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November 2006
Volume 1, Number 11

No Mausoleum This!
The Kalamazoo Valley Museum and Kalamazoo Valley Community College

Tom Thinnes

“Anyone who sees a difference between education and entertainment doesn’t know the first thing about either one.” So said cultural historian and communications theorist Marshall McLuhan. Inspired by his vision, Kalamazoo Valley Community College (KVCC) in Southwest Michigan decided to accept the recommendation of a citizens committee and assume the governance of a regional museum of history, science, and technology.

After the voters approved a small property tax, the $20-million building was filled with interactive displays that to date have attracted 1.25 million visitors. Now, a decade later, the wisdom of KVCC’s unique and rather bold decision continues to pay positive dividends for a community of 225,000. As the capstone for a $100-million economic-development initiative in downtown Kalamazoo, led and engineered in no small part by KVCC, the Kalamazoo Valley Museum has become an amusement park for the mind, a jungle gym of manipulation for the body, and an energetic boost to the spirit of community.

The marriage of a comprehensive community college and high-tech museum whose roots go back 125 years added a new force in Southwest Michigan’s educational arsenal. With a Challenger Learning Center for Space Science Education and a Chicago-caliber planetarium among its attractions, this museum has never been content to just be a “mausoleum” for dust-covered artifacts of the dead past. Instead, it is a place for today, where today’s young minds and those still young at heart can have a hands-on, high-tech encounter with timeless human experience. Now working on its second decade, the museum is still a classroom for the future, where human dreams and human achievement meet. As Howard Gardner, Harvard’s well-published researcher on education, said: “Nobody flunks museum because it’s always learning time.”

MuseumThe Kalamazoo Valley Museum Today. Spanning four levels and 60,000 square feet, the Kalamazoo Valley Museum features a 115-seat, 21st-century Digistar/Sky-Skan II Planetarium, complete with a growing stable of 50 shows. Thousands of teachers and students from Southwest Michigan schools have made the trip to downtown Kalamazoo to engage in simulated missions to the moon, Mars and Halley’s comet as the Challenger Learning Center, dedicated to the crew of its namesake space shuttle and its educational mission, illustrates that math, science, and applied technology have relevance in the real world.

Its main gallery has hosted 40 nationally traveling exhibits since the museum opened in February of 1996. The latest, BRAIN: The World Inside Your Head, made its debut at the Smithsonian Institution in July 2001. After its five-month stay in Washington, the exhibition was booked by museums in Portland, Atlanta, Cleveland, Indianapolis, New York City, Detroit, St. Louis, Kansas City, Boston, Dallas, Memphis, Raleigh, and Mexico City. After closing in Kalamazoo in January of 2007, the next stops will be in Houston and Honolulu.

Weekdays, the 84-seat Mary Jane Stryker Theater serves as venue for concerts and performances targeted for preschoolers, families, and adult audiences. Come the weekend, the billings feature Hollywood classics, award-winning documentaries, foreign films, and independently made movies.

Exploratorium science centerExhibits from the Exploratorium Science Center in San Francisco show the effects that wind, water, and sand, and major components of the Southwest Michigan environment, have on each other. There is a simulated tornado that kids can stop and then recreate. In its own special resting place surrounded by educational resources is the former museum’s most popular attraction, a 2,300-year-old mummy. The Children’s Landscape is designed for preschool encounters with learning museum-style. Showcases that have been modeled after the Smithsonian present Michigan history, not as static epochs, but as a seamless unfolding of daily occurrences in people’s lives.

The Science in Motion gallery features a plethora of hands-on activities that promote discovering, exploring, and experimenting. Connecting science and daily life reinforces the concept that science is everywhere, that science is fundamental and fun. It invites experiencing – seeing, touching, hearing, experimenting – in three main subjects: technology, energy, and the human body. The motion of a speeding vehicle is obvious. Even the coursing of blood through a person’s veins can be comprehended. But the gallery also explores the less obvious forms of motion: electrons moving along a wire, the splitting of a human cell, and the travel of light rays.

The Wall of Names contains 11,000 inscriptions in tribute to the men, women, children, companies, and foundations that contributed at least $10 to the campaign to build a new museum. This gallery of gratitude is in itself an exhibit, a testimonial to what a community can accomplish when its people work together.

MusicLinking Past, Present, and Future. The museum complements these attractions with arrays of programming, including an annual chemistry day in which as many as 1,000 Saturday participants get up close and personal with the marvels and miracles of that branch of science. In October 2006, a full weekend of special events marked Abraham Lincoln’s visit to Kalamazoo 150 years ago, including the re-creation of his speech in support of the newly formed Republican Party and its opposition to slavery. The museum’s Sunday Series takes today’s Kalamazooans back to the way things were, from the village’s establishment in the 1830s through the years of World War II.

In its formative stages, the Kalamazoo Valley Museum was seen as both a mirror and a sounding board for change. It isn’t just science and technology that are the propellers of change. People, social movements, and human relationships forge changes. People are faced with choices and these shape government, justice, and community institutions. While it remains a place to get lost in history and humanity, it’s also a place relevant to contemporary times, problems, and challenges. Fostering inquiry and catering to different learning styles, the museum envisions itself as a social force, a source of inspiration, and a fertile field for lifelong learning.

