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New Dallas museum offers hands-on exploration of nature, science

By Marice Richter

DALLAS (Reuters) - At a new, $185 million science and natural history museum that opens in Dallas on Saturday, visitors will have the chance to touch a funnel cloud, program a robot and examine their own cells under a microscope.

The 180,000-square-foot Perot Museum of Nature and Science - filled with the latest in high-tech gadgetry - is named in honor of Dallas billionaire businessman and two-time U.S. presidential candidate Ross Perot and his wife, Margot.

"Our goal here is to tell stories differently," said Steve Hinkley, the museum's vice president of programs. "Everything is very visual and very hands-on. It's intended to capture people's imagination and build an appreciation of nature and science."

From the clear elevator shafts that expose the operating mechanism to the musical staircase, there is something around every corner meant to dazzle visitors. They can feel the rumble of an earthquake, marvel at the vastness and ferocity of a dinosaur and run a virtual race against an NFL running back.

"There is something for everybody, children and adults," said Jane Seibolt of the Dallas suburb of Richardson, who enjoyed a preview tour for museum members this week. "It's really incredible."

The museum is funded through private donations, including $10 million from each of the Perots' five children.

Ross Perot founded two computer services companies: Electronic Data Systems (EDS) and Perot Systems. He ran for president in 1992 and 1996.

"My siblings and I had always wanted to honor our parents in the city of Dallas, where they have lived since 1957," said daughter Carolyn Perot Rathjen. "Dallas has been very good to our family. When this opportunity arose, we felt it was the perfect way to honor Dad, who is an engineer, and Mom, who is a teacher."

The museum mixes global perspective with Texas influence, Hinkley said. Exhibits that highlight the solar system, human life, fossils and robotics are interspersed among those that showcase tornadoes and other Texas weather phenomenon and the science and engineering of oil and gas drilling.

Dallas' previous nature and science museum was located at the site of the Texas State Fair. For the new, downtown location, 2005 Pritzker Architecture Prize Laureate Thom Mayne and his California firm, Morphosis Architects, were selected to design the building.

Mayne said in a statement that the building is intended to be more than a backdrop for exhibits.

"By integrating architecture, nature and technology, the building demonstrates scientific principles and stimulates curiosity in our natural surroundings," Mayne said.

The eco-friendly building, with a rainwater collection system and solar roof panels, features a contemporary cube-like design. A 54-foot glass tube on the outside of the building encases an escalator that provides museum visitors a birds-eye view of downtown Dallas as they ride on it.

The museum caps off what city leaders describe as a "coming-out party" for downtown Dallas in 2012. Other major improvements that debuted this year include the $182 million Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge over the Trinity River; the $110 million Klyde Warren Park built on a freeway overpass; and the $40 million Dallas City Performance Hall.

"There has never been a better time to visit downtown Dallas," Mayor Mike Rawlings said.

(Editing by Corrie MacLaggan and Andrew Hay)

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