COLUMBIA — What began as Ann Cohen’s childhood dream will finally become reality when the YouZeum officially opens its doors in January.
After years of conceptualizing, fundraising, renovating and designing, the YouZeum will be ready to educate people of all ages on how to take care of their bodies.
“I’ve really appreciated the tremendous support from what was a great concept and wonderful vision that I knew was going to be a benefit to citizens of Columbia and visitors to the area,” said Cohen, the YouZeum’s exhibit director.
This isn’t the first time the YouZeum has projected an opening date. When the YouZeum name and logo were unveiled in May 2005, the museum was set to open in fall 2006. In December 2006, they said it would open in fall 2007.
Though residents have waited years for the YouZeum to open, for Cohen, this project has taken a lifetime. She was first inspired to bring this idea to Columbia when visiting science museums as a girl.
She proposed the idea of the YouZeum to the Boone County Medical Society Alliance 16 years ago and has been involved in every step along the way. Cohen sees the YouZeum as a focal point for the community’s health-promotion efforts.
“It’s a community-built facility,” she said.
Even though they still need to raise $800,000 to reach their goal of $9.6 million, museum executive director Gwen Robbins is sure they’ll raise the money and that this time, the YouZeum opening is only months away.
“We’re going to keep raising it until we finish,” Robbins said. “We’re going to open regardless.”
Before opening to the public in January, the YouZeum will have a series of soft openings in December. Starting in January, the YouZeum will charge $7 for adults and $5 for children and will be open seven days a week. Robbins expects to draw 60,000 visitors in the first year.
Robbins said the YouZeum could open in December but because it is one of the busiest months of the year, there would be trouble finding the 60 volunteers needed for the facility each week.
Jim Ritter, chairman of the YouZeum’s board of directors, said there were a number of factors for why the hands-on science museum hasn’t opened sooner.
“I know people got impatient but no more than we who have been working on this thing for years,” Ritter said.
Ritter said they originally had problems with the building itself, the historic Federal Building at 608 E. Cherry St., which the U.S. Department of Education donated to the YouZeum in 2003.
And as with any science education facility, putting everything together just takes time, Cohen said.
“From inception to opening, the average length of time is 10 years,” she said.
The all-volunteer board consciously decided to slow production down in order to make sure all of the health facts were correct. They worked with community experts and because everyone was volunteering their time, they worked around different schedules.
“I’m not embarrassed about the time that we took,” Ritter said. “We knew that we needed to slow it down and make sure we did it right.”
Robbins said the building renovations should be finished in October and that the absence of installed exhibits shouldn’t fool anyone.
“If you build a new house, you can have your new home completed, and it’s ready, and then you’ve got to get your stuff moved in,” Robbins said. “Getting the computers in the place you have for them is like moving in your furniture. It’s the software that goes on the computers that’s getting finalized.”
The museum’s various hands-on displays will accommodate a wide age range, Robbins said, and they hope to hold events during the day and at night, including cooking classes. One exhibit exemplifies the joys and woes of parenthood with a virtual baby that flip-flops between being well-behaved and using a crass, male voice to explain how hard a baby is to manage. The exhibit promotes health awareness with information such as why folic acid is important for women who are trying to get pregnant.
Robbins said that the YouZeum will be available for school field trips, not just for Columbia’s public schools, but for anyone willing to make the trip.
There will be a flexible space on the third floor to serve as a room for small children during the day and as a party room at night.
Robbins also described exhibits that encourage participation through movement.
“The message out here is: Find the thing that makes your body move, and go out and do it,” Robbins said.
Like the tile mosaic being laid Friday afternoon on the museum’s first floor, health-inspired artwork from local artists will play an important role at the YouZeum.
“A lot of local artists have really been a part of just making the atmosphere here stunning,” Robbins said.
After a year of studying body systems and organs, followed by three “intense” days of crafting, three second-grade classes at Lee Elementary School created clay-tile mosaics of the human body that will be displayed on the museum’s lower level. Ann Mehr, art specialist at the school, organized the project.
“We knew it was going to be a perfect match between what we could do for the community and show what the students had learned,” Mehr said.
YouZeum officials Cohen and Robbins credit community members with helping the museum.
Cohen credited former City Manager Ray Beck for his assistance in acquiring a downtown building with parking access.
She also considers Ira and Gail Hubbell’s $1 million donation as the funding that “kept the project alive.”
“I truly credit the Hubbells with that contribution,” Cohen said. “They gave people in the community a sense that it was a project that had interest.”
The $8.8 million already raised indicates that support has been strong. Robbins said that though she thinks they will raise $800,000 by January, the YouZeum will open even if they do not raise the money.