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Museum Square Nears Its Grand Opening, set for October 20

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The business model of the new Peoria Riverfront Museum is unique to museums across the United States, but delivering different from the norm can only help strengthen the overall experience, believes one of the top museum officials in the country.

It will be something that should excite the community while making it a better place to live, said Ford Bell, president of the American Association of Museums. He has followed the museum progress since it began and said he believes it will be a model for other new museums in the future.

"Museums in general help to strengthen communities and I think what they are building in Peoria will do that very well. Its connection with Caterpillar is a new model, something I haven't seen before, and together they will add an attraction to Peoria that will be good for an entire region," Bell said in a recent exclusive telephone interview with The Peorian.

Museum Square, which encompasses both the Peoria Riverfront Museum and the Caterpillar Visitors Center, will open Oct. 20, culminating more than a decade of work to make it happen.

Bell will be unable to make the opening ceremonies but will be in Peoria to speak to the museum's board and other groups shortly before the opening. That's when he will see the finished product, something he's anxious to see.

"It is increasingly the case that museums are doing new and different things to help bring the community in more. Sometimes they have to think different to draw people. What they are doing in Peoria with the Caterpillar center, the IHSA Peak Performance Center, the new theater and state-of-the art planetarium all are very intriguing.

"The Peak Performance Center, for example, could be something special with fitness being such an important part of society today," Bell said.

The various exhibits planned for the new museum, he added, shows that it still recognizes that a museum "is first and foremost an education institution." He cited planned partnerships between the museum and area schools as a key component.

"A field trip to a museum is a much different experience today than it was when I was a kid. Now you don't see kids that are running around the hallways, just glad to be out of the classroom. Now they have specific educational exhibits and project a very positive learning environment. When kids see things come alive before them in three dimensions it is much more effective," Bell said.

Jim Richerson, president and CEO of Lakeview Museum who will have the same position at the Peoria Riverfront Museum, has been there since work on the $140 million project started a dozen years ago. But he can't rest yet, he said during a chat a few weeks ago.

"With everything we've already accomplished on the museum, the little details that are still being put together are taking a lot of time. But I am very pleased with how everything has gone, from the planning to the execution, and seeing all the complexities come together now is exciting," Richerson said.

"I really don't think people have a real clear idea of what they are going to experience when they step through those doors. It really is very unique, from the level of collaboration between all the different entities that it took to make it happen to the last coat of paint," he said.

The collaboration he spoke of included the private and public funding mechanism with the infusion of capital from Caterpillar Inc. to make it happen. Caterpillar is paying for all of its $37.5 million visitor's center and it also contributed $15 million toward the museum.

Private funding included donations and the public funding will include $36 million from a Peoria County sales tax increase that approved in 2010. The museum also received federal and state grants.

Eight entities worked together on the project, including Lakeview Museum, Caterpillar, the Peoria Historical Society, the Illinois High School Association, the African American Hall of Fame Museum, the Nature Conservancy and Heartland Foundation.

"There were no 'easy' buttons with this project. That kind of collaboration just doesn't happen very often. I challenge anyone to show me this level of cooperation on any project anywhere. It's not there. But we had it and that's why we will be celebrating on Oct. 20," Richerson said.

Besides the Peak Performance Center, planetarium and giant-screen digital theatre, the museum will have six galleries. They include one called The Street that shows local history, another that tells of the importance of the Illinois River to Peoria's development, and another called Discovery World geared toward children of all ages.

Also, artwork from some of the area's top artists and members of Central Illinois Artists Association (CIAO) will be displayed in the museum and outside will be a sculpture by renowned local artist Preston Jackson.

Event planning is underway and Richerson said the museum has scheduled the Ansel Adams Western Exposure display, which will open April 13, 2013. The collection, from art owned by Ansel Adams' son, will not be seen anywhere else before it is displayed in Peoria, he said.

"It will be the international premiere of some very important pieces. We are excited about it," Richerson said.

The museum is selling memberships of different levels as well as tiles that people can draw on as a way to raise operating capital. A basic annual membership is $75 individual plus a guest and $95 for a family.

The new museum is connected to the Caterpillar Visitors Center only through a shared underground garage, which will include 15 spaces where electric vehicles can be plugged in and recharged.

But the connection between the two goes beyond the physical buildings, said Kathryn Spitznagle, project manager for Caterpillar. Without the museum, the visitors center would not have been built.

"In that regard they go hand-in-hand, which is why the opening ceremony will be a shared experience. We've done a lot of coordinating with the museum. But otherwise, each will be unique to visitors, which we believe will help make the entire Museum Square experience a destination point for tourists," she said.

Caterpillar is targeting an audience that lives within a two- to four-hour drive from Peoria, families that don't want to travel far for a weekend getaway but want unique experiences. At the same time, Spitznagle said, the fact Caterpillar is so world-renowned means the Visitors Center will like see frequent guests from abroad.

"We will have something for almost everybody here. The adults and older children alike will be fascinated by the big pieces of Caterpillar equipment, the theatre with its vibrating seats, the machinery simulators," she said.

Perhaps the most unique part of the Visitors Center will be the theatre. It is housed in the bed of a full-size replica of a Caterpillar 797 mining truck, the largest truck in the world. The seats will vibrate because the audience will be made to feel it is being driven down into a mine, which will be shown along with the truck's driver on the movie screen.

Caterpillar also plans to have special events through the year. One it has announced already is that Jeff Burton, the driver of the Caterpillar NASCAR vehicle, will come to the center in December.

Spitznagle said it has been enjoyable watching the Visitors Center come together, particularly in recent weeks as exhibits that are built off-site are brought in and installed.

"We're going to be ready," she said.

Admission to the Caterpillar Visitors Center will be $7 for adults and $6 for those 55 and older, for group tours of 20 or more people, veterans and active military. Children 12 and under will be admitted free with an adult.

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