Continued evolution: Natural History Museum will reveal renovations, new exhibits this week

Eighteen months into its $150 million expansion and renovation project, the Cleveland Museum of Natural History (CMNH) on Wednesday, Dec. 7 will invite visitors to explore the new and reimagined spaces and exhibits that have already been completed.

Officials have vowed to keep the museum open throughout this four-year transformation that will expand the museum's building and outdoor visitor areas to more than 375,000 square feet. It will be closed on Tuesday, Dec. 6 before reopening on Wednesday and offering free admission to show off the progress.

<span class="content-image-text">The Shafran Planetarium, which has been closed for the past year, is reopening with a software upgrade to Digistar 7</span>The Shafran Planetarium, which has been closed for the past year, is reopening with a software upgrade to Digistar 7“We’re in the midst of the transformation,” says Gavin Svenson, CMNH chief science officer. “We’ve adopted a plan to make sure visitors can come visit the museum while we move forward with this project.”

As the museum hits the midpoint in the project, due to be completed in 2024, officials will show off the progress this week with the reopening of Smead Discovery Center—Presented by PNC and the Nathan and Fannye Shafran Planetarium, as well as offering a preview of the engaging experiences that visitors will enjoy in the transformed Museum.

This month the Museum will also unveil installations of celebrated works of art.

In addition to the Discovery Center and Planetarium, other new features in this segment of the transformation include 3-D movies in Murch Auditorium; an exhibit space focused on art and nature; enhanced educational spaces; the new Origins Café; two temporary exhibits using virtual reality; and theAmazing Insects”exhibit, featuringthe world’s smallest species.

Svenson notes that although the $150 million transformation project kicked off in June 2021, updates and enhancements to CMNH have been going on since 2016—first, with the Perkins Wildlife Center, gardens, and a new parking garage in 2016; then the 2020 opening of a current science exhibit and upgraded auditorium and courtyard.

He says this latest round of renovations is impressive. “the first time I walked in to the finished space, it felt great,” he says. “It feels good to be in there—it’s a cool experience.”

A new approach
Svenson says guests will notice the changes even upon first approach to the museum’s new entrance on Wade Oval. “When visitors stand on Wade Oval, they see what is designed to look like a glacier, and the glacier element continues into the building itself,” he explains. “That excites me a lot—we’re getting experiences that are more unique.”

Upon entering the museum, the newly created Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Community Space will serve as the main lobby of the Museum’s expanded Education Wing, which will feature an enhanced, flexible multipurpose space, classrooms, and a lab—all with state-of-the-art technology.

The classrooms are now centrally located, which Svenson says makes for a more positive learning experience for the students, as well as the ability to easily connect with staff upon entering the museum.

The reimagined Smead Discovery Center will continue to encourage hands-on learning for children through the addition of even more interactive experiences. Located on the Museum’s lower level, this intergenerational space has been redesigned to be accessible for all ages and abilities, and guests can explore the wonders of science and nature as they dig for dinosaurs, take an up-close look at museum specimens, or design their own constellations.

The Origins Café, which overlooks Wade Oval, is enclosed in bird-safe glass for spectacular views while grabbing a snack provided by Levy, and offers both indoor and outdoor seating.

<span class="content-image-text">Virtual Reality (VR) Birdly unit—full-body, immersive virtual-reality flight-simulator that allow guests to soar among winged wildlife</span>Virtual Reality (VR) Birdly unit—full-body, immersive virtual-reality flight-simulator that allow guests to soar among winged wildlifeFrom 3-D to VR
Svenson says he appreciates the new 3-D movies in Murch Auditorium in a partnership with New Jersey-based D3D Cinema. “The 3D is great, a lot of visitors are going to [enjoy it],” he says. “We can bring movies out that are scientifically based and it’s pretty neat stuff. And they are Included in admission.”

Movies to be shown in the theater include “Superpower Dogs,” an immersive adventure featuring the inspiring bravery of some of the world’s most amazing dogs—including Halo, a puppy training to join one of the most elite disaster-response teams in America; Henry, an avalanche-rescue expert in the mountains of British Columbia; Reef, a Newfoundland lifeguard with the Italian coastguard; Ricochet, a Californian surf legend helping people with special needs; and Tipper and Tony, bloodhound brothers leading the fight to save endangered species in Africa.

Dinosaurs Alive!” is a global journey that brings to life creatures from the Triassic to the Cretaceous Periods as paleontologists search for clues buried in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert and Ghost Ranch, New Mexico, and uncover fossilized evidence that dinosaur descendants may still walk (or fly) among us.

Two Virtual Reality (VR) Birdly units—full-body, immersive flight-simulators—allow guests to soar among winged wildlife as either a pterosaur or a butterfly.

Beginning this month, the museum will feature two VR experiences. In “Jurassic Flight,” guests embody a pterosaur and soar among dinosaurs roaming the Earth during the Jurassic Period—150 million years ago.  

The North American premiere of “Butterflyallows participants to take flight as a butterfly and explore a living ecosystem filled with highly detailed plants, insects, birds, reptiles, snails, and mammals—discovering aspects of our world usually hidden from human eyes. UV-Vision will enable guests to see hidden patterns on the plants and animals while "Smell-O-Vision" will allow them to discover hidden insects by their pheromone trails.

“You put on VR goggles and fly around and move through that space,” says Svenson. “It feels like you’re flying. As a pterosaur you fly around and look at [the Earth in the Jurassic Period]; with Butterfly, you are a butterfly and fly around a little habitat and see it in ultraviolet vision like they really do.”

Reaching for the stars
The Shafran Planetarium, which has been closed for the past year, is reopening with a software upgrade to Digistar 7. New seating allows for more customized and creative configurations. The planetarium’s newest program, Unfolding the Universe, highlights NASA’s latest engineering marvel—the James Webb Space Telescope.

With this technology, guests take an immersive journey through space and time to explore the earliest eras of the universe, witness galaxies in the midst of titanic collisions, peer deep into majestic stellar nurseries, and continue the search for life beyond our Solar System—all while viewing the telescope’s latest images in unprecedented detail.

“We took out old seats that were bolted to the floor and made them modular and movable,” Svenson explains of the renovations.

“You can come in there and have dinner under the stars, have school groups come, and the astronomy team is eager to share the wonders of the night sky through Unfolding the Universe, which highlights NASA’s latest engineering marvel—the James Webb Space Telescope,” says Svenson.

The planetarium experience is included with general admission and guaranteed to be out of this world.

A closer look at nature
From the personal collection of Ryan “The Bug Man” Bridge, the exhibit “Amazing Insects will feature hundreds of insects from around the world. In addition to donating insects to museums and universities, Bridge has presented his collection through various exhibits across the country, sharing his passion for and knowledge of everything insect-related with audiences of all ages and interests.

Corning Gallery, a new home for rotating exhibits that highlight the intersection of art and nature, will host its first installations—the Museum’s bound first edition set of 19th Century artist and naturalist John James Audubon’s “Birds of America” and the museum’s set of Pop Art icon Andy Warhol’s “Endangered Species,”—a portfolio of 10 vibrant screen prints featuring animals at risk of extinction, including an African elephant, black rhinoceros, and orangutan.

The recent renovations were designed by Paul Westlake, with Panzica Construction
serving as the general contractor.

Karin Connelly Rice
Karin Connelly Rice

About the Author: Karin Connelly Rice

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.