The museum focuses on innovation and technology, as well as Great Lakes education and conservation. It contains interactive exhibits, the Reiman Aquarium, and two theaters, and is home to Wisconsin's official flagship, the Denis Sullivan, a fully functional sailing vessel modeled after a 19th-century Great Lakes schooner. Many of the exhibits have to do with Milwaukee or the Great Lakes. The entire Great Lakes watershed, built to scale in the Great Lakes Future Exhibit, addresses freshwater issues, stewardship, and the human relationship with freshwater resources.
Founded by Robert Powrie Harland, Sr., Discovery World was initially known as the Science, Economics and Technology Center. Plans for it appeared in the Milwaukee Journal in 1981. The museum's early location was the Milwaukee Public Library, inside the Wisconsin Ave. entrance of the library, and Paul Krajniak was director of exhibit development at the time. The museum featured hands-on exhibits, computerized simulations, and science shows.
Discovery World contains 14 interactive science, technology, and freshwater exhibits in its 120,000 foot facility. These exhibits include:
- The Reiman Aquarium takes visitors on a journey from the Great Lakes to the Caribbean. Fitted with ten tanks that represent the changes along the way from Milwaukee to Miami, guests begin in the fresh waters of Lake Michigan, before moving past the Great Lakes and into the St. Lawrence Seaway, and ultimately reaching the Florida Keys and the Caribbean Sea. The Reiman Aquarium also is home to a Touch Tank that includes lake sturgeon, stingrays, bamboo sharks, starfish, and pencil urchins.
- Les Paul’s House of Sound is an interactive experience that showcases the innovative and creative spirit of the legendary musician, Les Paul. The exhibit allows visitors to travel along Les's timeline to see his beginnings in Wisconsin to his travels around the world. Les Paul's House of Sound features three different areas: Les's Early Years, The Musician on the Road to Stardom, and Friends of Les Paul. The exhibit includes Paul’s Grammy Awards, the first Gibson guitar Paul produced, and the "Klunker" he used to produce top ten hits.
- Helen Bader Foundation's Great Lakes Future is a large interactive modes of the Great Lakes. The exhibit features flora and fauna that populate the Great Lakes, an interactive hydrologic cycle that allows visitors to control the weather, and a Sky Bridge that offers the opportunity to see the Great Lakes in a whole new way. The permanent exhibit was designed by Grace La and James Dallman of LA DALLMAN and was published in the Berlin monograph 1000x Architecture of the Americas.
- City of Freshwater & Badger Meter Liquid House explains how the water used in homes eventually flows back to Lake Michigan. Other features of this exhibit include a look into Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District processes, Milwaukee Water Works, and Milwaukee’s Deep Tunnel project that reduces the amount of wastewater dumped into Lake Michigan each year. The permanent exhibit, comprising more than twenty interactive installations, was designed by Grace La and James Dallman of LA DALLMAN.
- Rockwell Automation Dream Machine allows the public to design products to take home, experience a custom-built automated factory, and learn modern engineering trends. Visitors can operate the controls of the retractable domes of Miller Park and the Milwaukee Art Museum.
Other exhibits at Discovery World include The Challenge, Simple Machine Shipyard, Briggs & Stratton Milwaukee Muscle, WE Energies Energy & Ingenuity, Johnson Controls Techno Jungle, HTC Vive Virtual Reality,
Clean Air Trek, BIG Presented by Caterpillar, and The Distant Mirror - an Anne Gayman Johnson Experience.
In May 2012, Discovery World unveiled a rotating seasonal exhibit. The first of these exhibits was centered upon the Summerfest musical festival. Most recently, Discovery World featured "Baseball – Innovations That Changed the Game" during the summer of 2013.
Discovery World also offers:
- Sailing Vessel Denis Sullivan is the world’s only re-creation of a 19th-century three-masted Great Lakes schooner that was completed in Milwaukee in 2000 by professional shipwrights and nearly 1,000 volunteers. The S/V Denis Sullivan provides an array of maritime experiences, from two-hour Lake Watches for families to multi-day educational sails for teens and adults. In 2000-2001, former Governor Tommy Thompson presented the S/V Denis Sullivan as the official Tall Ship of Wisconsin.
- Kohl’s Design It! Quick Shop is a weekend experience that turns the Kohl’s Design It! Lab into a café that serves a full menu of projects such as laser-cut cardboard houses or apparel made with repurposed materials.
- Virtual Les Paul is an experience inside Discovery World’s Video Studio where adults or teens can play the guitar alongside a virtual Les Paul.
- Wind Leaves is a permanent group of sculptures in front of Discovery World. It consists of seven tall "leaves" coated in stainless steel disks that reflect the surroundings and react to wind. They are interactive and can be spun by visitors.
Labs and studios
Discovery World has 10 labs and studios that allow visitors to become involved with innovation, creativity, science, technology and the environment, especially with freshwater resources and the Great Lakes. The 10 labs and studios are made up of:
- Biology Lab allows the public to explore everything from microscopic organisms to understanding how to measure different substances and materials using professional laboratory tools.
- Kohl’s Design It! Lab is a space that exposes visitors to industry professionals, equipment, industrial design, and the economic opportunities within the realms of sustainability, design, and beauty. The lab explores the science of the human body and examines cultures by discovering how artifacts are made, through hands-on design projects.
- Print & Publishing Lab is a space that focuses on the physical applications of graphic design and digital artwork that can be applied to the business and art world. Through customized classes and workshops, designers and entrepreneurs gain access to pro-level software and screen printing equipment. Visitors also gain the skills to turn their designs into physical products that can be used in the marketplace.
- MillerCoors THIRST Lab is a space designed to teach visitors how to understand water as a resource, as an ingredient, and as an opportunity. By examining the production process in the THIRST Lab, participants become aware of water’s role in the creation of products.
- General Science Lab provides more space and tools for the public to engage in designing the future. The lab is home to programs and experiences having to do with archaeology, physics, chemistry, and computer drafting and design.
- Electronics Lab gives visitors a place to tinker. Participants can explore circuitry, robotics, mechanical design, and relationships to the natural world.
- Digital Arts Lab teaches how to develop original ideas and creative skills in the areas of visual art, digital literacy, audio and writing. Professional software and WACOM drawing tablets are key tools that students use in developing original, quality work.
- Video Studio helps people develop presentation and digital literacy skills. The studio is also a production space for photography, live performance, and professional rentals.
- Audio Studio is a professional environment designed for creating high quality music and voice recordings for podcasts. Using high-end digital and analog equipment in three isolation booths, the Discovery World staff guides visitors through the process of capturing and working with sound for a variety of projects.
Discovery World is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit organization that does not receive any public funding. The organization has received significant donations from area corporations, including $2.5 million from Rockwell Automation in October 2014, and $2 million from Kohl's in January 2016.
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