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ARKANSAS SIGHTSEEING: Exhibiting high rankings

Visitors are greeted in the lobby with a sign declaring the museum’s purpose.
Marcia Schnedler

Mixed messages about this year’s pandemic continue to keep our nerves collectively on edge. But there are glimmers of a return — albeit cautiously — to a semblance of normal leisure life.

One step forward for fun-seeking families is the reopening of Little Rock’s Museum of Discovery, with covid-19 safety precautions, after several months of being shuttered.

Early in 2020, this action-packed attraction was rated by USA Today readers as the sixth-best children’s museum in the nation. It also boasts a pedigree from Mensa, the world’s largest organization for people blessed with very high IQs, whose members ranked the Little Rock location No. 6 among all America’s science museums, some of them much larger. Heading that Top 10 list was the Smithsonian Institution’s world-famous National Air and Space Museum in Washington. At No. 3 was Chicago’s vast Museum of Science and Industry.

Mensa’s accolade does not mean that children or parents need to be brainiacs to enjoy the Museum of Discovery, which has joined other Little Rock museums in reopening.

Also back in business are Historic Arkansas Museum, the Old State Capitol, MacArthur Museum of Arkansas Military History, Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Esse Purse Museum and Witt Stephens Jr. Central Arkansas Nature Center. Still closed as of press time are Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer Village & Urban Farm.

What’s needed to enjoy the Museum of Discovery is mainly a dash of hands-on curiosity, along with a dollop of adventuring spirit. A display points out that this is Little Rock’s oldest existing museum, founded in 1927 by prominent author Julia Burnell (Bernie) Smade Babcock. First located on Main Street, it was initially called the Museum of Natural History & Antiquities.

In 1929, Babcock gave the nonprofit museum to the city of Little Rock. It was moved to City Hall, but had to close in 1935 during the Great Depression.

Reopened in 1942, it spent more than a half-century in the Tower Building at MacArthur Park before moving in 1998 to the present River Market site under the new Museum of Discovery name.

There was a certain lack of excitement to exhibits until the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation gave a $9.2 million grant for expansion and major renovations. When the larger museum reopened in January 2012, nearly all the 90 new exhibits were hands-on.

A sign in the lobby states the museum’s mission: “To ignite a passion for science technology, engineering, arts and math in a dynamic, interactive environment.”

A flier available near the ticket desk promises the chance to lie on a bed of nails — with no pain involved. Other touted interactions include “build a windmill,””size up your stride,””pump air into lungs,””make smoke rings,””test your reaction time,””build an earthquake-resistant building” and “measure your intestines.” That last experiment is nowhere near as grisly as it may sound.

The museum’s two levels are divided into a number of permanent galleries. The newest is Room to Grow, designed for youngsters 6 and under.

Discovery Hall concentrates on mathematical concepts of patterns, shapes, spaces and quantities. Amazing You looks inside human bodies to show how we function. Earth Journeys focuses on natural events that make Arkansas distinctive. Closed for now as a pandemic precaution are the Tinkering Studio and Tesla Coil theater.

But the many hands-on activities that are up and running supply more action than most visitors of any age can absorb in a single stay.

The Museum of Discovery

Address: 500 President Clinton Ave., Little Rock

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday, 1-5 p.m. Sunday

Admission: $10 for adults, $8 for youngsters 1-12 as well as visitors 60 and older, school teachers, and active or retired military personnel.

Information: or call (501) 396-7050.

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