Taking the Family-favorite Brookings Interpretive Center into the Future
The Brookings Interpretive Center opened in 1990 during the Climatron® renovations. It was built with support from the relatives of the late Robert Somers Brookings, the prominent 19th-century St. Louis businessman and philanthropist. Today, as the Garden’s indoor, year-round, family-friendly destination, it encourages hands-on discovery, exploration, and learning. Since 2008, it has hosted annual innovative and interactive exhibits, with more than 120,000 visitors enjoying its educational games, reading nooks, craft tables, and costume play areas each year.
After more than 20 years, however, its infrastructure and facilities needed to be enhanced and upgraded. That is why, starting this fall, the 4,300- square-foot center will temporarily close for renovations and expansion. The project is one of the major capital initiatives of the Garden for the World campaign.
Thanks to a lead gift by Edward Jones, the new space will reopen next spring with state-of-the-art exhibit space and a brand-new PlantLab (see page 13). A new vestibule area, designed to make visitor experiences more comfortable and accessible to everyone, will feature barrier- free restrooms, a family restroom, vending machines, and a Calming Corner that will serve as a place for families with children needing quite time and a comfortable room for nursing mothers.
RENOVATION AT A GLANCE
- Brookings Interpretive Center closes in late September and reopens in the spring of 2016.
- Climatron (see page 16) and Temperate House remain open to the public.
- Main entrance to the Doris I. Schnuck Children’s Garden will be closed. From the start of the renovation through November 1, the west gate by the restroom building will serve as the temporary entrance, and admission to the Children’s Garden will be free.
- William T. Kemper Center for Home Gardening accessible through alternate path.
- Other indoor learning and gardening alternatives include Tower Grove House, Linnean House, Climatron, Temperate House, and the Center for Home Gardening.
Jennifer Wolff, Interpretation Manager at the Garden, has been thinking bout this project since 2003. She and her team of educators have been in charge of the Brookings Interpretive Center for more than 10 years. When she first started overseeing its operations, the center had had a permanent exhibit since 1995. Paradise Is Being Lost, as the exhibit was called, was self-guided and didn’t change from year to year. When it opened, it had the latest technology— touch-screen computer kiosks, video monitors, displays featuring living animals and plants, and interactive panels. “It was high-tech but low-touch,” Wolff says. “Today, we know from many studies that kids learn more by doing, and while technology is valuable, it is just one of many tools we use to engage visitors. We want to cultivate a participatory learning community for visitors where they are encouraged to create, interact, ponder, discuss, and share with each other instead of just reading panels on a wall.” In 2008, the Garden debuted its first temporary exhibit, Exploring Trees Inside and Out, in collaboration with the Arbor Day Foundation and Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. After that, Wolff says, the Garden started thinking about the potential for that space, including the possibility to host its own unique exhibits every year. In 2009, with the support of Maritz, the Garden opened an interactive exhibit called EarthWays: Living the Green Life. Since then, Wolff’s team of staff and volunteers have developed, constructed, and installed annual exhibits to the public’s delight.
Using the zoning approach from the 2009 display, each exhibit since then has had dedicated spaces—a maker area, a reading area, an interactive ostume play area, and a building area—to encourage families to engage with plants in unique ways and learn more about the world around them. The format has been a huge hit, Wolff says, and the renovated space will continue that tradition with different zones to experience nature.
An Idea Becomes a Reality
Through the years, the Interpretation Team has listened to visitor feedback. The anecdotes and comment cards have been an underlying guiding principle throughout the planning process because, Wolff explains, “the space really is for them.”
When the newly renovated space opens in the spring, visitors will enjoy seven reimagined zones:
- Nature Sounds: A place to discover the sounds of nature through an interactive tree-trunk sound wall.
- Natural Connections: The central gathering space that will also feature drop-in educational activities.
- Roots: The space to explore what goes on below the surface and the creatures that live underneath our feet.
- Family Tree: A multi-level area with comfy spaces for reading together, playing games and puzzles, and relaxing.
- Garden Theater: An interactive digital space with a dedicated collection of curiosities from the Garden.
- Maker Space: A cozy area for nature-inspired tinkering—building, drawing, and crafting.
- Plant Studio: The space to explore nature in your community and enjoy animal displays, including the original ant exhibit.
The new zones will give the Garden the opportunity to explore a wide variety of educational experiences that focus on plants, the places they grow, how we rely on them, and the importance on protecting them. “We want to keep visitors excited about exploring the world of plants,” Wolff says. “Given the interest and excitement visitors have expressed with our current exhibit, Nature in Your Neighborhood, we want to keep that inspiration going in our new space.” Activities and displays will rotate periodically so visitors always have fresh, fun activities to enjoy with every visit. Wolff and her team also encourage visitors to share their ideas either in person or online at www.mobot.org/brookings.
The new Brookings Interpretive Center will also feature the PlantLab, an 1,100-square-foot greenhouse-like classroom designed to be a four-season learning space. After all, what better classroom setting to learn about plants—how they grow, the soil they need, how they use light—than a greenhouse? “The PlantLab will enable participants of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities to get hands-on with plant science,” says Vice President of Education Sheila Voss, “taking inspiration from the plant science conducted every day at the Garden in the areas of horticulture, conservation, genetics, ecological restoration, and more.” The classroom will also have easy access for students to go outside and continue learning about plants on Garden grounds.
The Dream Comes to Life
After 15 years working at the Garden, Wolff sees this project as one of the most gratifying ones of her career. “It’s so rewarding to see it come to life and have the opportunity to engage so many visitors and inspire them to keep loving plants, to get outside and enjoy nature, to get their hands dirty, and to tell us what they know and think,” she says. “I would’ve never thought when I was a kid growing up at the Garden that I would’ve been able to make a difference like this. I can’t wait to see visitors in the new space.”
Support the renovation of the Brookings Interpretive Center by making a donation at www.mobot.org/brookings. There, you can also follow the projects progress through photo updates and share your ideas with the Interpretation Team as they plan the new educational experiences.