Fort Collins Museum of Discovery

When the word museum comes to mind, rarely does it evoke feelings of excitement, especially among today’s younger generation. The Museum of Discovery in Fort Collins, a massive public/private undertaking, seems to be challenging that notion. After visiting the museum this Summer, I would liken it more to an interactive playground than a building filled with artifacts. Of course, this ‘museum’ is host to plenty of traditional exhibits like local and natural history, but it is the marriage of music and science education that truly sets this place apart from others like it.

Taking cues from the EMP Museum in Seattle, the Museum of Discovery boasts an array of instruments for visitors to experiment with. There are semi-enclosed structures filled with drums, basses and guitars that teach you how to play with built in LED’s; soundproof rooms filled with marimbas and xylophones, some brass instruments, and even a theremin. Words don’t do justice to the scale and complexity of the museums interactivity.

I spoke with Nick Duarte, Music Curator at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery to learn a little more about this unique place. Nick was kind enough to give me a private tour of the museum.

As a side note , I was thoroughly impressed with the behind the scenes technicalities and nuances of each exhibit. This place is truly a marvel, and definitely worth visiting in person. 

Here’s our interview:

Who was the initial proponent of this museum?

Initially the directors from each institution (The science center and history museum in Fort Collins) got together and started talking about [what became] The Museum Of Discovery. What it is now, is a public/private partnership. It’s part city, part non-profit. It’s a unique partnership that seems to work really well. The city did so much in getting us this piece of land and the people of Fort Collins voted it in. (Thanks in large part to a 2005 tax initiative called ‘Building On Basics’).

Some donors are anonymous, and we’ve received a lot of support within the community, including the Bohemian Foundation. The total cost of the museum was estimated at around $27 million.

I’ve never seen anything like this, especially in a town of our size. This seems unusual to have such a cutting-edge, interactive museum of this magnitude here.

It’s unusual for a lot of places, even for big cities. I [recently] went to two conferences, one was more science based, another was history based, just to get a perspective on what other people were doing. It was so funny, when I was exchanging business cards at these conferences, people would ask me “you do what now?” And when I tell them I’m a music curator…

They have no idea what you do?

Well, even the science museums, it’s all science technology. Some of them aren’t grouping the arts or music into that yet, which is kind of weird when you think about it. So much of music is science, and schools are recognizing the importance that music can play in a well rounded education and upbringing. We talk a lot to [The Bohemian Foundation], and we feel like we’re ahead of the curve here, and Fort Collins in general is ahead of the curve, so this makes sense.

It makes sense too because Fort Collins is so music-centric. Speaking of music, what’s your involvement with the Bohemian Foundation?

They’re a donor, and it’s kind of my job to make sure the donations are well spent and that they know what’s going on. Their main thing is that they are music proponents for the community and this is something they saw as a slam dunk; the indirect education of music for kids. If this is a place where an 11-year old can walk up and see a pedal board, and say “what is this”, and have that moment of inspiration, then there it is, we’ve inspired someone to learn more.

I can recall being a kid in music class in elementary school, learning the recorder, listening to dull music. At that age, if I came here and saw all of this, I would be ecstatic. You’re essentially introducing this to every young child in town.

Anybody that wants to come here, they have access to this stuff. It’s rad. We have partnered with the ‘Little Kids Rock’ program that is trying to put a modern band in schools (Another program the Bohemian foundation is involved with). Basically, It educates teachers on how to teach drums, guitar and bass rather than something like the recorder. It used to be that ‘Classical’ music was the only way to learn.

The whole theory behind learning music is that when you’re first learning a language, for example, you’re exposed to that language for years before you start writing and reading it. Why can’t you just learn [music] from the get-go? Why can’t you just have a guitar, and learn how to strum? You don’t have to be able to read music to have fun playing it. We’re trying to get kids hooked, and get them to really enjoy themselves and realize they can express themselves with music.

I’m a musician first and foremost, so getting to hang out around instruments and electronics and have the opportunity to influence that next generation of kids and inspire them is really cool, especially in Fort Collins; we’re already ahead of the game. The collection of musical talent that comes from this town is so collaborative and cooperative.

(At the museum, there’s a “History of Fort Collins Music” exhibit that pays homage to local musicians and music entrepreneurs)

At any given time how many kids could be going wild in here?

When you have a lot of kids out here, it gets wild… We’ve had as many as 400 at a time with school groups. The more kids you have, the crazier it gets. It’s exponential. It gets so loud in here, everything makes noise. It doesn’t matter what they’re doing, they’re just rockstars for a day.

Does any kid ever have a bad time here?

There’s a lot of crying when little kids have to leave…. And that’s just the music section. There’s 6000 sq. ft. just of music stuff and interactive’s to play with. Then there are artifacts and audio clips that you can check out that are not so hands on. Since we are still a history museum, it’s nice to be able to show off some of that stuff. It gives you a reason to show off the music sections. There’s an exhibit we have called “From Edison to iPods”, it showcases the evolution of music technology. We have an Edison record player from 1904 [and it spans] all the way to the ‘modern day’ Minidisc players.

There’s a section here about music history, is that local music history?

It’s both. The tagline we’re using is: “A global story through a local lens”. We have things like the first organ that was ever brought to Fort Collins. There are things here that have been in the local collection for over 100 years. We have items from the old Fort Collins marching band, the Opera House and other artifacts. We have an old radio case too. I took some old records and digitized them for kids to listen to. I also took some clips that I found online from that time period, old news reports etc.. to try and make the whole experience more genuine and interactive.

The Discovery Museum received a Telly Award for one of their exhibits called “The Power Of Music”. In it, there are interviews with Fort Collins Natives who have contributed to the local music scene. 

A huge thanks to Nick Duarte for showing me around the museum. The Discovery Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm. It is located at 408 Mason Ct in Fort Collins, CO. For more information about the museum, click HERE

Nick Duarte is Music Curator at the Discovery Museum of Fort Collins, he is also a local musician. You can check out his band Post Paradise HERE

Written by: Stefan Runstrom