From mummies to meerkats

Plenty to discover at Boonshoft

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Children play at the Boonshoft Museum’s Water Table; photo: Kristy Creel

Discovery: a word associated with eye-opening wonder and new ideas. Where your mind is stretched beyond its current capabilities. Where the world you think you know is bigger and more intricate than you realized. 

Such is the case with the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, a 94,000 square foot space that has more than one million items and dozens of interactive exhibits. The museum averages 200,000 visitors a year, and serves an additional 45,000 learners through school and community programs. The family-friendly facility is a science center, children’s museum, planetarium and zoo all rolled into one. 

It started as a natural history collection of the Dayton Public Library in the 19th century. After World War II, the library couldn’t run it anymore. So, in 1952, the Dayton Society of Natural History was born and the Dayton Museum of Natural History opened. Expansions were added in 1991 and 2000, and an education expansion is on the horizon. 

The name of the museum was changed to “Boonshoft” in 1999 after Oscar Boonshoft, a dedicated Dayton patron, donated a naming gift. Although much of the natural history collection is now in storage or on loan to various museums, items from it are set up in displays throughout the building.

A major shift toward today’s Boonshoft occurred in 1996, when the Dayton Society of Natural History merged with the Dayton Children’s Museum – then a mobile unit – and gave it a place to be anchored.

“It was a very necessary move,” Dayton Society of Natural History President and CEO Mark Meister said. “Things in the museum world are changing. It’s geared toward science centers, not collection based. It’s participatory – play is learning.”

According to Susan Pion, vice president of education and exhibits, life and school are often geared toward pushing kids to grow up and stay confined.

“Much of education is about teaching kids to be little adults,” she said. “Here, this is a place where you get to be what a kid is. You learn in unintended ways.”

And Boonshoft isn’t offended if adults want to play, too – in fact, they encourage it.

“We want caregivers to feel comfortable playing with their child,” Pion said (Pion also encouraged this reporter to take a ride down the “Shock of Friction” slide – I maintain those squeals did not come from me).

The Kids Playce, designed especially for children ages 6 and under, offers a dig pit, large microscope, color wall with lights and music, a place to build your own rollercoaster and a full water area with miniature boats and working mills. Air and energy exhibits, called the “energy island,” are all hands-on – touching is definitely encouraged in this museum! And Boonshoft puts more focus on variety than complicity.

“It’s often the most simple exhibit pieces that make the most impact,” Meiser said, pointing to a bucket of acrylic “water” that shows how much liquid is used in one average shower – it’s actually pretty heavy.

Boonshoft tries to cater to a wide range of ages, and to both genders as well. 

“Boys like to learn by becoming something,” Pion said. “Girls like to learn by emulating something, by mimicking the adult world.”

Kids can both emulate and become in the Eco-Kids Town, an entire village set on a children’s scale. It started as a temporary exhibit in 2000 and was so well-liked, people kept requesting its return. 

“We’re often guided by how the audience is showing us, ‘this is how we learn,’” Pion said.

The town includes a courthouse, body shop, veterinarian, landfill and recycling center, grocery store with real (empty) food containers and even a Cassano’s Pizza Kitchen.

Kids can also get on their own level with kid-sized windows at the Discovery Zoo. Many of the enclosures have windows set on the bottom, so kids can sit or crawl to view the animals. The zoo houses more than 100 animals and insects, including meerkats, river otters and kinkajous – a real life Pikachu from Pokémon. 

Whether it’s an encounter with a snake or a realization of how friction occurs, Boonshoft endeavors to open the world of science for children. Meister said the museum has received many “anecdotal letters of evidence” from parents who relate their children’s scientific interest – and often careers – to the time they spent at Boonshoft. Several of the Boonshoft employees actually began there as volunteers in high school, or came to visit the museum as children. 

It’s these results that push the museum to keep adapting their exhibits, expanding some areas and changing other areas. What you find on one visit may be different from the next time you come.

“This is a changing world and we have to be a changing museum,” Pion said.

Following that trend, the Dayton Society of Natural History has also expanded its offerings. There is a Boonshoft Museum of Discovery Springfield branch with another 20,000 square feet of exhibits housed in a former department store; SunWatch Indian Village and Archaeological Park, a 27-acre village and interpretive center built on a county “incinerator” site and Fort Ancient Earthworks and Nature Preserve, which encompasses 768 acres, miles of hiking trails and still serves as an excavation site. 

The Boonshoft main museum also offers a full-day preschool, several summer camps and an after-school club. Since Boonshoft is accredited through the American Alliance of Museums, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the American Camping Association, members receive reduced or free admission at zoos, aquariums and museums around the country.

Boonshoft is continually seeking volunteers to help man the camps or oversee the exhibit and interaction areas. 

“You can put out all the signs you want, but nothing replaces a human being with a smile,” Pion explained.

The Boonshoft Museum of Discovery is located at 2600 Deweese Parkway in Dayton. The Springfield branch is located in Upper Valley Mall at 1475 Upper Valley Pike in Springfield.

For more information, please call 937.275.7431 or visit 

Reach DCP freelance writer Joyell Nevins at

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at or reach her at

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