If not for the masked children, abundant hand sanitizer stations and curtailed capacity, Friday would have almost looked like a typical late-summer day at Liberty Science Center. But it was far from it for New Jersey’s premier science museum — it was the first time it opened its doors to guests in nearly six months.
The Jersey City museum closed its doors March 13 as the coronavirus pandemic hit the nation, but hosted a members-only preview event Friday and welcomes back the science-loving public Saturday with a slew of safety precautions.
“If didn’t have my mask on, you would see a gigantic smile on my face right now,” Liberty Science Center President and CEO Paul Hoffman said as children milled around the “Wild About Animals” exhibit. “It’s wonderful.”
Capacity is capped at 25%, masks are required, guests have their temperatures screened upon entry, sanitation protocols have been increased and air filters have been upgraded and now exceed CDC recommendations. It stands to reason that a science center would take the science behind coronavirus safety seriously.
“It’s been six months and a tremendous amount of planning to be able to keep our guests and our staff safe,” Hoffman said. “We’ve switched a lot of the exhibits so they’re no-touch or low-touch. Obviously social distancing, mask-wearing and having people buy their tickets online, encouraging that you even buy parking online, so there’s less physical exchange.”
Critters from the “Wild About Animals” exhibit are brought out of their enclosures throughout the day as part of demonstrations with experts so more guests can see them. Popular exhibits like “Angry Birds Universe,” which takes guests into the world of the popular game while explaining the science and technology behind it, have been extended.
But Liberty Science Center’s newest and loudest new exhibit is “Boom Time,” featuring thunderous (but controlled) explosions in a custom-built, clear, movable, 57-square-foot safe room. Items like watermelons, piñatas and pumpkins have bottles of liquid nitrogen placed inside them, leading to combustion. The science of the explosion is explained by the staff, but you don’t need to like science to enjoy watching a watermelon get the full Gallagher treatment.
Liberty Science Center’s Jennifer Chalsty Planetarium, the largest in the western hemisphere, is hosting multiple new live shows, including “Planets Tonight” and “Deep Space Tour.”
“Right now is an incredible time to look at the night sky in the evening,” Hoffman said. “There are four planets that are out now — Saturn, Jupiter, Mars and Venus — and we teach you how to spot them in the planetarium.”The museum was closed during what is typically its busiest time of the year — April, May and June — and Hoffman says the center’s base donors and board of trustees has stepped up and helped make up for the financial shortfall. And the center is reopening at a time when science is more essential than ever.
“Our mission is to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. There might be a young girl here, for instance, who goes to our microbes exhibit and someday grows up to be an immunologist that wards off the next pandemic,” Hoffman said. “We want to stimulate young minds. I think that everybody knows in the back of their head that science is important, but I think the COVID crisis really underscores the importance of science.”
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