Koch donates $50,000 to refurbish exhibit

For each of the past 10 years, Deyna Smith has organized a field trip to Exploration Place for her second-graders from Wellington. Their favorite display? The Kansas In Miniature exhibit — an animated landscape with dollhouse-size scenes of Kansas in the 1950s.

A train chugs past a drive-in movie theater with a film playing on the screen, rides spinning at a county fair, as well as landmarks such as the Clements Stone Arch Bridge in Chase County and the Carry Nation House in Medicine Lodge.

But after 10 years, the exhibit has fallen into disrepair.

"At one time there was a little house that was on fire and the smoke would come out, and I'm not sure all of it still works as it once did," said Smith, who teaches at Kennedy Elementary.

That's about to be fixed, paid for with a $50,000 donation from Koch Industries to clean, repair and refurbish the exhibit.

It's the first step in what Exploration Place president Jan Luth hopes will develop into a complete restoration of the exhibit.

"We want to make this a deeper experience," Luth said.

Professors from Wichita State University and history experts from around Kansas are meeting to plan ideas on how to provide more information about the models and the stories behind them.

But first, Luth wants to make sure the popular exhibit is back in working order.

Tom Nichols of Monongahela, Pa., who designed the original model, is returning to Wichita for two months, beginning in August. He's coming out of retirement to perform a detailed cleaning, repair the river system and streams, enhance the wheat fields and restore all the animation.

Koch, one of the first investors in Exploration Place when it was built, stepped in with the funding.

Susan Addington, community affairs manager at Koch, said the business recognized that raising money for renovation is tougher than raising money for new exhibits.

But Kansas in Miniature is an important feature for families visiting the science center, she said.

"We like the multigenerational aspect of this exhibit, where grandparents talk to their children and say, 'I remember when that was here,' and tell their stories," Addington said.

Addington said she personally connects with the carousels in the county fair, the wheat wagons and farmhouses — all of which remind her of growing up in Clearwater. She now brings her Girl Scout troops from Andover for visits.

"One of the big goals in museums across the country is to be able to allow families to connect and have meaningful conversations," Luth said. "And that's tougher than it sounds these days."

Smith said the exhibit gives her second-graders from Wellington a vivid peek at a time they otherwise only see in photos or read about in books.

"It's a really good way to put history in motion for them," Smith said after her students finished with the exhibit Wednesday.

"We talk about the 1950s or earlier years. These kids really don't have an understanding of that. But seeing something like this is very lifelike for them."