-foot campus (indoors and outdoors) on Broadway across from Brackenridge Park, one quickly sees why for her this project has to be as close to perfect as possible. As she discussed plans for the new space, she stopped numerous times to stoop down and pick up trash from ongoing construction and straighten out parts of an exhibit.

"The driving intent for The DoSeum is to create a space that inspires and wows kids, a space that gets them to think creatively and to problem-solve and to think critically," she said.

For Hurd, it is not enough for the new museum to become an important destination. She'd rather see it as a permanent institution, a fixture in the San Antonio learning landscape — "a key resource and laboratory for research and investigation into early learning."

But she's not going to just sit back and see if it happens. Teachers and parents, get ready to literally be part of the action.

"We want to work with teachers and school communities to help empower their efforts and to help provide learning opportunities that just aren't possible in a classroom setting or behind a desk," Hurd told the Current. "And then, of course, we want to be a vibrant resource for parents. Parenting is among the toughest jobs that many of us will ever take on and museums are a safe and supportive place to think about, and be supported in, your role as your child's first teacher."

As for the facility itself, the architectural design is a model of sustainability and innovation.

Rabke explained that, for Lake Flato as a locally-rooted firm, it was "very personally important for us to charge after this project." And charge they did. They won the architectural bid to design The DoSeum.

The mission was to think as much about what would go outside the new structure as what would go inside.

Rabke said he was most "excited about the potential for outdoor spaces" and that he "wanted the museum to feel almost like an extension of [Brackenridge] Park."

Let's just say that keeping it green was the main mantra of the project.

The building, which is undergoing a "rigorous process of checkpoints to meet the gold standards for sustainability" through the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green building council, is aesthetically designed to "pull families out into the natural space surrounding [it] and to pull the natural space in," Rabke explained.

The DoSeum boasts more than 600 solar panels, which produce approximately 20 percent of the facility's energy. All building materials were extracted, harvested or recovered — as well as manufactured — in Texas and reused materials were incorporated wherever possible.

Perhaps the facility's most green feature is an elaborate water conservation and irrigation system that includes collecting and using 180,000 gallons of water per year from the heating and cooling systems, as well as capturing and controlling runoff from Broadway and the museum's parking lots.

And the cool thing about it is that visitors can see it for themselves — a 33,000-gallon cistern display shows how water is captured and stored.

But what about inside?

Hurd said Rabke and his team set out to break up the cavernous structure so that it's not overwhelming but rather safe and inviting.

"You don't want a museum to feel like Vegas," she joked. "Where you have no idea where you're coming from or where you're going."

Just Do It

click to enlarge The sprawling 'Big Outdoors' exhibit tempts little daredevils with a ropes course and a 30-foot-tall climbing structure. - COURTESY
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  • The sprawling 'Big Outdoors' exhibit tempts little daredevils with a ropes course and a 30-foot-tall climbing structure.

So what's it actually like to do The DoSeum? As with all choose-your-own-adventure stories, it depends on whom you ask.

Nicole Pippin, an SA yoga instructor who spoke to the Current about her recent visit on a special showing for educators, said she was "was impressed to see how environmentally conscious they were in building. The gardens are beautiful and they've created a dynamic outdoor area including the fastest slide [she's] ever been on."

click to enlarge Hands-on activities and high-tech aplenty at The DoSeum. - COURTESY
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  • Hands-on activities and high-tech aplenty at The DoSeum.

For her part, socialite and Puro Pinche blogger and mom Stephanie Guerra got a sneak peek through a social mixer held at the museum.

She said she plans on taking her 12-year-old son for the fun outdoor opportunities.

"Kids don't get as much outside activity as we probably used to and this huge play area with interactive climbing space, slides and tree house ... give him a nice space to expend some energy," she said.

Her son is actually just outside the museum's main target audience — kids up to 10 or 11.

The point is to ensure that kids have fun — but it would be considered mission failed if kids don't build new conceptual underpinnings at the same time.

