Learning should be fun. That’s what the founders of Discovery Center Museum believed 35 years ago, and it’s what they still believe today. Read how this top-ranking Rockford gem got its start, how it’s grown to serve 250,000 people per year and what its future may hold.
If you haven’t been to the Discovery Center Museum, Sarah Wolf wants you to experience a place where adults can be kids again.
“If we can get them in here once, they see how much fun it is for their children and they can see the educational value for not only kids, but for the whole family,” says Wolf, the museum’s executive director. “They tend to come back and become members.”
The museum, at 711 N. Main St. in Rockford, welcomes visitors from all 50 states and several countries, each year. In January 2012, it was named one of the “12 Best Children’s Museums in the U.S.” by Forbes magazine. This year it turned 35 years old.
With more than 250,000 visitors every year, the Discovery Center offers more than 300 hands-on exhibits and outdoor Rock River Discovery Park, 8,000-square-feet of wooden fun including a two-story maze, water play area, Secret Garden and a dinosaur fossil dig pit.
Both kids and adults find themselves amused by the fun educational displays throughout the Discovery Center. The exhibits are designed to teach students about science, technology, engineering and math.
“We believe in informal science,” Wolf says. “Everything that we have is hands-on and interactive and that’s the way children learn best.”
Wolf knows what she’s talking about. A parent and former science teacher, she knows it takes more than a lecture from a book to engage children with science.
“I know how hard it is to teach science from a book,” she says. “Kids weren’t excited about it and they weren’t getting it. Here, everything is educational and they’re learning at the same time.”
Visitors also get a taste of what it’s like to be a farmer, astronaut, news anchor or an athlete, among other professions. There’s a permanent exhibit about agriculture, with a real tractor and realistic-looking fake cows ready to be milked.
“Our staff is always coming up with new programming and new education,” says Joyce Mazzola, manager of the gift shop and longtime staple at Discovery Center.
In addition to permanent exhibits, Discovery Center offers after-school and Head Start programs, a venue for welcoming national traveling exhibits, outreach and family programs, home school classes and educator workshops. There are also opportunities for high school and college kids to spend time with younger children, as they explore careers in education.
The museum also has a birthday party room, where kids can immerse themselves in science.
“Kids can come here and celebrate their birthday instead of going to a park or playground,” Wolf says. “Sometimes, we have one family with three children and all three children, over the span of three years, will spend a birthday party here.”
The museum has undergone multiple expansions and upgrades since its inception 35 years ago.
Wolf was a member of the Rockford Area Arts Council and the Junior League of Rockford when she served on an appointed committee tasked with creating a hands-on museum for area children.
Igniting the curiosity of kids through hands-on, interactive exhibits is what the committee of educators and parents had in mind, when they founded the Discovery Center Museum in 1981.
Their goal was to provide a learning experience for children and families. Wolf was hired as the first director in 1985.
When the museum first got its start, it hosted 6,000 students during field trips and housed just 20 exhibits. Everything was housed downtown in the old post office building where the Rockford Park District offices are currently located.
“We only had school groups because we were testing it out to see if it would be a valuable experience for students,” Wolf says. “It was apparent, after that first year, that this would be something appreciated by teachers and students. Then, we decided to be open it to the public, on a limited schedule.”
In the second year, public tours were implemented, along with a series of family programs. The programs prompted return visits and the number of visitors jumped to 11,750 by the third year.
Attendance during the Discovery Center’s first five years grew to 21,000 visitors by 1986. Operating revenues also rose, from $12,000 to $89,000.
Since the Discovery Center was continuing to grow, a new location was needed.
In the 1970s, Rockford Art Association began searching for a new space, since Manny-Nelson Mansion could no longer meet requirements for vaults, security and preservation measures. Too much money was being spent to restore art pieces damaged by improper control of humidity and light. Then, in 1984, Sears department store offered to donate its building at 711 N. Main St. to the art association, after its new store opened at Cherryvale Mall in Cherry Valley.
In 1985, the Rockford Art Association changed its name to the Rockford Art Museum (RAM) and moved into the space, which was more than twice as big as needed.
“When Sears decided to move out of this building, and not use it as a store, they deeded it to the Rockford Art Museum, which used to be where Burpee Museum is now,” Wolf says. “At the time, it was too large for the art museum to run on it’s own.”
In 1988, the Discovery Center Museum’s board of directors voted to join the Rockford Art Museum in occupying the old Sears store.
RAM and Discovery Center spearheaded a $7 million campaign to renovate the building and, in 1991, Discovery Center moved into the building along with Rockford Symphony Orchestra and Rockford Dance Co. The four organizations, along with tenants such as WNIJ Radio, formed the Riverfront Museum Park, in conjunction with the Rockford Park District.
“What Sarah started years ago is a cross between a children’s museum and a science center,” says Ann Marie Walker, marketing director. “We are child focused, but you also have that element of science in the exhibits, and that sets us apart from other museums. The combination of science and play is an asset that’s contributed to the popularity that we experience. We have something for everyone to do and be interested in.”
In 2004, the Discovery Center and neighboring Burpee Museum of Natural History launched a capital campaign to not only expand both museums, but also create a shared traveling exhibition space. In June 2009, thanks to $9.5 million pledged by community members, construction began. In June 2010, the Discovery Center expansion opened to the public.
