OCM Forever Forest

The Forever Forest Treetop Climber.

The Omaha Children’s Museum is hitting the road.

For the first time, the museum has created a traveling exhibit that will appear in select cities throughout the nation. “Forever Forest” opens a six-month run on Saturday in Omaha, and then it will spend the next decade visiting children’s museums and other venues across the country.

The exhibit is all about trees, from the forest to your home. It’s designed to help kids learn about where wood comes from, how it’s processed and transported and all the ways it can be used.

About three years ago, Chief Museum Officer Jeff Barnhart was approached by the Hardwood Forest Foundation with the idea.

“They asked us if we would build an exhibit for kids that would tell the story about the truth about trees,” said Barnhart, who served as project manager and fundraiser for the exhibit. “Where they come from and what we actually use them for.”

The traveling exhibit will create a new revenue source for the museum. The museum will charge about $35,000 to rent out “Forever Forest,” which cost about $650,000 to design and build. Construction has been almost entirely funded by donations and corporate sponsorships.

“Everyone is raising money in Omaha, so there’s a huge competition,” Barnhart said. “We know if we’re going to grow, we need to go outside the city to do that. We had an opportunity.”

Thus far, the exhibit is booked for the next three years. At $35,000, it’s a bargain compared with name-brand exhibits by Lego and others, which Barnhart said cost upward of $75,000.

The traveling exhibit includes six core pieces:

Tree Top Climber: A climbing structure designed to look like three trees with protective netting and a slide.

Harvest Time: An area where kids can operate four-foot, kid-friendly grapple skidders — machines that grab and move several (faux) logs at a time.

Wood Works: A bare-bones house with a plethora of wood accents that kids can mix and match to customize their own home, such as siding, roofing, molding and more.

Train Challenge: A train modeled after a Union Pacific engine that teaches kids how lumber and other goods are transported.

Sawmill Science: A miniature sawmill that demonstrates how wood is cut and how the sawdust from mills is reused as fuel.

Tree Transport: A play table with toy vehicles and movable buildings and trees designed to show how trees get from forests to lumber mills to homes.

The traveling portion will make up only about one-third of the “Forever Forest” exhibition in Omaha, or about 2,000 square feet. The rest is designed specifically for Omaha’s display.

Other components include a fun-in-the-forest area with kayaks and a fishing activity, an interactive city block table, an area for educational programming, a toddler space and a display with live termites eating wood, like an ant farm.

At the center of it all is a pair of downed trees, donated by Fontenelle Forest, stripped of their bark and sanded down for kids to climb on.

“To me, it was just a no-brainer, of course Fontenelle Forest needs to be involved in this incredible opportunity,” said Merica Whitehall, executive director of Fontenelle Forest. “Playing in nature on a natural landscape is great for all these developmental aspects of children.”

As part of Fontenelle Forest’s “Paying Attention Is a Form of Prayer” exhibition, Omaha artist Watie White will etch a poem into the trees. Once the “Forever Forest” run at the Children’s Museum ends, the trees will return to the forest to be part of its outdoor natural playscape, Acorn Acres.

As the exhibit travels to different cities, Omaha’s museum staff will help each destination put their local spin on it, Barnhart said, by connecting museums with industry partners who can add expertise on local industry and natural resources. An exhibit in the Pacific Northwest, for example, might include more programming about softwoods, while one in Indiana might focus on hardwoods.

Heartland Scenic Studios in Omaha manufactured the traveling exhibit pieces, while staff at the museum constructed the rest. About 30 people helped shape the design of the exhibit, including foresters, educators and businesses in the industry.

Barnhart estimated that about 150,000 people will see “Forever Forest” during its run in Omaha, which ends April 15, 2018. If the museum finds enough venues to rent it, he estimated that “Forever Forest” could reach millions of children across the country during a 10-year run.

“It has the potential to see over 5 million,” he said. “You start talking about impact, and that, to us, gets us excited.”

Once it leaves Omaha, the exhibit’s first stop is in St. Louis at The Magic House. Later, it will head off to children’s museums in Arkansas and Minnesota.

Chris Peters covers the Henry Doorly Zoo and writes feature stories for The World Herald's Living section. Follow him on Twitter @_ChrisPeters. Phone: 402-444-1734.

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