PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry has inspired a love of science and innovation in visitors young and old for the better part of a century.
OMSI was born on Nov. 15, 1944, but it was called the “Oregon Museum Foundation” for the first few years.
“The museum actually spent the first few years in a little broom closet in the Portland Hotel, believe it or not, while they did fundraising to try to get a space,” said OMSI Communications Manager John Farmer.
Farmer said the museum moved into a donated house on Northeast Hassalo Street in the 1950s and built its first planetarium right on the front lawn.
“It was the first planetarium in the Pacific Northwest,” he said.
OMSI quickly outgrew the space. It moved again by the late 50s — this time, to Washington Park. The museum spent the next few decades there before finally relocating to its current location on Southeast Water Avenue where it opened its doors to the public in October of 1992.
Many things have changed at OMSI over the decades. It recently upgraded its planetarium and its interactive exhibits are frequently refreshed to keep up with cutting-edge research and technology. Two new innovation stations opened this month: the Communication Breakdown and Preparing to Quake stations. The latter teaches visitors about disaster preparedness in the wake of a large earthquake. A central feature of the station is a structure that long-time OMSI goers will recognize as the old “Shake House.” It replicates three major historical earthquakes, including those that rocked Los Angeles and Japan.
Farmer said the opening of the new innovation stations was coordinated to coincide with OMSI’s landmark birthday. The new stations will be around for the foreseeable future but the museum made its actual birthday week even more special with special pop-up exhibits and events like a musical tesla coil show.
Events educator Peter Kukla explained how electricity can be used to play songs.
“Sound is generated using small vibrations in the air that create waves that we hear with our ears. This is normally made with things like our vocal cords, or knocking on wood — small vibrations that then get translated to the air,” he said. “We use tesla coils to make sparks of electricity that do the same thing and by changing how fast those sparks happen, you can change the frequency of the wave and make different sounds and music.”
Kukla said the show is a big hit with kids.
“Their mouths just drop the second they hear it and they see it spark up for the first time and when they start to recognize that it’s the birthday song they get really excited as well,” he said.
Other special exhibits taught visitors about wind power by letting kids build their own wind turbines; another challenged history buffs to figure out when something was invented (like parking meters and electric guitars) in relation to when OMSI was established.
The birthday festivities continued in OMSI’s chemistry lab where coordinator Alexe Mastanduno was lighting some special birthday candles. She demonstrated how the dried spores of moss react with an open flame from a taper candle on a cupcake. The resulting fireball would have impressed Jerry Lee Lewis.
“We use it to talk about the ‘fire triangle’ — so we talk about the kinds of things that fire needs,” she explained. “It needs fuel — something for the fire to eat, it needs oxygen from the air and it needs an ignition source.”
The fiery fun continued with a hands-on experiment showcasing the fundamentals of firework chemistry. Mastanduno helped visitors test different metal salts over a bunsen burner: the flame turned color depending on the element.
“This is an example of how every element on the Periodic Table, when it’s heated, will give off some different colors,” she said. “They all have electrons bouncing around and when they’re heated, they get boosted to higher energy levels and then they drop back down and they give off this colorful light.”
Focused on the future
Experiments like those demonstrated by Mastanduno are what make OMSI so memorable to the scores of people who have visited the museum through the years. Many OMSI patrons who first visited the museum as children now have families of their own and are passing the wonder of learning on to the next generation.
It’s OMSI’s focus on giving its guests unforgettable, engaging experiences that have made it a household name. The museum actively works to guide young minds toward paths that will make them successful individuals who care about the planet.
“Our mission will always be to inspire curiosity through those engaging, hands-on experiences,” said Farmer. “We want to generate discussion. We want to advocate for informed action. But if you’re going to advocate for informed action, say a topic like climate change, you have to be willing to provide that education so that the people you educate can be the advocates themselves.”
And OMSI has a firm plan in place.
“We are avid supporters of climate change education. We don’t think it, we know it is very important,” said Farmer. “But we want it to be presented in a way that is accessible and understandable and not in a way that’s overwhelming. We don’t want to educate someone on what’s going on and have them leave the museum hopeless and downcast. We want them to leave the museum going, ‘You know what, there’s something I can do; I learned something, or maybe there’s a way I can get involved that I didn’t realize before.’ If we achieve that — just that little inspiration or motivation to take that next step on their own — then I think we would have been successful.”
The exhibit showcases the visually stunning work of Christopher Marley. Hundreds of rare specimens, from exotic insects to marine life, are arranged in intricate three-dimensional patterns displayed in special vertical cases. The exhibit is also included with general admission.
Body Worlds will also return to OMSI in the spring of 2020.