5/11/2018 10:22:09 AM
From Sherry Lucas
Angel Rohnke believed “The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” would be a hit with kids. Her son, Oren, just 2, got down on his hands and knees and proved it.
“He was just in that Titanoboa going back and forth, back and forth!” she says, laughing about her toddler’s crawl through the replica of an ancient, long-as-a-school-bus snake when they saw the exhibit in Rochester, N.Y., this past Christmas. “Thankfully, Oren had his new light-up shoes, so I could keep up with him!”
It also inspires Rohnke, the assistant director of Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Park’s (MDWFP) Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, that this long-sought exhibit is finally coming to Jackson. “The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” has the summer spot on the museum schedule. It will open to the public May 19 and remain on view through Sept. 9.
Rohnke had been trying to snag the highly popular traveling exhibit for years.
“It was booked out until 2020. I just kept touching base with them every few months,” Rohnke says—and the museum got in when a spot opened. “We’re always looking for something different and fun. That whole curiosity—the investigation and exploration for kids—they just love that stuff.”
“We all grew up hearing about Ripley’s,” says museum director Charles Knight, who has taken his son, Samuel, to Ripley’s attractions in Panama City Beach, Fla., and Gatlinburg, Tenn.
The 6,000-square-foot attraction will fill the entire exhibit hall and atrium at MDWFP’s Mississippi Museum of Natural Science, with a few pieces at the building’s entrance as well. The exhibit’s eight zones focus on such tantalizing topics as “Extreme Biology,” “Weird World,” “Gallery of the Unexpected” and “Perceptions and Illusions.”
“The Science of Ripley’s Believe It or Not!” also illuminates the man behind the title: Robert L. Ripley (1890–1949). Ripley was a cartoonist, explorer, reporter, and adventurer who collected stories and artifacts from around the world. Driven by curiosity about the unknown, the unusual, and the unexplained, he became a super-star in the first half of the 20th century from his daily “Believe It or Not!” feature, a weekly radio show, and, eventually, TV show.
His “Odditoriums,” often associated with World’s Fairs, displayed his huge collection. Entrepreneur John Arthur bought the bulk of his collection at auction after the explorer’s death, and opened the first permanent “Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” museum in St. Augustine, Fla., in late 1950. Today, the company operates more than 100 attractions in 11 countries.
Renowned science centers Science North and Dynamic Earth in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, collaborated with Ripley Entertainment to create the interactive exhibit that first opened in spring 2013.
The idea was exciting from the outset, wedding a traditional family entertainment brand with a respected science center, says Ripley’s spokesperson John Corcoran.
“This was the most popular show they’ve ever done,” he says. Scheduled for an 18-stop run, the traveling exhibit had sold half the slots before it was even built. Mississippi is its 15th stop, and by the time it gets to Jackson, its visitor count will be approaching 2 million.
“We learned quickly, this type of exhibit is very appealing to children, because it’s so quirky, original, and fun. We got to take those traditional exhibits and explain the science behind them,” Corcoran says. “Kids don’t notice we slipped a little bit of knowledge in.” A study at the exhibit’s first location showed a learning boost after visitors viewed the show.
Photo opportunities abound at the exhibit, where kids can stand in the open mouth of Titanoboa, see how they would fit in the giant jaws of Megalodon, get a selfie with a transformer sculpture made of car parts, or take a seat in a massive chair made for one of the world’s tallest people. A scavenger hunt for the world’s tiniest animals—fish, mammal, amphibian, bird, and reptile—catches extreme biology at the other end of the scale.
Visitors can measure their own height against that of 8-foot-11 Robert Wadlow, plus see a life-size animated figure of the man as they learn what made him grow. They can find out how to really bug up a meal with nutritious insects (and watch a virtual character try it). Another kid magnet is the chance to dance and capture your moves in vivid silhouettes.
The unique and unusual—human-made style—gets a spotlight, too, such as the Matchstick Rolls Royce, which is a two-thirds-size 1907 Silver Ghost Rolls Royce made of more than a million matchsticks.
“Believe It or Not!” Fun Friday activities at the museum in June and July will feature astonishing humans, amazing animals, or crazy STEM challenges, suitable for families or groups with children 4 and older.
“The Science of Ripley’s Believe it or Not!” has universal appeal, Rohnke says—families, summer camps, even senior citizen groups—and the schedule dovetails with the museum’s peak visitation in June and July (12,000 to 15,000 a month).
“I’ve known about Ripley’s as long as I can remember,” Knight says, “and loved it.
“We always focus on our conservation message, but we also are a place of entertainment and a place for families to have fun. One of the things that people ask about the most is the two-headed snake, and it fits right in with this.”
Ditto for the super-long catfish, donated by a fisherman and now swimming in the museum’s Pearl River tank.
“It’s just cool. People want to be entertained, and they want to see something like that,” Knight says. “And, they pick up on the conservation while they’re here.”
Admission to MDWFP’s Mississippi Museum of Natural Science is $6 for adults and $4 children 3 and older. Admission is free for children younger than 3 and museum members. For more information, call (601) 576-6000 or visit www.mdwfp.com/museum.
Sherry Lucas is a freelance writer for Mississippi Outdoors.