The effort increased the museum’s size by about a third, or 15,000 square feet. This allowed the popular Tot Spot, for children ages six and younger, to double in size. The expansion also created Baby Spot, where youngsters can roam while safely corralled.
First floor classrooms, more exhibit space, a multi-purpose room and an outdoor courtyard connected to the city’s river walk was added as well. Gallery space was created and evolved into the agriculture exhibit, which is supported, in part, by local farm bureaus.
In addition, a 3,000-square-foot event and meeting room with catering kitchen, named Kresge Hall, was created.
“We expanded in 2010 because of the growing number of visitors,” Wolf says. “We needed a lot more room to accommodate the number of people who wanted to visit.”
Those visitors have made the Discovery Center Museum a premier Rockford attraction. The museum has won 12 national rankings over the years. Trip Advisor gave Discovery Center a TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence award for 2016 and 2015.
In 2013, Family Vacation Critic named Discovery Center one of the “10 Best Children’s Museums in the U.S.”
Along with its strong educational focus, the museum is recognized for its fiscal responsibility, willingness to collaborate and overall operating efficiency.
“We promote Discovery Center locally and nationally,” Wolf says. “We’ve had the very good fortune of being recognized as a top children’s museum in the country. Because people have read about us in Child Magazine or on TripAdvisor.com, they may come visit us for the weekend.”
Despite the accolades, Walker says Discovery Center is constantly looking at ways to improve early childhood development through science.
“We look at what kinds of things are important in early childhood development and how we can transform those ideas into appropriate interactive exhibits,” she says.
Like Wolf, Mazzola has been a fixture at the Discovery Center Museum from the start. She began as a volunteer, before taking over the gift shop.
“I was a volunteer in the very beginning because that’s how Discovery Center was run,” she says. “When we moved into this building, we had the opportunity to have a nice gift shop and that’s when I started here. It’s a very nice, science-oriented store, which is incorporated with the museum.”
Mazzola says she is thrilled to be a long time member of the Discovery Center family.
“I love Discovery Center and I’ve always loved it,” she says. “I’ve always believed in Discovery Center from day one until today. I never wanted to do anything else because I just love it.”
One reason she loves the museum so much is because of Wolf’s involvement and dedication.
“I work with great people and Sarah will do anything for any one of us,” Mazzola says. “We’re such a good team and that’s why we’ve been so successful.”
Wolf has a hard time imaging what Discovery Center will look like during the next 35 years.
“When I think back to what it was 35 years ago, compared to what it is now, I can only attempt to imagine what it will be 35 years from now,” Wolf says. “So much has changed in science and technology over the past 35 years. As technology changes, so do the expectations of people and the efficiency of things that could get done.”
Mazzola agrees. As times change, so do the needs of children.
“We always have to try new things, new exhibits and new traveling exhibits just to keep up with everything,” she says. “Things change so quickly, so we as a staff have to always brainstorm about how we can keep up with the times.”
Some of the newer exhibits the museum has implemented are doing just that. Wolf gives an example.
“Ten years ago, you didn’t see wind turbines on the side of the road when you traveled from here to Bloomington,” she says. “Right now, we have a new exhibit on wind energy and solar energy. Back then, it was hard to imagine.”
Walker agrees that it’s important to keep up with the evolution of science.
“We have exhibits on Nano science and Nano technology and that’s pretty incredible stuff,” she says.
The Discovery Center Museum will continue to reach new audiences and to bring the rest of the world a little closer to home. Beginning next summer, the museum will unveil a new, interactive traveling exhibit about the culture of Japan. That means Rockford families will get a chance to experience Japan this summer without leaving northern Illinois.
“It’s a little digression from all science, but understanding people from around the world is very important in today’s global world,” Wolf says.
The exhibit will introduce families to the current culture in Japan and will highlight how old and new traditions co-exist there. One part of the exhibit will showcase Kawaii Central, a streetscape inspired by Tokyo’s Harajuku district, which is bursting with color, trendy shops and cute Kawaii styles. Local kids will be able to sing karaoke, smile for the photo booth camera and design mascots for their families.
Discovery Center hopes to enlist the help of experts from Japan who live in our community. They also hope to get some help from Rockford University, which has a program at its sister school, Kobe College, in Nishinomiya, Hyōgo, Japan. It’s a liberal arts and science institute for women.
“There’s a good chance students from there will come to Rockford this summer and get involved with this exhibit,” Wolf says. “It will be a three-month exhibit and it will engage people in thinking globally. We want to help expand people’s ideas about other countries and other parts of the world.”
Mazzola says children will not be the only people who benefit from the exhibit.
“It’s a good thing for the staff because it’s a whole new area that we get to learn about,” she says. “It’s great for us, because we can bring in new ideas and bring in new things to do and work with other organizations in the community. That’s one of the reasons why it’s fun to work here.”
New exhibits will keep appearing at the Discovery Center Museum, but one thing will remain the same.
“We always want families to experience the joy of learning and have a creative, learning experience when they visit,” she says. “I love when parents and grandparents play and interact with their children here. The children work so hard, but it’s all play.”