You could spend a couple of hours of your life sorting through everything there is to do and learn at the Science Museum of Virginia’s new Speed exhibit.
What it is
Oh, only the Science Museum’s biggest deal exhibit yet, and it’s happening in our lifetimes, man!
It’s a 10,000 square foot endeavor–the whole main concourse area of the museum (i.e. the part that’s directly ahead of you once you walk in the lobby and skirt your way around the Pendulum That Will Forever Be Knocking Over Pegs to the Delight of Many Generations of Children (that probably has a real name). And while the space isn’t really all that large, there’s an incredible amount of information packed in there.
The big draw, of course, is the SR-71 Blackbird supersonic jet suspended from the ceiling. That’s pretty neat, and you can apparently do some stuff with it (I mean, not with it, you cannot fly the plane) by using the Museum’s new app, Muse. I quickly forgot about the dang jet looming over my head due to the array of things in front of me.
You will experience a few moments of anxiety about not knowing where to start. There’s a lot going on. I recommend taking a lay of the land first, and then just starting in a corner and working your way out.
Each little pod of the exhibit is focused on different aspects of speed–things that are too slow to see (like erosion), things that are too fast to see (like vibrations), relativity, the speed of sound, speed’s role in sports, and a lot more.
The Relativity Theater brings you various chapters on three big screens with narration explaining to you facets of relativity while attempting not to blow your mind into smithereens of confusion. There’s a Human Wind Tunnel in which you can experience the effects of gale force winds (hair blowing) or hurricane winds (hair plastered to head).
There’s also a cage where you can throw a baseball, kick a soccer ball, or throw a football to see how fast you clock in, right next to the little double track, where you can race a virtual alligator,1 Olympic sprinter, and more. This area brings out The Dads–you know what I mean, the ones who are like “That’s good, Atticus, but step aside and let the real pros make a pitch.” And then we all kind of look the other way while Dad winds up really seriously and throws hard, producing a miles-per-hour result that nobody knows what to do with. There’s very little eye contact when he comes out of the cage.
My favorite, by far, was the air hockey robot, which basically destroys you in a one-on-one game using math and science. Humans, who kept on using hope, were no match for its defensive lightning quick reflexes…except for one kid who came out of nowhere, scored on the robot twice, and then melted back into the crowd like it was no big deal. Kid: It was a big deal! They should be making sports movies about you!
The Carpenter Science Theater–a troupe that performs little plays about science–gave us a really cute eight-minute look into what people used to think about trains. They were too fast for our minds to even grasp! Spoiler: Clever joke that your kid will not get about how a train station could never be a museum.
We also spent a lot of time with a time-lapse look at various parts of the globe while you move time forward or backward at the speed of your choosing. Richmond is the central focus for a lot of it, so you can see how the ocean used to be really dang close, as was ice.
Other favorites included the world’s slowest man-made machine (more exciting than it sounds), the viral outbreak simulator (you can adjust virulence, vaccination, and lethality to see just how quickly a sick person in Richmond could destroy the entire state), and the manipulation of a strobe light that lets you see the vibrations of the strings of a double bass when you pluck them. My son also loved to lie around in the Mercury 7 capsule and then tell everyone that he was just getting back from the moon.
I keep thinking of other things to type right now, but this review has really got to end somewhere. You really should just go.
Who’s behind it
The Museum is including Speed as part of its “Inspire the World” campaign, which is focused on making it a national destination. This permanent exhibit, funded in part by the Garland & Agnes Taylor Gray Foundation, the Richard and Caroline T. Gwathmey Memorial Trust, and the Roller-Bottimore Foundation, definitely levels up the Museum in many ways.
Where it is
The Science Museum of Virginia, if you’re new to town, is that big former train station on Broad (2500 W. Broad Street). There’s plenty of parking between it and the Children’s Museum of Richmond next door, which poses some problems when it’s naptime and you’re bringing your child back to the car and he or she is all “Wait a second, IS THAT THE CHILDREN’S MUSEUM? WHY ARE WE NOT GOING THERE RIGHT THIS MINUTE.” No, child. It is not the Children’s Museum, it is…just an illusion brought on by your extreme sleepiness. Now don’t fall asleep in the car, or else.
When it is
The museum is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 AM – 5:00 PM and on Sundays from 11:30 AM – 5:00 PM.
How much it costs
Admission to the exhibit is included in regular museum admission, which is currently $14 for adults and $13 for children or seniors. You really may as well get a membership because you’re going to want to go back and do all the stuff you didn’t leave enough time to do the first time you went.
Other things to note
I traveled with a four-year-old, who was a little too young to get a whole lot out of it, although he did express extreme annoyance the following day when we didn’t go back to the Science Museum as he had requested. Older kids, however, will be transfixed, and even older kids (i.e. adults) will have a lot of scientific things explained to them in a way they can understand.2
There’s also one issue with having this much stuff to do in a relatively small space–oh, good for you, you guessed it! It’s a lot of tripping over other people’s children, waiting in some short lines, and bemoaning the fact that a 12-year-old boy might keep sticking his head in the Relativity Theater and pressing buttons that change the program while you’re trying to listen to Prabir Mehta explain to you that you age slower when you go faster. At no point did anyone explain to me how to make my child age slower, so that he can avoid becoming an awkward preteen altogether. Prabir, I’ll be in touch.
If you don’t go do this, you will…
It’s not really even worth hypothesizing what you will do if you don’t see this, because, as this is going to be around for a very long time, you will eventually make it there. It’s mandatory.