Arcadia Commons: A Vision for Community Revitalization. In the early 1980s, a citizens committee recommended that Kalamazoo’s museum, established in 1881, needed its own home. Subsequent study groups prompted two changes in governance, first becoming an independent division of the Kalamazoo Public Schools instead of a department of the public library, and then the transfer to the jurisdiction of KVCC, a change that was recommended in the fall of 1990. In the middle of all this, community leaders were examining their consciences, kind of like a “Quo vadis, Kalamazoo?”

In 1959, the city of Kalamazoo made urban history when it became the first municipality in the United States to rip up a major downtown street and install a permanent pedestrian shopping plaza. That foresight maintained the vitality of the central business district long after the arrival of suburban shopping malls. But in the early 1980s, community leaders realized it was time to build on the Kalamazoo Mall’s still-solid foundation and prepare for the new millennium. They decided to uncover part of their past – Arcadia Creek, a waterway that had once served pioneer settlers and had since gone subterranean – and use it as a focal point of economic redevelopment to set the course for the future. Downtown leaders raised funds, mapped financial strategies, assembled land, and brainstormed development concepts, but despite their efforts, the Arcadia Creek project stalled. At this time in the contemporary history of Kalamazoo, KVCC stepped forward with leadership, assumed a risk, and put its collective neck and reputation on the line, because of its own true, clear vision.

KVCC’s Downtown Campus Renews Revitalization. In 1982, KVCC tested the waters of growth by opening a satellite campus in downtown Kalamazoo to better meet the employee training and retraining needs of business and industry. Within a comparatively short time, the college’s space became cramped with packed basic academic classes and retraining sessions. The potential for growth was obvious. KVCC officials got to know just about every pigeon – both alive and dead – in the downtown area in the search for more room. Although prospects were initially gloomy, two visions for reviving the downtown community were about to cross paths as public and private interests began to merge.

The pause button had been pushed on the Arcadia Creek vision and that dream had begun to ebb away from becoming reality. At the instigation of the community college, informal discussions were launched in 1988 to explore the development of a business-education park, destined to be christened Arcadia Commons. This joint economic development venture would involve the college, what was then the Upjohn Company, a Midwest banking institution headquartered in Kalamazoo, the city, and Southwest Michigan’s two tertiary-care hospitals.

With business and industry, education, and local, state, and federal governments all riding the partnership train, Arcadia Commons took shape. In March of 1990, the Upjohn Company came forward to take Arcadia Commons from pipe dream to brick and mortar. The multinational pharmaceutical firm, headquartered in Kalamazoo, announced it would spend $18 million to renovate the downtown Kalamazoo Center, a 20-year-old convention-hotel-retail complex. Adjacent to the Arcadia Commons core, it has been refurbished into a five-star Radisson Plaza Hotel.

Building the Museum’s New Home. Kalamazoo Valley Community College was about to launch its own five-star enterprise. On April 1, 1991, the KVCC Board of Trustees assumed stewardship of the Kalamazoo Public Museum. The following July, KVCC asked voters throughout the community college’s district to establish a .42-mill charter tax that had been levied only in the Kalamazoo School District previously. The proposal was passed.

With feasibility studies, master plans, and blueprints in the works for a new facility, the college announced that, with the aid of a 90-member campaign cabinet and more than 200 other community volunteers, it would launch a capital campaign in January 1992 to build a new museum as part of the Arcadia Commons. The community’s positive response included the largest gifts in the history of many funding sources. Museum architect E. Verner Johnson of Boston was retained, and the new museum was built.

Strengthening a Sense of Community: From Local to Global. The essence of the Kalamazoo Valley Museum is community, a place where people can learn who they are, where they live, how they work, how they learn, what on earth they are doing, and, more important, where they are going. That’s what focus groups said they wanted as the new educational resource was being shaped. They said: “Tell us who we are and how we came to be. Help us teach our children what a community is or ought to be. Help us anticipate the future.”        

While the new museum has helped place Southwest Michigan in a historical, cultural, and scientific context by expounding on the events that blended to make this region unique, it has also sought to chronicle the E pluribus unum aspects of the American experience, that from many has evolved a perspective in which both common ground and diversity can be celebrated.

The Kalamazoo Valley Museum also serves as a springboard for understanding the world’s people. By telling the story of people, their lives, their challenges, and their times, it serves as a window to a common heritage, and thus a common future. In order to help people understand what makes them so different, it is important to help them see what makes them the same, which has been the focal point for many of the nationally touring exhibitions.

The Kalamazoo Valley Museum is a place that begs to be seen, strolled through, and enjoyed. Here visitors can expect to be entertained, and even, as McLuhan suggests, to learn a little.


Tom Thinnes is director of public information at Kalamazoo Valley Community College. Photos from Kalamazoo Valley Community College and Kalamazoo Valley Museum website used with permission.


Cynthia Wilson, Editor