$21.5M Children's Museum 'Amazeum' Taking Shape in Bentonville

Sam Dean, executive director of the Amazeum, gives a tour of the grounds. Workers place beams on the grounds of the Amazeum. | (Photos by Beth Hall)
Sam Dean, executive director of the Amazeum, gives a tour of the grounds. Workers place beams on the grounds of the Amazeum. | (Photos by Beth Hall)
Sam Dean, executive director of the Amazeum, and Molly Rawn, the Amazeum’s director of development.
Sam Dean, executive director of the Amazeum, and Molly Rawn, the Amazeum’s director of development.

Sweat gathered in Sam Dean’s shirt collar under a relentless midday sun Tuesday.

Dean, the executive director of the Amazeum, was too stoked about the $14.5 million erector set going up on Northeast J Street in Bentonville to notice. The Amazeum, billed as an interactive children’s museum, isn’t scheduled to open until 2015, but after years of planning it is at least beginning to take physical shape.

The concrete floor has been laid and most of the interior steel frame has gone up. In the near-formless open space underneath the exoskeleton, Dean is the proverbial kid in a candy store, excitedly pointing out where attractions such as a “Tinkering” station, a water lab and climbing canopy will be situated.

This is a man who stops the tour briefly to describe some underground system so you can understand why he wants his office at the building to be in the tree house. Yes, there will be a tree house in the Amazeum.

“It’s an active-verb kind of place,” Dean said. “It’ll be a place you craft, you create. We are giddy. We are that excited about it.”

The Amazeum — whose total cost factoring in exhibits will be $21.5 million — was designed by Haizlip Studio of Memphis and is being built by Nabholz Construction Services of Rogers. When it’s completed, Dean said, the Amazeum will be nearly 50,000 SF with an acre outside.

“You really won’t be able to experience it all in one day,” Dean said. “We want to make it an experience you have to come back to.”

The Amazeum website at Amazeum.org has an interactive construction webcam so the public can follow the progress. Dean said some people have changed their driving routes so they can pass the site to see how the construction is going.

Dean once thought about becoming a doctor before he fell in love with museum work while doing medical research. He has performed science experiments for children on television as “Sam Dean the science machine.”

His vision of the Amazeum is a place where children can get their hands on things, break them and then put them back together.

“I love the idea — asking really cool questions like what’s inside an earthworm, to a cow’s eye dissection,” said Dean, originally from Toledo, Ohio. “If you cut open a cow’s eye, you see what your own eyeball looks like. I would argue it’s life-changing. It’s amazing.”

The Amazeum was first conceived in 2006 and got its first boost with a $10 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation. The museum is being built on 5 acres donated by Rob and Melani Walton at the tip of the entrance road to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The Amazeum is separate from Crystal Bridges but has unquestionably benefited from the close association. Dean said Crystal Bridges staff members routinely call him to ask how things are going and if there is anything they can do.

“On a scale of one to awesome, it has been awesome,” Dean said. “Crystal Bridges has blazed a trail for places like us to come in. There’s interest we can build on. I’ve been in the museum field for a long time, and I have never known a museum that was more friendly, more willing to help us in any way, shape or form.”

Molly Rawn, the Amazeum’s director of development, said the museum has raised approximately $22.5 million during its capital campaign and needs to raise at least $1.5 million more. The Amazeum doesn’t have a sponsor that will pay general admission fees like Crystal Bridges found in Wal-Mart Stores Inc., but officials hope to develop a membership plan to make the museum accessible for everyone.

“We are figuring out what it’s going to look like,” Rawn said. “We do know we will have memberships available for the community to buy.”

Dean said it is the trickiest part of the Amazeum because everyone wants it to be a place where children can experience interactive science, but it also expects to have an annual budget of $1.8 million to $2 million. Dean said the museum predicts 165,000 visitors the first year, which comes out to $12.12 a person to cover $2 million.

“That’s a pretty significant amount of money,” Dean said. “Sometimes you look at those trips and you think, ‘Gosh if we’re going to go, we’re going to spend four hours.’ With a membership, you can come for half an hour on a Saturday and then go off to soccer practice. It allows you to use the museum.”

Dean’s No. 1 goal, of course, is the actual museum experience. If you talk to Dean for any period of time, you’ll hear about the hundreds of things he loves about the Amazeum, and one of those things is the shop that will be on-site in which presenters can build items to show.

“The best museums are the ones that make stuff themselves,” Dean said. “We love to be part of the creative process.”

Dean said that when someone comes up with a great idea for a presentation, the staff then puts it to the test to see if it will be something the museum can put in the rotation. Dean said it helps determine if the event will be something children can enjoy and parents won’t find mind-numbing and what the expense will be to put the exercise into practice.

One example Dean gave was a cardboard tube creation that reflected light. To test it, he asked for volunteers from the community to do a trial run and he found that it was a huge hit.

Another test was with wind tubes that didn’t work as well outside because nature’s wind scattered materials and caused a bit of chaos. Dean still thinks the idea will work inside.

“I love those moments where folks are doing something for the first time, and they’re asking questions and they’re tearing stuff apart and putting it back together,” Dean said. “I found I love creating moments where those special things happen. Every time I see it I get excited about it.”

It’s all about testing and experimenting and enjoying. He said the best museums are those with exhibits that have the potential to cause a bit of a mess.

“It will be hard to keep Sam in his office,” Rawn said.

Dean said that’s true unless his office is moved to the tree house, which so far is not in the plans. Dean said he’ll probably spend a lot of time in the Tinkering Station, which will involve a variety of activities for children to learn about technology and building stuff.

“If you ask me on a different day, I’ll give you a different answer about what’s my favorite,” Dean said. “I love the things for different reasons. Each one has its little kernel of really awesome stuff to it. It turns out I don’t have a favorite because I’m excited about the whole place.”