COLUMBIA - Standing before the enormous YouZeum "Phun Physiology" exhibit, Zachary and Hannah Gaines watch as multi-colored balls drop, clink and swirl their way through the Mouse Trap-like model of the human body.
This is Hannah, 2, and Zachary's, 5, second time visiting the YouZeum. Their first visit was in June, and their mother, Julia Gaines, said it was a good experience, even though some of the exhibits are a little advanced for them.
"They like the vegetable superheroes," she said, referring to the "Power Plant" exhibit, which teaches visitors the importance of eating foods from every color group.
The YouZeum, a private, not-for-profit museum with a mission "to improve personal, family and community health," is well on its way of reaching its annual goal of 60,000 visitors, with 15,000 people already through the door since the museum opened May 1. Of the 15,000 visitors, 5,000 were children on field trips.
Two-thirds of the visitors were from outside Boone County, including people from St. Louis and Kansas City, said YouZeum Executive Director Gwen Robbins.
The YouZeum has also sold 350 memberships, exceeding their goal of 200. An annual individual membership, which costs $40, gives visitors free admission, 10 percent off of gift shop purchases and a subscription to the YouZeum newsletter.
Admission to the YouZeum is $8 for ages 14 and older, $5 for ages 4 through 13 and free for ages 3 and under.
The YouZeum has faced challenges, including public complaints mentioning the little opportunity for low-income families to enjoy the museum, as well as maintenance problems with the exhibits.
Robbins has justifications for these complaints. She said the YouZeum received grants from places such as the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau, but they were only used to renovate the historic Federal Building that houses the museum. The majority of the funding came from private donations. The money used to keep the museum running comes from gift shop revenue, admission, membership sales and charitable gifts.
"We want people to enjoy it, but it takes money to run the building," Robbins said. However, she wouldn't deny a child a field trip to the museum if he or she couldn't afford it.
When children come to the YouZeum for field trips, they first pay their teachers the admission money, who then give it to the museum. If a child's family couldn't afford to pay, the YouZeum would still allow the child to come on the field trip, Robbins said.
Additionally, the YouZeum has already targeted and sponsored special programs to address this need, such as "Young Skillet," a three-week cooking camp for children from low-income families, and donors can sponsor events and cover the cost of admission to give children from low-income families a YouZeum experience.
Another challenge that the interactive museum faces is the potential for the computer-based exhibits to lock up or break down. Robbins thinks this issue has been exaggerated. Since the museum opened, parts of exhibits have been replaced to prevent wear and tear.
"We thought that we passed every stress test imaginable, but we've learned a few things," Robbins said. "The only two trouble spots are the diner and bikes," referring to the "All Foods Diner" and the "Cycle Challenge" exhibits.
The YouZeum replaced touch screens and adjusted how they were mounted so that they could handle extensive use. They also have employees and volunteers working on the floor of the museum to assist visitors with the exhibits. The YouZeum aims to give the public a good experience, and it also wants to take people's suggestions seriously.
"Ninety-five percent of feedback is positive," Robbins said. However, there are comment cards available.
Gaines hasn't seen an exhibit break down in the family's two visits.
Robbins also added that some exhibits are visible but are not yet open to the public. People may mistake the exhibits as being broken. The YouZeum plans to unveil these displays, like the "Healthy Baby" exhibit, over the next nine months.
Still, the biggest challenge facing the YouZeum, Robbins said, is the slowing economy. Although admission and membership numbers are good, there has been a slowdown in private contributions. More revenue may come later from fees for programs that the YouZeum will offer. Although the programs have not started yet, they will include lectures, films and yoga classes. Some of these programs will be free, if the YouZeum can secure funding for them.
Despite the challenges the YouZeum faces, it is doing positive things for the community, according to employees and visitors.
Volunteer Charlotte Dean, a retired Smithton Middle School teacher, is one of about 70 YouZeum volunteers. Dean said she believes the YouZeum is doing a great job with teaching the public about healthy lifestyles. In May, when there were a lot of school field trips, "the kids always wanted to come back," she said.
Gaines said she thinks the YouZeum is living up to its mission as well. After visiting the "Power Plant" exhibit, she helps Zachary read the instructions at the "Snackster" exhibit. The animated vending machine is designed to help visitors understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy snack choices. Zachary knows how to pick good snacks, Gaines said.
To Meg Halley, an employee, the YouZeum is teaching everyone, not just children, about a healthier lifestyle. When she started working at the YouZeum, there was "stuff I didn't even know," she said. "It's a fun place to come and a fun place to work and volunteer."