Though these exhibits are thoughtfully and meticulously designed, with state and national education standards in mind, the importance of play cannot be overstated.

"When children determine the direction and content of their own play, they have many opportunities to hear and practice language," early childhood specialist Shannon Lockhart explained in a recent article. "This type of language-rich play directly influences future development of higher mental functions."

The DoSeum definitely pushes math and science, academic areas in which American kids, sadly enough, are actually far behind many of their worldwide counterparts.

However, Hurd said the hope is to provide cross-curricular experiences — wherein kids can build connections between creativity and problem-solving, between math and the arts, between science and literacy — that are so hard to generate successfully in the classroom setting.

click to enlarge Divided into a variety of different zones, The DoSeum's outdoor space comes with a beachy "Sandscape." - COURTESY
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  • Divided into a variety of different zones, The DoSeum's outdoor space comes with a beachy "Sandscape."

To this end, The DoSeum offers six permanent exhibits:

In Sensations Studio, children are invited to initiate the integration of physics by playing with the movements and augmentation of light and sound. A prismatic wonderland of colors and sonic curiosities, this exhibit gives children a playful way to explore using a host of (mostly) everyday objects, amalgamated in a thought-provoking manner. At one particular stop in the Studio, visitors can create a work of art with light and movement and then email it to themselves to enjoy later.

In the Explore exhibit, the focus is on maps, models and shifting scales to provide a sense of place in the world and to activate curiosity about geography and culture. One of the museum's many opportunities to use cutting-edge digital technology, Explore uses Google Maps to help kids appreciate the scope of their world.

At the Innovation Station, it's all about trial and error and engineering-type problem- solving. Here, visitors can use real-world tools to plan and build bridges, to explore magnetization and to program robots.

One of The DoSeum's most exciting exhibits, and most unique, the Spy Academy gives kids a chance to become resourceful and creative super-sleuths. As Spy Academy "recruits," kids solve their way through missions using math and logic. With this exhibit, kids will have so much fun that they'll never feel like they're studying coding, patterning, geometry and deductive reasoning — though that's precisely what they're doing.

In the literacy- and narrative-focused exhibit Imagine It!, kids can create their own stories and play with perspective and narrative patterns. With stop-motion animation tools, spaces for drawing and writing and a digital interface that allows kids to build a story around themselves, this exhibit fosters creativity and literacy while strengthening the understanding of sequence and cause-effect.

My personal favorite exhibit, and by far my 2-year-old Emerson's favorite too, is the miniature world of Little Town. Here, kids get the chance to role-play, which is, according to Hurd, "an incredibly important part in creating meaning for kids." She explained that children achieve profound learning when they "watch what we do, copy what we do and then they make it their own." Thus, Little Town boasts its own post office, veterinary center, grocery store and bank. There's even a tiny taco truck, just to make sure kids remember they're in SA.

All this, plus two huge halls for traveling exhibits, a fully functioning pre-school, teacher training opportunities and workshops for all ages. It seems as if The DoSeum's poised to help overhaul the learning environment in San Antonio.

Inaugural To-Do

For its grand opening weekend, The DoSeum is throwing a family-centric block party of sorts. Beginning with a ribbon-cutting at 9:15 a.m. on Saturday, it's followed by two days of community-building and museum exploring.

While parking and outdoor spaces will boast a "festival-like atmosphere," according to Hurd, Saturday revelers will be treated to half-price admission. In addition to refreshments aplenty, you can expect live music and guided tours to usher in the era of The DoSeum.

In the final analysis, The DoSeum is not only a huge win for kids but for the city as a whole. And, while it's true that STEM concepts and creative thinking are things that our community needs to push, The DoSeum's greatest contribution may well be in activating a sense of wonder and environmental stewardship in people of all ages.

Now, that's something worth doing.

The DoSeum's Grand Opening Weekend

$5-$10, 9:15am-6pm Sat, June 6, 9am-5pm Sun, June 7, The DoSeum: San Antonio's Museum for Kids, 2800 Broadway, (210) 212-4453, thedoseum.org

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