It’s not too often that the grand opening of a museum in southwest Missouri attracts the attention of A-list celebrities.
But, sure enough, that’s what’s happened at Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium – a 350,000-square-foot project officially opening to the public on Friday.
The museum – which has been under construction for the last nine years – features a 1.5-million gallon aquarium, 35,000 live animals from across the world and a “4D diorama” section featuring various taxidermied animals in painstakingly re-created environments.
The project – which has been “a lifelong dream” for Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops – is affixed to Bass Pro’s National Headquarters near downtown Springfield (roughly a 4-hour drive from Wichita).
It’s such a large-scale project that, at a private gala event before its official opening, some of the A-listers scheduled to attend are former presidents George W. Bush and Jimmy Carter, as well as singers Dierks Bentley, Luke Bryan, Easton Corbin, actor Kevin Costner and racecar driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., according to the Springfield News-Leader.
“It’s more than an attraction, really – it’s part of our country’s history,” Morris said Tuesday. “One thing that separates it from many museums, aquariums and even natural history museums is that we very proudly salute the hunters and anglers – the sportsmen and women of America.
“Throughout this facility you’ll see we really try to celebrate their influence on our country, particularly on conservation here in America.”
What is it?
The 350,000-square-foot facility features two main sections: a 1.5 million-gallon aquarium and a series of themed “4D” wildlife galleries, featuring both taxidermied animals and a few replicas.
What do they mean, 4D?
When you walk through the Arctic display area, for example, the temperature drops. In the “Sheep Mountain” exhibit, it’s windy and the smell of dirt hangs in the air – and that’s by design.
“It’s not just a visual – you get to feel it,” said Allen Treadwell, a spokesman for the museum. “When you walk into (the) Africa (display), it’s hotter there. It’s very cool to feel the wind and the temperature change going from display to display.”
The aquarium, in addition to being large, features hands-on opportunities like those found in Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium or the Georgia Aquarium.
You can touch sting rays, horseshoe crabs, starfish, a bamboo shark and more.
Some of the areas inside of the aquarium feature “pop-up” tanks, where kids (and adults) can climb into a cut-out fish tank and see fish swimming 360 degrees around them.
There are 35,000 fish, mammals (like beavers, otters and a black bear), reptiles, amphibians and birds living at the museum.
It takes about three hours to go through the whole thing – and that’s if you plan to zip through and not stop to look often.
“It is one of the greatest natural history museums that’s been created in the last 100 years,” said Rob Keck, chairman of the board for Wonders of Wildlife.
“Johnny Morris … had this passion, and continues to have this deep passion to share the plight of wildlife – the history of how they were almost gone and brought back, many from the brink of extinction, to share what hunters and anglers have done as the major contributors, the major funders of the return of these wonderful wildlife species you see right here.”
‘Built with a lot of passion’
Morris is a bit of a celebrity around Springfield.
Over the years, the business he built out of his father’s liquor store here in Springfield has become the cornerstone of town.
Signs welcoming visitors to Springfield offer directions to Downtown, Battlefield Retail – and Bass Pro Shops.
With his Wonders of Wildlife museum, Morris wants to tell the story of hunters and anglers who help manage species levels and let many thrive.
On Tuesday, he was quick to mention the museum starts with an exhibition honoring Native Americans – whom he called “our first conservationists.”
“They lived off the land had to be good stewards of the land and they were - and they had a profound appreciation for fish and wildlife,” Morris said. “It’s a glimpse back – a connection to our history, and how man since that time has scarred some things, fouled some things up, but also how man and people who care about conservation have done an awesome job to bring back a lot of (species) back.”
Bob Ziehmer, director of conservation for Bass Pro, said the museum – which partners with the National Wildlife Federation and 33 other conservation organizations – is a look back “on where this country was at the turn of the century,” a time when resources were thought to be unlimited and Manifest Destiny prevailed.
“We were at a turning point,” Ziehmer said. “We learned the importance of habitat management based on sound science, and that was a different thought process than many people had at that time.”
On Tuesday, painters were still busily finishing murals as workers outside bolted down handrails for stairs. The museum will be ready by Friday, Morris assures.
“This facility we’ve built with a lot of passion,” he said.
Johnny Morris’ Wonders of Wildlife National Museum and Aquarium
What: 350,000-square-foot natural history museum featuring a 1.5 million-gallon aquarium and more than 1.5 miles of trails. Features 35,000 live fish, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds. Also home to the National Bass Fishing Hall of Fame
Where: 500 W. Sunshine St., Springfield, Mo.
Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. every day but Christmas (opening Sept. 22)
Admission: Tickets to the aquarium only are $29.95 for adults, $19.95 for children 4-11; tickets to the wildlife galleries only are $14.95 for adults, $9.95 for children 4-11. A full-access pass to the museum is $39.95 for adults, $23.95 for children 4-11.
More information: Guests must select a time to enter the museum when they purchase tickets, to accommodate high expected turnout. Tickets can be purchased at www.wondersofwildlife.org or by calling 888-222-6060.