Wednesday, May 22, 2024 May 22, 2024
77° F Dallas, TX

Hands Off the Perot Museum

It's a wonderful place. Except for the uncontrollable mass of idiots who visit it.
Illustration by Serge Bloch

Yes, it was spring break. I get that. Humans were everywhere, out in force, trailing their offspring, trying to keep the little monsters entertained, praying there was enough red wine on store shelves to make it through the week. And the Perot Museum of Nature and Science is a newfangled attraction perfect for passing such a time (except that, unless I missed it, the Perot stocks zero red wine). I understand all this. Patience was required. Deep breath.  

But those inconsiderate chowderheads who stared at their phones while their ill-behaved children ran amok, those oblivious bastards who zigzagged through the crowded exhibit halls as if they were the last person on earth—I hope they all develop a bad case of gout. I hope the uric acid crystals (that’s science) stab their every joint so sharply that they are forced to sit on their couches and watch reruns of Ow! My Balls! (If you haven’t seen the movie Idiocracy, you’ll have to trust me on that joke.)  

Let’s focus on one small example. Take the tornado simulator in the rolls-off-the-tongue Rees-Jones Foundation Dynamic Earth Hall. It’s an open-sided cylinder in which a fan blows a column of water vapor into a 10-foot-tall vortex that looks like a Lilliputian tornado. Cool, right? You can lean in and touch it. But if every unattended kid and curious teenager constantly sticks his hand into the machine, then the vortex will never form. No tornado!  

I stood there with my 7-year-old daughter a few weeks ago, waiting for the mini tornado to form in The Rees- Jones Foundation Dynamic Earth Hall. She couldn’t keep her hands out of it, understandably. Every time the vortex of water vapor slowly descended from the ceiling of the cylinder, she—and six other people—interrupted it. So I did what a parent does. I gently grabbed her mitts and said, “Little girl, every time you touch it, you kill it. Wait. Be patient.”  

You see where I’m headed. There were six other people standing there, waiting to touch the tornado, and by God if someone else was going to touch it first. Mutually assured destruction. Ad infinitum. We never got to see the thing do what it was designed to do.  

So part of the problem at the Perot isn’t the museum’s fault and can’t be corrected. It’s just humans, 75 percent of whom, based on my research, are uncouth due to having been raised in barns. It’s the decline of civility and the video board at Cowboys Stadium and flip-flops as formalwear and all that. (Also, restaurants are too loud.)  

But part of the problem at the Perot is of its own making. From its opening in December to mid-March, the museum saw more than 445,000 visitors. At that pace, about 1.8 million people will stream through the museum’s doors in its first year of operation. (Though that number might be slightly inflated considering that in the next three quarters, there won’t be huge crowds for opening ceremonies or holiday parties.) To put that in perspective, roughly the same number of people every year visit Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry—but the Chicago museum is more than twice the size of the Perot (400,000 square feet to the Perot’s 180,000).  

I asked the Perot’s CEO, Nicole Small, if that was an apt comparison. She says a better one would be the Houston Museum of Natural Science, which before an expansion last year was welcoming 2.2 million people with only 240,000 square feet. But those numbers were untenable, and now Houston has 430,000 square feet to handle that volume of visitors.  

It’s fair to say, then, that the Perot is pumping a lot of humans and their offspring through its exhibits. And it feels that way. Folks create friction. Unlike the cleaning staff and repairmen, visitors, especially young ones, are agents of entropy. (Again, science.) As one person commented on an earlier version of this story that I posted to our blog, engineers are no match for a clever 5-year-old.  

Walk with me into the Perot’s “science park,” the entranceway courtyard, where on my spring break visit I watched a towheaded little jackass try to tear a branch from a cypress tree until my mother, a schoolteacher unafraid to discipline those who need it, told him to stop. When I visited that space in pre-opening, there were a dozen large frog sculptures that sat in gravel so pristine that it looked like a Zen garden. At night, the frogs, lit from within, glowed green. Now only three frogs remain. The gravel is a mess, having been redistributed by industrious children, much of it thrown into the pond. Sad coils of electrical cord lie where the frogs once crouched.  

“We anticipated young kids would be instantly drawn to the frogs,” Small says. “However, we found that they literally ‘bring out the kid’ in adults as well. That’s why you will often see adults mimicking kids as they stand and jump upon them.”

One wonders how hard she has to work to sound that charitable. Small says that “based on visitor interaction” (read: “due to damage done by idiots”), the Perot will have to redesign a portion of the science park. Who knows what will happen to the frogs. One thing is certain, though: no more gravel. I hope the landscape architect, Talley Associates, is doing this redesign for free. I mean, rocks and water in a setting with children?  

There were other miscalculations. I bought a family membership to the museum before it opened to the public. Still, I have to “buy” tickets online and found the museum had sold out the first few weekends I wanted to visit. That was fine, though, I thought, even if it meant that there were times that the museum was “sold out” and I couldn’t, even as a member, get in. The wisdom of staggering admission times—again, I thought—was that the 25 percent of us who mind our children and ourselves could touch a tornado. The joint would be sparsely populated enough that the jerks wouldn’t be numerous enough to ruin a good time. The Perot lets in about 350 people every 30 minutes. The problem, Small says, is that those people have been staying considerably longer than the museum anticipated. 

“In our best practices,” she says, “we learned that it probably takes a full year cycle to really understand how visitors will use the building, so we have many more months of learning.” One thing they have already learned: they need to up the museum’s chaperone-to-kid ratio for all school groups, which previously had been one adult for every 10 students.  

Here’s the surprise ending. As I was writing the first draft of this column, my daughter began regaling my wife with a story about how she had touched a tornado. That’s the good news. My daughter can’t wait to visit the museum again.  

The bad news is that my daughter didn’t pay for our membership. Congrats to Small and everyone else at the Perot—especially the Perots—who have made it a success. It really is a wonderful place, a huge asset to North Texas. But how they handle that success will determine the museum’s future. With my own self-interest in mind, I suggest granting founding members a second year free, to make up for the less-than-stellar early experiences. 

And they should immediately start construction on an idiot-detecting device, like a metal detector at an airport, that can be installed at the front doors. Except this one wouldn’t just screen people. It would electrocute them. Now that’s science!