The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry offers nose-wrinkling experiences for kids.
So I drive to OMSI with my small twin sons and they quiver impatiently as I buy admission tickets and as soon as we are through the turnstiles they zoom off in different directions like neutrinos or quarks. One son really wants to go on the Motion Simulator and not even barf, Dad! and then go to the Omnimax moon movie where Tom Hanks is sonorously talking about the 12 American guys who walked in that unimaginable dust, and my other son is sprinting headlong toward the new animation exhibit, where you can make your own movies, Dad! and hear cartoony sound effects like buzzing flies and tapping fingers, but their dad has a thing for the Transparent Woman upstairs in the Life Science Hall, where the boys don’t much like to go because of the exhibit of baby development at every stage of human pregnancy, so we have a Guy Meeting, the boys and I, right there in wild Turbine Hall, and decide our itinerary for the day, which over the next few hours will include shooting water rockets, riding the simulator and pretending we are Han Solo, totally zoning out on the moon with Tom Hanks, Dad paying his own private respects to the Transparent Woman, eating french fries in the open–air courtyard over the Willamette River, building vast castles of blocks in the Science Playground (which is really for little kids, not us, Dad, but still . . .), surfing on a 5.5 quake in the Earthquake Room, gaping at real dinosaur skeletons, cramming ourselves into the former navy submarine Blueback docked alongside the museum, staring at real live huge steelhead trout! in the Earth Science Hall, debating whether we should stay for the surround–sound laser music movie in the planetarium, and finally staggering back to the car late in the afternoon, ruing the fact that we had barely dipped our toes in the ocean of delights that is OMSI.
The entity better known to my sons as the Coolest Museum Ever was born in 1896 in the brain of an engineer named John Stevens, who wondered publicly why Oregon’s largest city had no permanent place to collect and exhibit the state’s incredible wealth of natural resources. After about 50 years, the Oregon Museum Foundation opened its first science exhibit in a downtown hotel; the museum then moved to a house in northeast Portland for a few years before hundreds of volunteers helped build the beloved first OMSI in Washington Park, the central jewel of Portland’s greenbelt necklace.
Here millions of avid visitors proved Stevens’s conviction that a creative and colorful science museum would wow the multitudes as well as spark the imaginations (and future careers) of vast gaggles of children. By the 1980s the museum was drawing some 600,000 visitors a year, overwhelming the brick barn raised by so many volunteers, and in 1992 the new OMSI opened—fittingly, on the site of an old sawdust–fired power plant donated by Portland General Electric.
The "new" OMSI, as many Portlanders still call it, features the 200–seat Kendall Planetarium, the five–story Omnimax theater, hundreds of exhibits in its five halls, the Blueback (the last diesel–electric attack sub in operation before the U.S. Navy went entirely nuclear), and its own behind–the–scenes workshop for creating new exhibits. From its shy beginnings as a tiny natural history installation in the old Portland Hotel, OMSI now ranges across the continent and over an ocean. Its 45 traveling exhibits have delighted children of all ages in North America and Europe, its workshops inspire teachers in seven Western states, and its camps and classes fascinate kids from all over the Pacific Northwest.
But for me, all these remarkable facts and figures pale in comparison to OMSI’s greatest virtue and most subtle genius—the way it is a verb, a spark, an excitement, an incitement, for the eager, riveted, delighted children who pour through the place like a wriggling, giggling river. The secret essence of OMSI is that it never uses that word that makes children quail and shiver—oh no, Education!—yet the entire place is a cheerful college where hands–on learning activities are indistinguishable from play: folding paper airplanes and testing them in wind tunnels, clambering into a life–size Gemini capsule, creating your own meteorological forecast, meeting a real live 15–foot python (his name is Bubba, Dad!), making stop–motion films in the animation exhibit, creating your own muddy watershed, and finally, even though now you are a totally cool 10–year–old Guy draped in swagger and attitude, wandering back into Sandland, in the Science Playground where you used to spend hours when you were a little dude, a thousand years ago, and wiggling your tiny toes and dreamily building cities, while waiting, as usual when we go to OMSI, for Dad to stop staring in astonishment at the Transparent Woman.
Photography by Krista Hofmeister
This article was first published in March 2006. Some facts
may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.
For information on OMSI's hours and attractions, call (503) 797-4000 or visit www.omsi.edu. To experience the museum when it is less crowded, visit early on a weekend or on a weekday after 1:30 p.m. (when school groups have gone).
The exhibit Animation runs through April 23. Robots & Us starts June 1 and continues through September 4.