Sternwheelers were common on the Ohio River in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These steam-powered paddle boats commonly traversed the river, carrying travelers, salt, glass, agricultural supplies and manufactured goods, enhancing life throughout the Mid-Ohio Valley.
Now, children can experience an interactive sternwheeler in the STEAM, or Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math, museum called Discovery World, in Parkersburg, West Virginia. Located at 900 Market Street, Discovery World is in the final stages of exhibit construction, with the sternwheeler exhibit as part of the river adventure experience. It will be the first children’s museum in the Mid-Ohio Valley.
Roto design firm, based in Dublin, Ohio, was the lead on the design and production. It was tasked with “creating unique exhibits that embrace genuine human connections through interactive engineering and a connection to the area,“ said Wendy L. Shriver, the museum’s executive director.
The river adventure exhibit is designed to share details about life on and in the Ohio River, Shriver said, adding that in addition to the sternwheeler, it highlights two water tables and a digital riverbank wall.
Shriver cautioned that children will get wet in this exhibit.
Caroline Petitti is a design director at Roto. Petitti developed the exhibit, with a small conceptual team, and brought it all the way through to the design and development.
“Working on the Ohio River is like a dream,” she told Farm and Dairy. “I find it interesting with a variety of aquatic life, biodiversity, and the exhibit is focused on its stories.”
Pettiti began working on the exhibits in 2019 at the beginning of the pandemic. She wanted children, up to 8 years old, to experience a variety of interactive activities embracing the curiosity of the Mid-Ohio Valley.
“I got inspiration from my children,” she said. “It was this bright little moment in our lives during such a terrible time, and it was so fun to focus on really playful topics.”
For Pettiti, testing with children and overseeing focus groups were a big part of the process. Testing included neurodiversity and accessibility assessment.
“We had a lot of school children come through and test all of the components,” she said.
Petitti’s education is in product design, and she began working at Roto 18 years ago as an intern. Her very first project was the Children’s Museum, of Evansville, Indiana. Over the years, she has crafted a niche job in exhibit design and creating environments for family-oriented experiences.
The project came with challenges since the exhibits had to be retro-fitted into an older building, which included a theater and a bowling alley. Architects improved accessibility, but worked to keep the charm of the former Masonic building, Pettiti said.
Another interactive exhibit is the ball factory, which is derived from Parkersburg’s history in manufacturing. It features a central climbing structure and ball-driven contraptions.
Funding for the museum is mainly from the Ross Foundation, a local family foundation, with additional support from local businesses and donors. The museum will continue operation with money from memberships, entry fees, donations and special events.
Additional exhibits include a design studio, a makerspace and a discovery zone. The museum will also have a cafe.
“I love the Ohio River, and I hope the children learn to love it too,” Petitti said.
Because of the water elements, Shriver recommended saving the river adventure exhibit for last. Waterproof attire will be provided.
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