When Collette Michaud discovered that an East Bay children’s museum was putting their rocket ship up for sale, she bought it without question. That was the summer of 2019.
That same rocket ship is now part of an immersive galaxy inside the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County, transporting curious kids into outer space to learn about gravity, constellations and our solar system.
“There’s a lot of beauty and artfulness to it,” said Michaud, CEO and founder of the museum in Santa Rosa, about the new exhibit, Space Odyssey for Galactic Explorers. “It’s a wonderful blend of education, imagination and wonder.”
Space Odyssey opened last month and will be in place permanently. It’s the biggest exhibit for the museum since the museum opened its doors in 2014.
The immersive galaxy, once an office space, evolved over time.
In March 2020, museum staff began moving out their office furniture to make room for the exhibit, a project in the works since October 2019. Then suddenly, the museum was forced to close due to COVID-19 restrictions on public spaces, delaying the creation of the exhibit. The museum then reopened in June 2021.
“It’s taken awhile, but it was worth the wait,” Michaud said. “We just slowly added things to the exhibit over time.”
On a recent day at the museum, kids pressed on flashing orange and silver buttons in the dimly lit space and eagerly climbed aboard a lunar lander spaceship. Three hundred colorful planets hung in a cluster from the ceiling. In another area, planets levitated, aided by jets of air, to demonstrate how spaceships, airplanes and birds remain in the air. Kids pointed in awe at constellations made up of LED lights on one wall.
“The idea was to have a little bit of NASA and a little bit of sci-fi,” said Galen Forrest, the exhibit’s designer. “We wanted the science but also the sci-fi aesthetics that we’re used to seeing.”
The inspiration for the theme came from that rocket ship Michaud bought in 2019, the same rocket ship her kids had enjoyed years earlier, when they were little. It came from Habitot, a children’s museum in Berkeley, and was more than 20 years old.
Then, fortuitously, new items were donated by people in the community. A local dad donated a lunar lander he had created for a Fourth of July parade in Novato.
Forrest, who ran an escape room in Sebastopol that closed due to COVID-19, decided he would offer a space station model he had used for a music festival commercial.
“I didn’t want it to end up in the landfill,” Forrest said. “I offered to donate it and then they said, ‘We’re actually opening up a space exhibit. Are you interested in a job?’
“It was completely serendipitous,” Forrest added.
Since the exhibit’s opening, the museum already has attracted some regulars. Amy Johnson, a nanny, said she takes the twin brothers she cares for to the exhibit three times a week to play.
“I bring all my kids here,” said Johnson, who lives in Rohnert Park. “I love how they can come here, play and learn. I usually hear them talk about dinosaurs. Now it’s all about spaceships.”
Of those nearly 300 planets hanging from the ceiling, the museum recently offered 45 for “adoption,” to raise funds for operating costs and admission discounts for low-income families. The “Adopt-a-Planet” program has sold out, but Michaud said the museum plans to revive the program next year.
“We don’t want to turn anyone away,” Michaud said. “We want everyone to have access to this museum. Parents are stressed out and are busy working. Kids need to explore, play and interact. It’s vital.”
The Children’s Museum of Sonoma County, founded in 2005, began with a group of local moms who wanted a place for parents, grandparents and teachers to offer children immersive learning experiences and inspire their curiosity and creativity.
You can reach Staff Writer Mya Constantino at [email protected]. @searchingformya on Twitter.