When Ivy and Shawn Barney announce to their two-and-a-half-year-old Lulu that they are headed to The Scott Family Amazeum, they can sense the excitement building almost immediately.
"She knows where our membership card is. She'll go and find it and bring it to us," says Shawn. "She is a ‘take no prisoners’ two-year-old. When she runs through the doors she's like, ‘This is my place.’"
As Lulu eagerly darts between her favorite exhibits, from water play to painting to music, Ivy says it’s a joy to watch her daughter “create whatever it is she wants.”
The Amazeum, which opened in 2015, is 50,000 square feet of exhibit and learning spaces built to evoke a sense of curiosity and discovery in visitors of all ages. "I've been asked a lot why I made the move from San Francisco," says Sam Dean, Amazeum’s executive director, who was recruited from the world-renowned Exploratorium.
"But what we have here at the Amazeum is lightning in a bottle, an investment and synergy within the community to make this place like nothing else on the planet. It's funny, now when we bring Exploratorium colleagues out here, they say, ‘Oh, I get it. I totally get it.’"
The idea for a children's museum in Northwest Arkansas started 10 years earlier, when a group of local parents and businesses began fundraising and laying plans for a facility that would foster creativity at the intersection of science and the arts.
Typically, before a new museum opens, a preview space is created with fragile, untouchable prototypes of exhibitions to demonstrate to the community what the facility might be like. "Instead of a beautiful model, we created an experiential space," says Sam. "We hosted our meetings there, inviting community stakeholders to tinker and play, to experience what they would find at the Amazeum."
The idea to bring the concept to life through interactive prototypes worked and the community’s response was overwhelmingly positive.
At every turn, Sam says, the foundation “urged us to dream bigger and think about the possibilities for this community, for schools, for artists, for exploration."
The museum ultimately was named for the family of former Walmart CEO Lee Scott, who were early supporters.
At the groundbreaking in 2014, hundreds of community members turned out to show their support. "When I asked the crowd to raise their hands if they had helped get us to where we were, 80% put their hands up,” recalled Sam. “Our community has taken ownership of this place." For the grand finale, organizers had families recreate a classic experiment that had gone viral in social media—dropping Mentos breath mints into a towering display of Diet Coke bottles.
Then, unexpectedly, a strong gust of wind blew from the south—blowing the multi-hued soda geysers out over the assembled crowd. "Men and women in suits, young kids, they went crazy. It was just pure, ageless fun. People were coming up to me for months after saying, ‘you know, I had to go to the drycleaners,’ and they would just laugh.”
It was everything organizers could have hoped for: An out-of-the-box, unexpected and memorable debut for something different and, yes, amazing. “At the Amazeum we talk a lot about how this place wasn’t built by us for the community, it was built by the community for everyone,” says Sam. “Even though we are a young museum, our footprint is much larger, and that really is a result of things just happening a little bit differently here in Northwest Arkansas.”
The Walton Family Foundation supported early planning efforts for the museum.
Since opening its doors, the Amazeum has become a world-class organization and destination that expects to welcome its 1 millionth visitor within the next 12 months, far exceeding initial estimates. It is now expanding its programming to focus on fostering creativity among not just children and their families, but the greater population of Northwest Arkansas.
On “Priceless Nights” on Wednesday evenings, the museum welcomes visitors free-of-charge, explains Sam. “The number of languages spoken around the building is heartwarming. People are mixing in ways they don’t mix in daily life.”
A leading resource for STEAM (STEM+Arts) education and teacher training, the museum also has begun a Maker-in-Residence program with support from the foundation, bringing national figures to the region to share their own playful angle on creativity.
For Ivy and Shawn, self-proclaimed "city people," they knew moving to Bentonville would be an adjustment. The Amazeum made the transition much smoother for them and for Lulu. "Having the Amazeum really became a beacon of, ‘You're here, you're welcome and we're glad to have you.’ ”