What was once a parking lot will soon be an indoor backyard and classrooms created to give children a hands-on and immersive learning experience in a new wing of the South Florida Museum.
The Mosaic Backyard Universe, a 3,290-square-foot space expected to be completed in June, has glass windows along the back wall that partially wrap around the side walls. It will feature a 30-foot tree, tree house, sandbox and freshwater habitat.
Construction on the exhibits is expected to begin next week.
“It’s the first real opportunity to speak directly to young kids and families,” Jeff Rodgers, South Florida Museum provost and COO, said Wednesday during a hard-hat tour of the expansion, which is still in progress.
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The entire space, including the tree house, will meet Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, according to Dave Piper, president and CEO of Brilliant Creative Fabrication, the company that completed designs and will be responsible for the fabrication and installation of the interior components of the Mosaic Backyard Universe.
“What we’re trying to do is, in creating the Mosaic Backyard Universe, is to tee up for guests the spirit of exploration so that as they come into our backyard and enjoy our backyard, that we plant within them a seed ... a seed to visit their own backyard and look at it with different eyes,” Piper said. “And those are the eyes of discovery.”
Rodgers said visitors won’t have the same experience twice in the new expansion.
Museum officials along with the space designers and builders aim for visitors to feel like they are stepping off a back porch and into a yard and plan to incorporate the smell of fresh-baked cookies and sounds of nature.
A 30-foot artificial tree, tree house and sandbox will be off to the left when guests walk in, Piper explained. There, visitors will be able to dig for fossils and look at the root system of a tree, along with other interactive learning opportunities.
The tree, created by NatureMaker Steel Art Trees, will be built to look like a realistic live oak tree, according to Piper.
A science shed in the northeast corner of the room can also be used as a food and beverage area for events, Piper said.
In another corner, what will be made to look like a cardboard spaceship will be placed among scaled-down versions of the planets visible through the wall of windows, with the dome of the museum’s planetarium as their sun.
“Not only will it look lovely, it will also intrigue,” Piper said.
A screen in the nose of the makeshift spaceship will display even more educational content.
The museum worked with professors and students at the Ringling College for Arts and Design to design the projection system and create the content that will be shown on the screen.
“They can get ‘big,’ which means they can fly out into the universe. They can get ‘small,’ essentially we’re shrinking them down to bee-size, they can explore the parts of a flower. They can get smaller and explore the parts of an atom. They can go into the past,” Rodgers said.
Every year, students will create new “suites of engagement” to expand the experiences.
A pond-like freshwater habitat area nearby will feature various wildlife exhibits that will be likely to change depending on the season.
The back porch space guests enter the back yard area through will be used for storage. Rodgers said they think of the “back yard” as a stage and the set can be changed based on the experience museum staff wants to create.
In addition to museum visitors, the museum hopes to draw in school groups, specifically targeting pre-K to third grade groups.
They hope to tailor each child’s experience in the Mosaic Backyard Universe to what they are learning in class. Rodgers said the museum has been working with the Manatee County School District.
“Ideally, you start coming here at 4 years old and don’t stop coming here until you’re 94,” Rodgers said.
But the Mosaic Backyard Universe is not all that’s new. A northwest passage in the museum is now 4,000 square-feet of new classroom and multi-purpose space in the North Education Center.
Administrative offices once in the area near the planetarium were moved to a newly-constructed area upstairs.
“Everything we’re doing in here is designed to be flexible in its use. We’re not locking ourselves into one way of doing things in here. We want to make sure that we can offer lots of diff programming for lots of different audiences. All of this is happening on what was once a parking lot,” Rodgers said.
Off the passage is a new lobby that will be used as an assembly area for students on school trips and community events. The lobby also enters into the Mosaic Backyard Universe.
The building housing the interior portion of the Mosaic Backyard Universe will have state-of-the-art materials designed to withstand hurricanes, reduce heating and cooling costs and last for years to come.
On the outside, the expansion has 96 brown Nichiha panels, a concrete composite with a wood finish.
The windows are comprised of 350 pieces of glass have been used in the Mosaic Backyard Universe exterior walls. The glass is UV-blocked, insulated and impact-resisted.
“It’s been a labor of love and partnership,” said South Florida Museum CEO Brynne Anne Besio said. “We’re so excited to have it open.”
The idea for the Mosaic Backyard Universe started with the philosophy of wanting to create a learning environment more than a traditional museum, said Rodgers.
The South Florida Museum Board of Trustees and staff started the planning process in 2011, and realized they were missing an opportunity to serve an audience, said Besio.
The museum, she said, was not built with young children in mind. This new expansion changes that.
By 2014 it was working with Fawley Bryant Architecture and Doug Mund of dmdg2 on the master planning.
Overall, the ongoing expansion and other improvement projects made to the museum will cost $12 million, Besio said.
In addition to the new classrooms and expansion, the museum also made renovations to the aquarium, restrooms, stairs and roofing, Besio said.
The museum began their fundraising efforts in 2015. South Florida Museum Board of Trustees member William Blalock told the Bradenton Herald in January 2018 their fund raising efforts reached $14.6 million.
A groundbreaking ceremony for the expansion was held in January 2018.