Exploring the skies and the distant past at the South Carolina State Museum

Our challenge was finding a fun way to break up the monotony of the back-at-school routine that’s fun for both the kids. Usually we’re torn between the differing interests of our son and daughter, Joey and Ally, but this time we found the sweet spot.

Maybe it’s all the hype of the new Star Wars movie, or the exciting images coming out of NASA’s recent projects, but my kids finally found a common interest: all things space. It seemed like the perfect time to take a weekend drive to Columbia, SC, and check out the South Carolina State Museum and their new planetarium and observatory.

Instant explorers

Joey has always been interested in history, while his younger sister, Ally, leans toward science. Not surprisingly, as soon as we stepped in the door, the two of them quickly identified exhibits that interested them most and rushed off in different directions. Luckily for us, the museum was very easy to navigate and included plenty of displays to keep them both happy and entertained.

Ally was instantly drawn into the natural history collection, which featured ancient dinosaur bones and other mysterious, giant pre-historic creatures.

“That. Is. Huge,” Ally said in astonishment as I turned around to see her staring down the mouth of a giant megalodon shark model.

“I don’t even think you would have qualified as an appetizer for him,” I said.

Meanwhile, Joey was busy making his way through every historical period in South Carolina’s history, from American Indians to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. Once he reached the historical replicas on the fourth floor, I heard him make the opposite observation.

“I can’t believe how small it was,” Joey said while staring at a replica of the H.L. Hunley, a Confederate submarine that was the first of its kind. He added, “There were eight men packed into that tiny space.”

“How did you know that?” I asked.

“I read about it one of the other exhibits,” Joey said. “You should go check it out, Mom. It’s pretty neat.”

Solar sights

The Historical Astronomy Collection, one of the largest collections of American-made telescopes and astronomical equipment in the world, provided the perfect segue for our visit to the planetarium. We made it just in time to catch a showing of Two Small Pieces of Glass, which told the story of the telescope—all the way from Galileo’s work to the Hubble Space Telescope. To see Hubble’s images of Saturn’s rings and the galaxies beyond spread out on the 55-foot dome screen above us was truly awe-inspiring. The few times I took my eyes off the screen and looked over at Joey and Ally, they looked like twins with their mouths agape in wonder.

After the show, the Live Sky Tour gave us a great overview about the planets and constellations, as well as where in the sky to find them. This tour of the sky is given from the unique perspective of Columbia, SC, rather than the typical general view, which means that visitors learn exactly what they can see looking up from this part of the world.

We took advantage of the fact that it was a clear day and checked out the solar viewing at the observatory. Using the solar scope, you can actually view the sun in all of its massive, fiery glory, and get a first-hand view of solar storms and eruptions. Before leaving the observatory, we had to promise the kids that we would return on a Tuesday night so they could take part in the Night Observing program and look through the Clark telescope.

Our final stop of the day was back in the planetarium for Earth, Moon & Sun, an entertaining and informative look at some of the more familiar aspects of space like eclipses, Moon craters, and the history and potential of space travel.

Lasting takeaways

“This is much cooler than learning about all of this from a book,” Joey said after the show.

“Yeah,” Ally agreed. “Why don’t schools have planetariums like this?”

“That might take a few more bake sales,” my husband answered.

As we drove back home, my husband and I stayed quiet so we could enjoy the conversation coming from the back seat. In direct contrast to the ride over where both kids silently played games on separate devices, the ride home found them engaged in conversation about things like zooming through space on interstellar Interstates, and if the first alien discovered will look more like E.T. or B.O.B. from Monsters vs. Aliens.

It was a wonderful thing to hear.

Once we got back home, it wasn’t long before both kids, obviously exhausted, were sound asleep, no doubt dreaming of galaxies far, far away.

Let the South Carolina State Museum open your kids’ eyes!

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