Friday, December 17, 1999
Museum Review: EcoTarium: A Center for Environmental Exploration
In its previous life, this museum in Worcester was the New England Science Center. Its new incarnation has some of the old elements, both good and bad, but there is definite improvement and promise of more to come.
The EcoTarium is the intersection of natural history, science, environmental education and zoos. That variety gives you a good selection of attractive options for a wide range of ages and interests. All exhibits are much smaller than those at Boston's museums, but they tell the same stories with greater hands-on opportunities. Fortunately, here you have smaller crowds, a simpler drive and easier parking.
What the EcoTarium currently lacks in dramatic staging it makes up for in personal interaction with visitors. Adult and junior volunteers helped us pet an orange corn snake, a sea star and a river whelk. We touched turtle shells and whale vertebra, animal skulls, even the "horn" of a sawfish.
This is an inside/outside museum experience. The big animals are outside; the exhibits, animal-handling opportunities, and walls of aquariums and terrariums are inside. The old wetland life exhibits are still there, filled with huge frogs and many turtles. Pull-out drawers at kid-level hold a variety of non-living exhibits: birds' eggs, a sampling of nesting materials, or sand imprints of animal tracks, and a case full of butterfly specimens. Three different microscope areas let you really see a snake skin and wasps' nests, feathers, mica, pond water and bugs. There ís a section designed for school groups and older learners with exhibits on global warming, biodiversity, energy cycles and crystals.
Animal viewing is always a hit-or-miss enterprise. You can visit the outdoor animal exhibits and hope to see river otters in their snazzy new habitat (if you miss them at the beginning of a morning visit, check on the way out...the sun may have invited them out to play), snowy owls ignoring their breakfast of white mice, a handsome mountain lion and a shy bobcat. One polar bear was hiding, the other only presenting his worst view to us, but better than none.
There's a place for outside viewing of monkeys inside their glass houses. If you have someone blonde in your group, have him or her sit backwards against the glass at the golden lion amarin habitat. One little monkey will come down to play with his look-alike friend. The habitats are still miserable for most of the mammals, but the new otter home is a reassuring example of EcoTarium's intentions to dramatically improve this part of the museum. The new habitats should be completed by summer 2000 as part of the $18 million capital campaign.
The Tree Canopy Walkway is a great new feature. The 150-foot bridge and platform system is suspended 30 feet above the ground, in the canopy of four oak trees. The first section is open to anyone, including wheel-chair visitors. The second section is for those willing to sign a waiver and be roped in. It requires advance reservations and a fee of $10 to $15. Children must be seven years old and accompanied by an adult. They say it is the first in the Northeast to be open for public use, and is the only walkway built in an urban forest. We plan to go back in the spring to try it out.
They have plans for a multi-species habitat for those monkeys and other tropical creatures, a landscaped courtyard with falling water, and walking trails throughout the sixty acres. The planetarium should be open for the millennium. On weekends, astronomers will help with planetarium programs; during the week they will offer special ones for organized groups: good for Boy and Girl Scouts, Science Clubs or any group that calls ahead. It requires an additional $2.50 ticket.
Allow at least two and one-half hours to visit. Since this is an indoor-outdoor museum, they provide cubby holes inside to leave backpacks and parkas. You can bring your lunch, too. There are tables set out for family lunches, with vending machines for soda, coffee, Gatorade, milk and yogurt, and snacks and candy.
The EcoTarium is handicapped accessible. Museum hours are Monday - Saturday, 10 am to 5pm, Sundays, Noon to 5 p.m. Closed on selected holidays. Admission is $6 for adults; $4 for children, seniors and students; children under three, free. 508/929-2700 or www.ecotarium.org for more information.
It takes forty-five minutes to reach the museum. Take 495 south to 290 headed to Worcester. At exit # 21, head south on Plantation Street. After crossing Route 9 look for Franklin Street on your left. Harrington Road and the EcoTarium will be on your right. Purchase your ticket at the booth and park in their lot nearby.
© 1999 The Carlisle Mosquito