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July 27, 2014
A Visit to the Perot Museum
of Nature and Science


Monday, July 27th, we quite hot, so we decided that today we would visit the Perot Museum with Rudolf, and save the Arboretum for tomorrow, when it was supposed to be a bit cooler.


Getting to the Perot Museum

It is pretty easy to get to the museum from my house (as it is pretty easy to get to most things downtown- one of the attractions of living in a neighborhood so close in).

There are a number of ways to get downtown from my house. Slightly the quickest is to take the Tollway, but if you have five extra minutes, you can save a buck and a half and take surface streets.

So we head down Inwood to Lemmon Avenue, and hang a left heading southeast. At Oaklawn Avenue, we turn right, now heading southwest. This brings us to an entrance onto Harry Hines Boulevard, which we again take southeast.

Harry Hines goes past the KERA studios and then puts us right onto Field Street, the road that goes right in front of the museum. Rather than pay to park in the museum lot, we park the same place we park to go to Spaghetti Warehouse or the Aquarium. There are always meters available, and an afternoon's parking is only a buck or two- much less than the $12 cost for the museum lot.

The new Perot Museum of Nature and Science is situated at the southwest corner of N. Field Street and Woodall Rogers Expressway (the connector between I-35E and US 75 north on the west side of the center of Dallas).

Actually, the museum is located in what was once Dallas' premier nighttime entertainment district- the West End. It used to be filled with restaurants and shops and a real hopping place on weekends. In the last five years or so, even with the construction of new downtown living and its proximity to the American Airlines Center, the Sixth Floor Museum, the Arts District, the Aquarium and numerous restaurants, the West End has come very close to being abandoned. It is really quite sad, particularly since Fred and I remember how busy it used to be at night. Now, it is ridiculously easy to find places on the street to park, which is what we did for the Perot visit.

We walked from the car underneath Woodall Rogers and across the street to the museum. The main way in is to work your way up the steps through a nice garden with some water features (you can see our path on the aerial view of the Museum at right) and then across the broad entry plaza and into the Education Building. This building contains classrooms, the gift shop, some offices and other auxiliary facilities. Once inside, you walk down a ramp to the lower level where the ticket and membership desks are located.

The Museum meters guest entry; tickets specify an entry time, and entry times are on the quarter hour. This is to ensure that the flow of visitors stays fairly steady. Once inside, visitors ascend a combination of escalators, ramps and stairs to the top level, from which point you work your way down floor by floor, exhibit by exhibit, and guests usually exit from the lowest level out to Field Street, or ground level down a long ramp back to the parking areas.


A Bit of History

How the Perot Museum came into being is an interesting story. It can trace its history back to 1936 when The Dallas Museum of Natural History (one of the first such museums in the whole region) was established in the historic Fair Park district as part of the Texas Centennial. Ten years later, an auxiliary institution, the Dallas Health Museum, was founded by a group chartered as the Dallas Academy of Medicine, “to provide a common channel of enthusiastic effort for all the forces of health in Dallas and the Southwest.”

The Perot Museum (Looking Northwest)

In 1958, the Dallas Health Museum was renamed the Dallas Health and Science Museum. A sixty-seat, thirty-foot, domed planetarium was built and education programs were held in cooperation with local schools and universities, and in 1981 that museum became The Science Place. By 1986, that museum had expanded into a second building, and was beginning to show its age.

On another timeline, the Dallas Children's Museum was founded in 1995 and served as a hands-on early childhood learning destination. By the early years of the millennium, there was considerable discussion about merging these various museums together- particularly since Fair Park, which had seen better days, was seeing declines in visitor numbers. Thanks to a $10-million gift from Hunt Petroleum group interested in this museum consolidation purchased 4.7 acres in Victory Park.

2006 was the watershed; in that year, three museums- the Dallas Museum of Natural History, The Science Place and the Dallas Children’s Museum- merged to create the Museum of Nature & Science at Fair Park. But the vision was to move the new museum to a more accessible location- Victory Park.

