BRADENTON -- Major changes are in store for the South Florida Museum, and some will change the look of downtown Bradenton.
On Wednesday, museum officials announced a $12-million capital campaign to expand the museum to the north, east and west and enhance exhibits and education.
"We are launching a campaign to fund expansion of physical elements and enhancements of our programs," said Brynne Anne Besio, museum chief executive officer.
The capital campaign is called "Connect." Though it was just announced, it's already more than three-quarters of the way to its goal, officials say. The museum raised more than $9 million, partly through the recent sale of 5 acres of donated land.
One aspect of the expansion is called the Mosaic Backyard Universe. It will be built on a platform in the north parking lot of the museum (with a goal of retaining all current parking spaces) and will include indoor and outdoor facilities for teaching children ages 3 through 8 about science, technology, engineering and math -- the STEM disciplines.
To the east toward Ninth Street, the museum will build exhibition space. Officials envision it would more than triple the current amount of exhibition space and allow for larger traveling exhibitions to come to Bradenton.
"Dinosaurs are huge," Besio said. "We don't have room to have an exhibition of dinosaurs. Or airplanes."
South Florida Museum Board President Tom Breiter said high-profile traveling
exhibitions such as "Bodies" and "Titanic" haven't been able to come to the museum because they need more floor space. The new additions should allow many of those exhibitions to come here.
To the west, the museum plans to expand toward the sidewalk -- using most of its front lawn -- for an indoor space to house classrooms and area for lectures and rental events such as weddings.
Although architectural plans haven't been created yet, museum officials said the expansion will improve the aesthetics of the building's exterior. They want to include windows so people can glimpse what's going on inside.
"We want the building to be a billboard for us," Breiter said. "We want people to look at the building and say 'We want to come in. We want to pay to come in.' "
Inside, plans call for reconfiguring the permanent exhibitions so that they can be easily moved (the museum's mastodon skeleton could soon be on wheels, Besio said) and so visitors can have 360-degree views.
Plans include adding an extra tank or two in the Parker Aquarium, so it can be home to other species besides manatees.
Museum officials plan to install a hydraulic system for moving rescued manatees in and out of the aquarium. They're now transported by hand, which can be dangerous for manatees and the people carrying them, Breiter said.
Besio said museum officials hope to break ground on the first phase of the expansion -- the Mosaic Backyard Universe -- by early next year.
Improvements have already begun. Part of the $9 million already raised in the Connect campaign went to upgrade the museum's Bishop Planetarium in 2013. Those cost about $750,000 and turned the planetarium from an outdated facility into one of the most high-tech in the country.
"We got an early gift and we had a desperate need," Besio said. "And look what we got."
Other city officials are excited about the plans.
Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said a more inviting museum exterior could enhance the perception of the downtown area and give a better first impression to people entering Bradenton from the north.
"First impressions are so important," he said. "It is going to be something special to look at."
Johnette Isham, executive director of Realize Bradenton, said the museum plans complement other recent developments that have improved downtown Bradenton.
"Following the opening of the Riverwalk and the Manatee Performing Arts Center, the re-envisioned South Florida Museum is another jewel in Bradenton's crown," she said.
Marty Clear, features writer/columnist, can be reached at 941-708-7919. Follow twitter.com/martinclear.