Inside Miami's New Science Museum and Its Eye-Popping, Shark-Filled Aquarium

Inside Miami's New Science Museum and Its Eye-Popping, Shark-Filled Aquarium

From high above Biscayne Boulevard, Frank Steslow peers down into what looks like the world's largest punch bowl. Grown men crawl like insects inside the massive martini-glass-shaped structure. Rebar pokes out at odd angles. Construction cranes swirl. Concrete settles into place.

One thing is immediately clear: This is not your childhood science museum.

Steslow is showing off his baby: the brand-new, half-built Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science. As chief operating officer, Steslow knows more about this place than anyone. The punch bowl, for instance, is actually a 500,000-gallon aquarium that will be filled with sharks and other large marine animals, he explains.

Naturally, the 10-year-old boy trapped inside this New Times reporter's body can't help but ask: Will visitors really be able to dangle themselves above the open shark pit?

"Gillian keeps talking about that," Steslow says with an uncomfortable smile, referring to the science museum's president, Gillian Thomas. "We are exploring whether or not there is an opportunity to have a zipline over the tank."

One thing is immediately clear here: This is not your childhood science museum.

See also: Photos of the construction at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science

Founded in 1950 as the Junior Museum of Miami, the museum was originally confined to a house on the corner of Biscayne Boulevard and 26th Street. A decade later, it moved to its current headquarters near Vizcaya. Thanks largely to Jack Horkheimer and his trippy Child of the Universe planetarium productions, the Miami Museum of Science became one of the city's most beloved institutions.

By the time Horkheimer retired in 2008, however, the Vizcaya location was falling apart. New Times uncovered asbestos in the building in 2010. And two years later, the museum broke ground on its new building in Bicentennial Park.

Like its neighbor Pérez Art Museum Miami, the science museum is seeking to reinvent itself radically. The new museum consists of four buildings connected by balconies and breezeways. The huge aquarium will be the central showpiece. It will be flanked by two high-tech gallery spaces. A giant, globular planetarium will greet passersby on Biscayne Boulevard.

"We have looked into anything where we have an opportunity to break the mold and do something different," Steslow says. "The shape of the tank alone has never been done before."

There's no question the aquarium is the museum's conversation-starter. The tank won't be the largest in the world, but it's up there. Literally. The aquarium will loom above visitors with nothing but 13 inches of laser-cut Italian thermoplastic keeping the swirling sharknado from raining death upon them.

Giant "bio towers" will grow special bacteria to absorb the marine animals' ammonia-rich waste. And although the animals will be fed regularly, Steslow says schools of bait fish will allow ample opportunity for visitors to witness the sharks' voraciousness in action. Kids will also be able to touch stingrays, walk over a coral reef, and learn about dinosaurs and DNA testing.

But the new museum hasn't been built without controversy. The budget alone is a mind-boggling $300 million, including $165 million from county taxpayers. Some in Miami were concerned when, in May, the museum fired construction manager Suffolk Construction. At the time, Suffolk raised "concerns" about designs for the aquarium and planetarium, among other things.

"From the outset, this was a project that had an inordinate amount of design deficiencies," Suffolk spokesman Bruce Rubin told New Times. "After identifying many design issues and despite many, many attempts to assist the architect and museum executives, a solution to the design issues that would allow construction to move forward on schedule was never achieved. At the same time, the relationship between Suffolk and museum management deteriorated."

Steslow says the decision to fire Suffolk was "difficult," but an "overall dissatisfaction" with the company forced the museum's hand. In the end, the spat cost the museum only one day of construction, he says. And any overage in cost will be paid by the museum, not taxpayers, he stresses.

Steslow says the museum is on pace to finish construction next year and open to the public in 2016. In fact, the building is already taking shape: from the half-built planetarium to the massive martini-glass aquarium to the stunning views of Biscayne Bay.

"Ultimately, I think the public wants the best project we can give them for the money they have committed," Steslow says, staring at the scaffolding and construction cranes. "It's our responsibility to do that."

 
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