Fundraising went into high gear, and in 2008, T. Boone Pickens made a $10 million gift, quickly eclipsed when the five children of Ross and Margot Perot announced a $50-million gift in order to honor their parents by having the new museum named the Perot Museum of Nature and Science. And another $10 million donation financed the Tom Hunt Energy Hall.

On Field Street Looking SE

In November, 2009, the groundbreaking ceremonies were held on the new museum site, and construction began the following year. For the next two years, construction and fundraising continued (the final fundraising goal being $185 million). The building "topped out" in March, 2011, and in a burst of optimism that the Mayans were wrong, opened officially on December 1, 2012.

The building is, indeed, an interesting one. It is basically a large cube with a signature protrusion on the east side (which enclosed part of the stairs from level 2 to level 4). The architect did take advantage of the Perot's siting some distance from any skyscraper to provide great views of downtown Dallas and the Victory Park area from various windows and balconies. On our way through the museum today, we took pictures from a few of these locations, and you can click on the thumbnail images below to have a look:

Well, that's a bit about the history of the Perot Museum, so let's begin our visit. What I'll do is describe the various "halls" and exhibits that we visited- each in its own section.


The T. Boone Pickens "Life Then and Now" Hall

The ramps, escalators and stairs take the visitor to the top level of the museum (level 5), and the first gallery one visits is located on a mezzanine just above the main floor of this hall (which is on level 4).

Near the balcony we were on, and hanging from the ceiling, was the skeleton of a pterodactyl, and all around this area were numerous exhibits all having to do with the ability of flight- how it evolved, which animals have it and which don't and how it is accomplished. As with most areas of the museum, there is lots for kids to do, including standing in front of a movie screen with a virtual-reality helmet on which is said to give the illusion of flight. Certainly the squeals of the kids seemed to confirm the success of the exhibit.

As with most museums, there were lots of display cases with rather more information than a casual visitor can quite absorb, so we read just what seemed interesting. Click on the thumbnail images below to see some of the pictures I took here:

The exhibits on flight were very interesting; again, as with most museums, it would be nice to be able to take the time to see and read everything, but there is just too much. When you come around the main core into the fifth floor gallery, it is tough to pay much attention to the exhibits devoted to the abilities and evolution of flying animals when you can look out over the main floor of the hall and see the gigantic dinosaur skeletons on display. But we made the effort.

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When we were done, though, we turned our attention to what awaited one floor below, and at that point, I walked over to the balcony railing and made a movie, panning across the hanging dinosaur skeleton and looking down at the exhibits on the floor below. You can use the player at right to watch this movie.

I also took a couple of pictures of these huge skeletons from the balcony, and you can click on the thumbnail images below to have a look at them:

At the Field Street end of the balcony, we found a set of stairs leading down to the main exhibit areas. While we were descending these stairs, I paused to take a picture looking the length of the exhibit hall.

Towering dinosaurs, rare fossils and virtual paleo-habitats are just a few of the features that make the T. Boone Pickens Life Then and Now Hall a must-go destination for dinosaur lovers, fossil collectors or just about anyone who has ever wondered what life was like when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. Inside the 11,000-square-foot exhibition space on this floor, visitors can look at fossil finds like the infamous predator Tyrannosaurus rex or the plant-eating Alamosaurus. For those so inclined, there were stations at most of the exhibits where you could launch a video interview with the scientist who discovered the particular fossil skeleton. For kids, there were lots of exhibits about how plants and animals have adapted to changing conditions over the millennia.

There was even a videogame challenge that asked kids to introduce beneficial adaptations to creatures to see if they could improve their abilities to survive. One thing did occur to me; I do not recall seeing the word "evolution" used in any of the displays to refer to the process natural selection. I saw "changed into" or "adapted to become" or phrases like that, though. I guess the museum knows its clientele. Click on the thumbnail images below to see some of the pictures we took of the exhibits here:

Other exhibits focused on how fossils are discovered, and particularly interesting were the displays that illustrated how scientists can deduce so much about the creatures and their adaptations using only information from the fossil discovery. Some exhibits talked about the advanced paleo methods and tools currently in use in the field and lab while others offered video footage of Perot Museum paleontologists at work. (Who knew the museum would already have its own paleontological staff?)

