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America’s Crossroads: Destination Debuts

America’s Crossroads states have a vast history, from western expansion and the Lewis and Clark expedition to the Native American tribes that predated European expansion. And today, the area continues to grow and expand.

Check out these noteworthy new attractions next time your group travels in Missouri, Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.

St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station

St. Louis

The developers of the St. Louis Aquarium at Union Station didn’t set out to open an aquarium in the space when they purchased the property in 2011. The owner, Lodging Hospitality Management, wanted to turn the property into a hotel, restaurants and commercial properties.

“It was very much a new concept to think about bringing a family attraction destination to St. Louis Union Station,” said Cameron Schoeffel, sales and entertainment director for the aquarium, which opened on Christmas Day 2019.

The aquarium is home to 13,000 animals and incorporates train history into its storytelling. When visitors enter the building, they step into a room decorated to look like a train. The interactive benches shake as guests take a virtual train ride from 1894 St. Louis to modern times. Once the show is over, they can see the aquarium at their own pace, from the native fish that live in the Mississippi and Missouri rivers to the sea creatures that call the Gulf of Mexico home.

Visitors can see sharks and rays up close in the aquarium’s 250,000-gallon shark tank, watch the antics of the aquarium’s mischievous North American river otters or touch stingrays, sea stars and invertebrates in the facility’s touch pools. Besides the new aquarium, Union Station has hotel and convention space, a 200-foot-tall Ferris wheel, an 18-hole miniature golf course, a carousel, a ropes course and a mirror maze like the fun houses of old. Groups of 15 or more receive a discount on admission, and the aquarium is working on customized programming that will allow groups to combine activities and lunch at one of Union Station’s six restaurants.

Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home

Abilene, Kansas

The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum and Boyhood Home just underwent a $9 million renovation to its library and museum spaces, the facility’s first complete overhaul since the 1970s. The 25,000-square-foot permanent exhibition space added new lighting, more high-tech exhibits, and audio and visual presentations. It also added a 4,500-square-foot temporary exhibition space.

“The team thought it was time to meet the needs of a younger generation that didn’t have that connection to the Eisenhowers and needed to meet the needs of different types of learners and deliver the information in a fresh fashion,” said Dawn Hammatt, director of the facility.

Most of the museum’s visitors are too young to have lived during World War II or Eisenhower’s presidency, so the goal was to find ways to encourage visitors to explore and discover. Each section of the museum presents a big idea that helps move Eisenhower’s story along — from his early years in Abilene, to his storied military career, marriage and presidency — and into relatable experiences and concepts that are still relevant to the world today, she said.

Three new films were developed. One explores the entire time span of World War II; another discusses the D-Day invasion, incorporating never-before-seen footage from the National Archives in Washington, D.C. The third film explains Eisenhower’s point of view on global peace and how to attain it.

“We really do use Ike and Mamie’s own words to tell this story,” said Samantha Kenner, communications director for the library. “You get to know them as people, not just president and first lady.”

Midwest Dream Car Collection

Manhattan, Kansas

The Midwest Dream Car Collection opened its doors in April 2019. Ward and Brenda Morgan came up with the idea for a car museum in the area. Ward is a native of Manhattan, Kansas, and Ward wanted something else for the community. He had a love of cars and wanted to “keep that appreciation alive,” said Jill Mason, executive director of the Midwest Dream Car Collection.

He and Brenda bought a huge portion of the 70 automobiles on display at the museum and donated them to the nonprofit that runs Midwest Dream Car Collection. The collection spans many eras and includes a wide variety of models, from a 1907 Model R Ford and a 2020 Porsche to Sonny and Cher’s customized 1966 Barris Mustang convertibles, one in hot pink and the other in Murano Gold Pearl and brown.

The museum is housed in a 50,000-square-foot former grocery store and includes a large mechanics’ bay. All of the cars are drivable, and the museum plans to rotate vehicles on and off display every 90 days. Twenty-five percent of the existing show floor will be dedicated to community member vehicles.

Groups of 15 or more receive a discount on museum admission. The museum is working on adding special events and tours to its mix. Visitors are welcome to visit and take a self-guided tour or rent out the museum.

More than 800 people have signed up as members so far.

“Word is getting out, even internationally,” said Mason. “I love that we are becoming a destination.”

The Momentary

Bentonville, Arkansas

The Momentary is a contemporary art space that opened last month in a decommissioned 63,000-square-foot cheese factory. The facility is a satellite campus to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, also in Bentonville.

The Momentary is a multidisciplinary space for visual and performing arts, festivals, local artists and culinary experiences. Originally a cheese processing factory built by Kraft Foods in 1947, the factory closed in 2013. The Momentary’s architects looked for the best way to adapt and reuse the building for its new purpose. That meant only adding elements to the building that would support the building’s new mission.

“Flexibility and adaptability for artists was a high priority for us with the design of the Momentary,” said Lieven Bertels, director of The Momentary. “Wheeler Kearns Architects has done a great job ensuring we will be able to take full advantage of the size of the space, allowing us to show large-scale works and performances in a different light while preserving an important building in the Bentonville landscape.”

The galleries, to be situated in the oldest part of the original building, will span over 24,000 square feet. The north side of the building features three dedicated artist-in-residence studios and two performing-arts spaces: the Rode House, a multidisciplinary space that can hold 350 people, and Fermentation Hall, a black-box theater that can seat 100 people. The Tower, a 70-foot-tall space, contains many mezzanine levels that can be used for visual, performance and social events.

First Americans Museum

Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

The First Americans Museum has been in the works since the 1980s but is only now coming to fruition. The museum, which will open in May 2021, will tell the stories of 39 Native American tribes that are indigenous to the area or were forced to move there from all over North America.

Oklahoma has more cultures in one geographic area than most places in the world, each with different languages, people and cultures, said Shoshana Wasserman, deputy director of the First Americans Museum. “Our cultures are as diverse as European cultures.”

Wasserman said that “during the forced period of removal, we were located to Indian territory, Oklahoma. So, while this seems to be a very regional story, it is America’s story. It is our shared national history.”

When it opens, the First Americans Museum hopes to provide wonderful and engaging exhibitions and programming, demonstrations and culinary experiences. It will have both indoor and outdoor interpretive areas. One of the highlights of the new museum is the mound it incorporated into its design, which pays homage to America’s mound builder cultures.

The Tribal Nations Gallery will share the collective story of all 39 tribal nations that call Oklahoma home. The Smithsonian Gallery will feature 140 items originally collected from the tribes in Oklahoma that are part of the collection of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C.

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