The McWane Science Center, located in the historic building of the former Loveman's department store in downtown Birmingham, Jefferson County, is a non-profit enterprise that combines a museum, theater, and aquarium. It grew from the merger of two older science centers,
in part due to financial support from one of Birmingham's most philanthropic family businesses. The center's success in its
downtown location helped spark revitalization in the area, and it seeks to expand to become one of the largest science museum
facilities in the nation. The center is governed by a 40-member citizen Board of Trustees, and is led by president and CEO
The earliest inception of what would become the McWane Center was the Red Mountain Museum, located on Red Mountain in downtown Birmingham. The facility was established by the City of Birmingham in the 1970s as a center for the study of science, with a primary focus on the paleontology of the area, including the Basilosaurus cetoides, a prehistoric predatory whale that is the official state fossil. In 1991 the museum merged its resources with Discovery Place, a science-education center for children established in 1977 with funding from the McWane Foundation (the charitable extension of McWane Inc.), to form the Discovery 2000 corporation, with the goal of creating a central downtown science center. After a $10 million donation from the McWane family, the name of the facility was changed to "McWane Science Center," but the project's fundraising arm retained the name Discovery 2000. Owners of one of the largest water and sewer pipe manufacturing companies in the world, the McWane family's philanthropic efforts date back to the turn of the twentieth century. In 1904, J.R. McWane and his Birmingham Steel and Iron Company were central in the financing and construction of the Vulcan Statue, a symbol of Birmingham industry currently perched atop Red Mountain.
The initial phase of the McWane Science Center opened July 11, 1998, in a new 180,000 square–foot facility. Permanent attractions included the John W. Woods IMAX® Dome Theater; Science Quest, with interactive features such as building a roller coaster and lying on a bed of nails; Just Mice Size, a children's exhibit illustrating a house mouse's point of view, with over-sized household items such as a 10-foot-tall milk carton; World of Water, an aquarium and interactive water exhibit that includes the Deep Discovery underwater research lab; and Challenger Learning Center Alabama, established to honor the crew of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, which simulates a mission in space. The museum also hosts international traveling exhibits that change quarterly.
The center reported $1 million in earnings during its first nine weeks of operation. With more than a half million visitors annually, the success of the enterprise has enabled the facility to begin planning a 120,000-square-foot expansion, which gained a boost toward fruition in 2005 when philanthropist William T. Ratliff Jr. donated $5 million. The McWane Center employs approximately 120 people, and also recruits volunteers to help with educational programs and greeting and assisting visitors. The center's success also created momentum for downtown revitalization efforts, including the Bank for Saving Building and Watts Tower.
Published August 15, 2007
Last updated November 3, 2009