We all know that sea creatures eventually came out onto the land and, through an evolutionary process, became exclusively land-dwellers. I did not know that the process has worked in the reverse, but one particularly interesting exhibit talked about how a land-dwelling animal evolved into a giant marine predator called the Mosasaurus. There was a skeleton of a Mosasaurus on display, but I couldn't get back far enough to get the whole thing in, so I ended up taking three pictures of it. I wasn't careful about my angles, so when I stitched them together the result wasn't perfect, but perhaps it is good enough:

There were other interesting exhibits about how the North Texas area was once under water, and how huge Ice-Age animals eventually went extinct. There was also what looked like an actual fossil lab, and kids could dress up in lab coats a few at a time and, in a simulation, I suppose, help the researchers.

Interestingly enough, there was an exhibit about the buffalo, a modern-day animal that almost went extinct- not from natural processes but because of man's intervention- so of course I had to photograph Fred and Rudolf with it.

Many of the exhibits had information I hadn't seen before- how ancient animals moved and ate and interacted with each other. Photographing the signage didn't seem to be a good strategy, but many of the skeletons were very interesting. Click on the thumbnail images below for some more pictures of them:

Other interesting exhibits compared skeletal structures between meat and plant eaters, or explored predator-prey adaptations then and now, looked at ancient animal tracks and what they can tell us about family group structure and behavior (reminiscent of what you might find at Fossil Rim), and examined the winter survival strategies of modern mammals for clues that could explain how northern dinosaurs might have endured the cold as well.

The entire floor was full of interesting stuff, and we tried to see most of it. Click on the thumbnail images below to see the last group of pictures we took here in hall:


The Lyda Hill Gems and Minerals Hall

At the entrance to the Lyda Hill Gems and Minerals Hall (named for the funder of the Lyda Hill Foundation, a significant contributor to the Perot Museum) there is a showcase, about seven feet tall and three feet square that seems to contain a giant boulder, some five feet tall and about a foot and a half thick.

As you stand in front of it, it seems innocuous, but then you notice the sign that suggests that you turn the geared wheel in front of you. When you do, you immediately notice that the rock has been sliced down the middle, and that your turning of the wheel is slowly rotating the halves of the rock apart. And as the rock "opens," you next realize that you are looking at the largest geode you have probably ever seen, and that inside are some of the most beautiful amethyst crystals you have also likely seen.

With that introduction to the Hall, it’s easy to see what makes mineral crystals and gemstones so highly prized by collectors, jewelers and scientists alike. The Lyda Hill Hall uses high-definition videos, digital puzzles and touchable specimens to allow visitors to explore the astounding variety of colors, shapes and hardnesses of Earth’s original rock stars- from the gleaming luster of “fool’s gold” to the ultraviolet glow of fluorescent minerals.

I have always enjoyed looking at museum-grade mineral specimens (and when I had a chance to acquire similar ones at Custer State Park in South Dakota, I tried to take maximum advantage of it); they are in most cases quite beautiful. That's why I took so many photographs here in the Lyda Hill Hall. Click on the thumbnail images below to see some of them:

The three of us worked our way around the large hall, having a look at all of the beautiful mineral specimens on display. Below, right, is one of the most beautiful specimens I saw, but all of them were challengers for "most beautiful."

One learns that different minerals possess a broad range of properties, and interactive exhibits bring this fact home via touchscreens, a hands-on touch table and visitor-controlled lighting.

Click on the thumbnail images below to see more of the many pictures we took here in the Hall:

The only way to describe the beauty of these specimens is to show you. Here are two more exceptional ones:

Finally, let me wrap up our visit to the Lyda Hill Hall with one more set of thumbnail images that you can click on to see the full-size pictures that we took. Enjoy!


Other Areas of the Perot Museum

We did walk through most of the museum with Rudolf, although the vast majority of the pictures I took were in the Pickens and Lyda Hill Halls.

