History and Hot Buttons

Water museums spring up to teach serious issues

If anything has lasting interest or value that would be water. Perhaps that realization is why more cities are putting water on display at museums and making the most of the opportunity to educate young minds about the future.

Established water museums currently can be found in

  • Mülheim an der Ruhr, Germany (1992).
  • Northern Los Angeles County, Calif. (1993).
  • Taipei, Taiwan (1998).
  • Huntersville, N.C. (2003).
  • San Antonio, Texas (2005).

Other communities are planning or building their facilities. A water “home” located in the Chelsea arts district in New York City plans to open this summer, while Houston, Texas, has upgraded a water treatment plant and during construction made space available for an education center, which is scheduled to open in fall 2008.   

Aquarius Water Museum.
This German museum on the river is unique because it is housed in a former storage tower that was built around 1893 by August Thyssen to provide water to a nearby hoop ironworks. The tower reportedly held 500,000 liters of water. In 1912, the tower passed into the ownership of Rhineland Westphalian Waterworks Company (RWW), which also used it to provide water to industrial plants.

The tower ceased water operations in 1982. But as an historic building, it was preserved, and RWW used the tower for the Aquarius Water Museum. There is a fee for admission.

Today, museum visitors use a computer chip card to activate computer simulations, films, and games related to water, the environment, and water protection. The museum boasts 30 stops on 14 levels.

According to one review, “a virtual journey along the River Ruhr is turned into an encounter with drinking water supplies, power production, and ecological themes … some of the challenges include taking charge of the control room of a waterworks and processing polluted water at a sewage plant.”

Vista del Lago Visitors Center.
The California Department of Water Resources built the center in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service, the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California (MWD), the Castaic Lake Water Agency, and the Ventura County Watershed Protection District.

Located in northern Los Angeles County, the 18,500-foot center sports a wrap-around balcony with a view of Pyramid Lake. The center is one of three water education visitors’ centers in the state focusing on “every element of water,” according to Kathy Simmons, outreach and water education coordinator. There is no admission charge.

The exhibits cover water conservation, use, conveyance, treatment, as well as the magnitude of the water conveyance systems, their history, and technology, she explained. The displays explain how much water weight visitors carry and how water is used at home, on the farm, and at industrial facilities. The center also has a detailed display of the California State Water Project, which shows the distance and time it takes for water to flow from one facility to another as well as the big tools used to build a water and power development system. Another display shows how the district treats water. A California Water Map reflects the state’s unique topography and how it affects water distribution, Simmons added.

“Without a doubt,” the center has been successful, Simmons said, explaining that prior to an unexpected 18-month closure, average attendance was between 140,000 and 150,000 people a year. In March 2005, mudslides closed the facility while workers repaired a water line and otherwise stabilized the area.

Simmons does not rely on numbers only to measure success of the center. “On a daily basis, our visitors tell us how impressed they are with the center and how much they have learned through our exhibits, publications, and interactive displays,” she said.

According to the Metropolitan Water District, the center, including the building, parking, landscaping, and exhibits, cost $8 million. The funding for those costs came from the state water contractors, such as MWD. “We covered about 94 percent of those costs. No tax dollars were involved,” said Bob Muir, MWD spokesman.

The Museum of Drinking Water.
The Taipei Water Department, in response to polluted water sources in 1977, relocated its raw water intake to the Qingtan Dam, according to the department’s Web site. With the relocation came the retirement of the Pump Equipment House, which had been built in 1908.

The Republic of China Ministry of Interior recognized the facility’s historical significance in June 1993, the Web site explains, adding that its September opening was delayed because of hazardous structural conditions.

The Taipei Municipal Government commissioned the Chinese College of Industry and Commerce to study the facility and report on its status in 1997. The Taipei Water Department then allocated $2.6 million (U.S.) to repair and restore the Pump House. In 1998, historical photographs and equipment were collected and added to the facility for Taiwan’s first water museum.

The Blue Planet Water Environmental Center.
Trying to create an environmental ethic, this Huntersville, N.C., center maximizes its potential by including 35 different exhibits in 1,000 square feet of space. The center is located inside the Lee S. Dukes Water Treatment Plant. It is open by appointment only because the facility is a secure plant, but the center brings both drinking water and wastewater utility and environmental education into one room.

Space for the hands-on education center was set aside when the Dukes plant was built in 1998. Design and construction costs were funded with $100,000 from the utility and a $475,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, according to Erin Culbert, environmental outreach coordinator with Charlotte-Mecklenburg Utilities.

Culbert explained that staff are trained to share information about treatment processes and lead tours in the facility.

In the Blue Planet, visitors can pump water uphill, test water quality, and follow a robotic camera into a sewer manhole. Exhibits include the water cycle, how water gets to your faucet, and what happens down the drain. Culbert added that because Charlotte-Mecklenburg has problems with improper grease disposal and sanitary sewer overflows, two exhibits are devoted to that topic.

