Discovering wonder at the South Carolina State Museum

In the final whispers of twilight, I held hands with my husband, Joey, on a terrace overlooking the Congaree River.

“Not a bad way to start a family outing,” I mused. As soon as we entered the South Carolina State Museum for “Second Shift Twosdays,” our eight-year-old son, Martin, had propelled us to the terrace with single-minded purpose. I didn’t mind one bit if he was in a hurry to look through the telescopes set up on the terrace, though I knew we had plenty of time for everything. Our 11-year-old daughter, Monique, also took a more laid-back approach, ready to see what was in store as it came.

It may have been evening, but we were part of the “Second Shift” of museum goers. On Second Shift Twosdays, every Tuesday, the entire museum stays open late—we were in no danger of the exhibits closing before we had a chance to see them. I liked the idea that we had the responsibility to take over the enjoyment of the art, history, and technology from the dayshift. At the same time, it was a fun reminder of the history of the building: it was once a textile factory, and shifts of workers a hundred years ago trod the ground below as they punched in and out, like the changing of the guard. The very foundation of the museum is rich in history.

A for astronomy

Of course, Martin and Monique weren’t looking at the foundation; they were looking up. I glanced at Joey with an amused smile. When we had walked up to the front of the museum, the lighted façade had accentuated the behemoth tripod that stood behind the glass. Martin had thought it looked like a large letter “A” and had immediately asked his dad what it stood for.

Joey answered with complete authority, “The ‘A’ is for astronomy, because there is nowhere in South Carolina where you can get a better glimpse of the stars.”

Martin narrowed his eyes at his dad, unsure whether he was serious—but the giant telescope made the statement easy to believe.

When the kids were babies, Joey and I had been as fascinating as magicians to them. We could solve any problem, answer any question, and even make fears disappear. Heck, back then, peek-a-boo seemed like a magician’s revelation. Monique and Martin aren’t so easy to impress these days, but Joey and I continue to try. Make no mistake; they’re wonderful kids, but lately I’ve gotten the feeling that our family outings consist of two excited adults and a couple of jaded kids who are just humoring us with their “Wow, Mom,” and their “That’s really neat, Dad.”

This was already different, though, as we moved inside to the Boeing Observatory and Monique climbed up the ladder to look through the massive Alvan Clark telescope. Monique thought the celestial dusting of stars looked like cotton candy, and when I took my turn looking into the cosmos, I decided I agreed with her. The nebula, where stars were born more than 1,000 light years away, really did have the same design aesthetic as cotton candy—airy and visually fluffy, but with bursts of light thrown in. While visitors can look at the sun during the day, we were excited to explore the nighttime sky with the Second Shift experience.

As we took turns looking through the telescope, Martin and Joey began to have a discussion about the amount of glass making up the outside of the building and the sheer magnitude of the window washing required. When they both folded their arms across their respective chests, a couple of guys shooting the breeze, I had to stifle a giggle.

Great surprises

Monique was less circumspect when she joined the conversation. “They have a telescope that lets you see deep space!” she reminded them. “Do you really think they are going to have trouble washing a few windows?”

The guys conceded the point with matching shrugs, but we all seemed to have caught the technology bug and eagerly explored the museum’s exhibits. I especially got into “Science and Technology,” on the third floor—the exhibit featured evolving technology in South Carolina like the invention of LASER and its predecessor, MASER. Beyond that, there was everything from submarines to trains, to airplanes and cutting-edge tech. There was a kind of magic here, too. Joey and I became experts alongside the kids, learning about how things worked and the perseverance that turned dreams into realities. However, nothing could be a better illustration of contemporary technology than the 4-D theater.

Joey had told the kids that it was like a 3-D movie that came with smell-a-vision, but he had ridiculously undersold it. We sat in on Planet Earth and found that the 4-D theater involves all the senses, including sea spray on your face, wind in your hair, and a seat that vibrates in concert with the rumble from the film. Do I wish that I wasn’t the one who screamed and jumped out of her seat when something brushed the back of my leg? Sure I do, but I can’t remember the last time we all laughed so hard.

When Martin and Monique explained to me that it was just a tickler, another part of the 4-D experience, I looked at them and realized something. We were all magicians now, taking turns delighting each other with what we knew or what we might discover. The Second Shift Twosday ended, and we left the museum that night with delight lingering on our faces. When I thought about my kids, I knew that we were just beginning a new phase in the magic of their childhoods and I couldn’t wait to discover the next big reveal.

Plan your South Carolina State Museum visit.

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