With the world’s deflating spirits constantly on display, how can scientists, who study behaviors and patterns of all kinds, keep pumping evolution as progress? These days, chaos overwhelms order.

But maybe not. Dallas’ Museum of Nature & Science is combating the devolving state of things with some smart thinking and, yes, its own evolution. In March, the museum shared the inaugural Collaboration Prize (with the YMCA and JCC of Greater Toledo), which goes to nonprofits that successfully merge institutions. In this case, the prize—and the $125,000 that came with it—paid tribute to the 2006 merger of the Dallas Museum of Natural History (created in 1936), the Science Place (1946), and the Children’s Museum (1995). By tying for top honors, competing against a field of 644 others, the Museum of Nature & Science showed that Dallas institutions are capable of conserving energy and resources. (We might not yet know how to manage our own levees, but maybe—as the museum’s exhibit on structures, “Raise the Roof,” implied—we can at least see how to build them.)

The Museum of Nature & Science’s new Thom Mayne-designed building in Victory Park will be as forward-thinking as it comes. “Despite the economy, people believe that educating our children in math and science remains at the forefront of things that are important today,” says Nicole Small, the museum’s CEO. “Current construction prices are probably going to work to our advantage with the building project. We can put more money into our mission and mission-related things.” The project has already raised $115 million. A building reveal and groundbreaking should happen by the end of this year, with an opening planned for 2012.

What, then, becomes of the museum’s longtime location in Fair Park? As downtown continues to act the Venus flytrap, anyone still hanging around Fair Park might look a bit laggard. The Dallas Opera has bowed out (for the new Arts District), and the Cotton Bowl has vamoosed (for the new Cowboys stadium). But the Women’s Museum, the African American Museum, and the Hall of State still remain. And the Museum of Nature & Science isn’t entirely abandoning ship.

Small says that the museum’s upcoming citywide embrace entails an institutional plan and an institutional vision. Small asks, “How do we bring the best Museum of Nature & Science to the North Texas community?” Its grounds at Fair Park will remain open for public science and education buildings; Good Fulton & Farrell is designing a research institute and an as-yet-unveiled project for another building there. With the Fair Park Passport giving access to all its museums, and DART opening up, Fair Park is as viable a spot as ever. Needless to say, expect much more to come at the Fair Park outpost of the Museum of Nature & Science.

To start with, this month, “The Science of Spying,” designed by London’s Science Museum, showcases the tools of the espionage trade. Stephen Foulger, content director of the London museum, catalogs the exhibit’s marvels: surveillance and tracking methods, computerization, nanotechnology, stealth and observation, code cracking, and spy training. You can, he says, learn how “to spot whether someone’s a liar and find out whether you have steady nerves.” The exhibit also raises “interesting cultural and ethical issues.” Why, for example, are we all partial to a little snooping on friends and family? More generally, the exhibit tracks where espionage changes are going instead of focusing on specific organizations or infamous spies.

For Paul Vinson, the museum’s director of exhibits, “Spying” taps into the big four: science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Kids see how spying “uses databases and the Internet” and how “governments employ the services of scientists, technologists, mathematicians, and engineers for intelligence gathering.” In this vein, “Spying” teaches sound research methods more than it examines the genetic makeup of a Mata Hari or an Alger Hiss. (Maybe the museum’s current “Putting DNA to Work” exhibit can piece that out for us.) And it’s just plain old fun. Marketing director Beth Hook says, “Like in Spy Kids, kids can solve problems and feel like they’re saving the world.”

On top of “The Science of Spying,” there is worlds more going on at the Museum of Nature & Science. Countless sleepovers, discovery camps, IMAX films, lectures, birthday celebrations of scientists and writers, and festival days sprinkle upcoming programming. With all this involvement, the museum isn’t sloughing off possibilities while it gears up for Victory Park. Its current endeavors fully engage its neighborhood and its city.
In its expansion and amalgamation of its Fair Park buildings and its Victory Park site, the museum stands as a model to the rest of the city. There’s safety in numbers. When everyone’s grappling with money, resources, and the future, the Museum of Nature & Science is combining forces to become a flagship institution. It puts itself to work by working with what it has. We should spy on it more often for clues to a better city.

Write to jarbery@gmail.com.