One other Hall where we spent some time was the 3,400-square-foot "Discovering Life" exhibit hall, seen at left from the floor above. Here, there were more fossils, taxidermy specimens, 3D animations and interactive games that demonstrate how factors like genetics and environment are shaping the next generation of plants and animals. The exhibit got perilously close to a thorough discussion of evolution with an interactive kids' exhibit that gave them the chance to see genetics in action as they created their own virtual baby dragon (the Perot neatly sidestepping the issue and focusing on an animal that was never real) to discover how genetic traits are randomly passed down.

Below are clickable thumbnail images for a couple of pictures I took as we wandered through this Hall:

As we went from floor to floor, using the stairs in the building's open air core, I did take a few pictures looking down into that core at the various levels below. Here are a couple of those pictures:


Leaving the Perot Museum

Truth be told, the most exciting thing we saw at the museum wasn't an exhibit at all, nor did it have anything to do with the architecture of the building itself- except perhaps tangentially.

The Perot Museum (Looking Northwest)

At left is the picture I took of the outside of the building; the same one you saw at the top of this page. That picture was actually taken after we left the museum, and in it you may have noticed a fire engine on the street beside the building. I should explain why it was there.

We happened to be on the lowest level of the museum, investigating some of the special exhibits- the ones that involve an additional fee. We weren't going to visit them, but we wanted to show Rudolf the whole building. We were near the lowest level emergency exit doors, where there is a kids' play area, and we had just stuck our heads inside when the high-intensity fire lights sprinkled throughout the building began flashing, and a raucous sound began blaring from the loudspeakers. Obviously, a fire alarm had been tripped somewhere, so we went back out into the hall near the exit doors, ready to exit the building, as a great many people began doing.

I became temporarily interested, though, in the automated fire doors that started coming out of the ceiling. What were these mechanisms that I'd not before seen in actual operation?

The Fire Curtain Mechanism

As I stood and watched (no danger, as the exit door was only a few feet to my left) I saw a corrugated curtain begin to descend from the ceiling. Here is what was happening. On either side of the hall were two glass doors, whose purpose I hadn't thought about until now. Above these doors, which nobody used, of course, were glass panels all the way to the ceiling. The corrugated curtain was obvious some fire-resistant material, and it was designed to descend through a break in the overhead lighting fixture (which extended all the way down the hall) and then into a channel between the two glass doors. When it reached the floor, the inside of the museum would be sealed off from the play area and one of the exhibits near the exit doors. I assumed this was for fire, but it might also be activated if some sort of theft were in progress.

Anyway, as soon as the curtain started descending, the glass doors clicked open, and museum staff appeared, presumably to guide exiting visitors through them when the curtain blocked the center of the hall. I saw clearly what happened next, although there was no one to whom I could draw attention to the problem and, truth be told, not enough time to do so. Instead of descending smoothly, the curtain got hung up just above the light fixture, or possibly it didn't go into the slot through the fixture and got hung up on the fixture itself. But unlike a typical garage door that meets an obstruction, there was no safety mechanism to cause the curtain to rise again. It continued to be pushed downward until the pressure got so great that the light fixture gave way, the curtain smashed through it and then finally hung up again as the right side of the curtain missed the track between the two doors and the whole thing stopped.

It was startling when the light fixture gave way, and large pieces of the half-inch thick Plexiglass showered down on the museum visitors still making their way to the exit doors behind me. A number of visitors were hit by the falling pieces, although I did not see anyone actually hurt. There were the usual screams of surprise and parents shielding children from falling debris, and after the hubbub died down, I took one more picture.

The Aftermath

Most of the visitors have left, or were standing behind me looking at what had happened. You can see the curtain's position when the mechanism finally cut off, and you can see the pieces of the light fixture littering the floor.

In this picture you can also better discern the breaks in the light fixture- like the one near me. There was another such gap where the curtain was supposed to go, but didn't. After taking this picture, I took one more look around and then joined Rudolf and Fred who had already exited the building.

So our visit to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science ended with a bang- literally.

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