Success of the outreach program is determined not just by how many visitors come to the Blue Planet, but also how many people hear presentations in the community. “We just ended our biggest month in March,” Culbert said, explaining that utility staff spoke to 2,000 people at the center, festivals, and schools.

The Witte Museum and Water.
The Witte’s primary initiatives are water, South Texas heritage, and science. In March 2005, the San Antonio museum opened an exhibit called World of Water. According to Jim Dalglish, director of marketing and public relations, the indoor phase was a prototype for a planned permanent Center for Rivers and Aquifers. Regional agencies and universities, including the San Antonio Water System, the San Antonio River T Authority, the Edwards Aquifer Authority, the Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority, the University of Texas at San Antonio, and the University of the Incarnate Word, have pledged their support and are committed to further exploring the water initiative.

Another part of the exhibit, Take It To the River, added permanent water features to the Witte campus, taking advantage of the museum’s location on the banks of the San Antonio River. The museum now uses an underwater camera, maps of the river, and River Alive! (see photograph) in its facility.

Dalglish explained that after the World of Water exhibit closed in January 2006, the Edwards Aquifer Simulation Theater moved into the Texas Wild exhibit as were the live cave fish and salamanders.  

Having temporary exhibits become permanent did not seem risky for the Witte.

“We believe it has been very successful,” Dalglish said. “Certainly the fact that more than 100,000 people came to see it is one measure. The continued interest and enthusiasm of our many partners for the planned Center for Rivers and Aquifers is another good indicator. Also, we continually surveyed visitors during the prototype exhibit period, and the responses were overwhelmingly positive.”

Home for Water
Housed in the first two floors of a four-story building on West 23rd St., the Home for Water plans to reopen this summer and enlarge public perception like only New York City can. A little more than 5,000 square feet will be dedicated to entertaining visitors and providing them with meaningful and memorable experiences. The focus of the museum is on humans touched by water not political ideology.

Asher Shomrone is the founder of the Home for Water. He said that he expects visitors will share their experience and return with their friends, building awareness and funding innovative, cost-effective programs designed to meet the world’s 21st-century challenges, which are driven by current water conditions.

The Home for Water’s first exhibit opened March 22, 2006 to the public for about six weeks. Since then, the venue has been available for private events that have water themes.

Shomrone has created rainbows, was inspired by Keeper Springs bottled water business model, and currently earns his living as a consultant on sustainability. Since 2004, he has developed exhibits for a water museum, a global network of partners, and a multidisciplinary water database. Others have become interested in the water museum project, including more than 70 volunteers and the 1-Blue Planet Foundation (which is providing some funding).

In the not-too-distant future, Shomrone said he envisions a New York Museum of Water, probably on Times Square, ready to tell the “untold tale – the history of humanity through the voice of water.”

The Water Works: Houston Water Museum and Education Center.
The latest approach on establishing a water museum is to build one when the city needs to upgrade its treatment facility. That is what Claudia Williamson, chair of the education committee of the Houston Area Water Corporation, suggested when plans were made to increase capacity of the Northeast Water Purification Plant from 40 million to 80 million gallons per day.

“I was lucky to be at the right place at the right time,” Williamson related, adding that her idea initially produced some strange looks from planners. The museum project began in 2005.

Phases 1 and 2 have been completed for the plant. Williamson is seeking $200,000 in private donations for the exhibits. She said the city hopes that the museum eventually will be self-supporting.

By summer, the electrical system should be reworked and over the next year, the exhibits will be put in place in the 4,000-square-foot museum and education center.

The displays have been designed for schoolchildren. Alan Krathaus, water museum designer, explained that visitors will “become water molecules” from Lake Houston and travel through a hallway pipeline where various portals showcase the different treatment processes and “flow” through (black-light) ultraviolet disinfection and become purified water prior to discharge to the next exhibit.

The museum plans to have a life-size kitchen and bathroom with underground piping exposed for a lesson on water conservation (low-flow showerheads and water-efficient toilets). Water collection tanks will be placed on the guttered roof to show the possibilities of reclaimed water.

Despite financial challenges encountered by some of the museums, planners and educators seem to agree that the investment in education and outreach will pay off in the long run.

Water Museum Links

Aquarius Wassermuseum (German language site)

European Route of Industrial Heritage

Taipei Water Department (click on Museum of Drinking Water)

The Blue Planet Water Environmental Center

The Witte Museum and Water

Vista del Lago Visitors Center

Home for Water

The Global Water Muse Foundation

The Water Works: Houston Water Museum + Education Center

This article originally appeared in the 07/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Author

L.K. Williams is editor of Water and Wastewater News.

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